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News in Brief: A National Roundup

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Judge's Nod Ends Busing

In Suburban Md. County

A federal judge last week approved a settlement in Prince George's County, Md., that aims to close the books on a quarter-century of litigation over school desegregation in the sprawling, majority-black suburb of Washington.

The deal involves phasing out mandatory busing for integration and building at least 13 schools to enroll students in schools closer to home. But it also calls for continuing and improving two other critical elements of the 129,000-student district's desegregation strategy: magnet schools and extra resources for overwhelmingly African-American schools. Another focus of the accord is on narrowing the achievement gap between black and nonblack students.

The basic outlines of the settlement, approved by U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte, were announced last March by the district, the county, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and a group of black plaintiffs who originally brought the class action in 1972.

Under the accord, the court has put the case on its inactive docket and will formally close it in 2002 unless officials fail to keep their end of the bargain.

--Caroline Hendrie

Off-Campus Behavior Targeted

The Connecticut Supreme Court has upheld the right of schools to expel students for off-campus behavior, although the justices made clear that administrators must be careful when dispensing such punishment.

The ruling stems from the arrest last year of a Thomaston High School student for marijuana possession after a traffic stop that took place after school hours and off school grounds.

When administrators then barred him from the school in Thomaston for the rest of the semester, he filed a lawsuit challenging the 1995 state law that gave districts the power to take such disciplinary action. A trial court agreed the statute was unconstitutionally vague.

The state's highest court, however, ruled last month that the law was valid, but that the district had failed to show how the student's continued presence at the 1,250-student school would be educationally disruptive. While the student's lawyer claimed victory, some Connecticut school officials were happy the court validated their authority to punish students for out-of-school incidents.

--Jeff Archer

Court Allows Bible Handouts

A federal appeals court has upheld a West Virginia district's policy of allowing a private group to "passively" distribute Bibles to students.

The 2-1 ruling by a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit upholds the Upshur County district's policy on distribution of outside materials to students.

The 4,000-student district allows a local ministers' group to place Bibles on tables in the hallways or school library once a year. But no group member is allowed to staff the tables or to enter classrooms to discuss the availability of the Bibles.

A majority of the 4th Circuit panel said the practice does not unconstitutionally advance religion. request to be given access to the public schools, the board "did nothing more than affirm the right of religious speakers to use the Upshur County school forums on equal terms with others," the majority said in its Aug. 14 opinion.

In a lengthy dissent, U.S. Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz said the school board effectively endorsed religion by allowing the Bible distribution.

An appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is expected.

--Mark Walsh

Retentions Stand in Waco

A small group of parents in Waco, Texas, has failed to persuade a state judge to block temporarily the district's strict new policy of retaining students who fail state exams.

A hearing on a permanent injunction is expected to be held within six months.

Nearly 2,000 Waco students this year were forced either to attend summer school or be retained at their grade level because of low scores on standardized tests, attendance problems, or poor grades. The plaintiffs argued before the court last month that the test is not a valid way to determine student promotion. ("Waco Gets Tough With Summer School Effort ,", Aug. 5, 1998.)

The 16,000-student district amended the guidelines this summer to allow the 1,100 students held back after summer school to retake the state test this month. Those who pass will be promoted.

--Robert C. Johnson

Special Education Suits Settled

The public school system in Durham, N.C., has settled 21 lawsuits brought by parents of students attending the district's special education programs and has agreed to improve the services offered to those students.

The suits, which included a variety of complaints, essentially charged the district with failing to provide the students with an appropriate education.

As part of the Aug. 19 settlement announced last month, district officials will review recommendations of a task force that has been studying the special education program. The task force has asked for greater inclusion of the district's 4,000 special education students in school programs and activities, the hiring of well-qualified teachers who are certified in the field, and continuing professional development for both special education and regular classroom teachers. The district, with nearly 14 percent of its 29,000 students qualifying for special services, has had trouble recruiting certified teachers.

Eighteen of the families split $105,000 as part of the settlement. Details of the agreements with the other three families were sealed.

--Kathleen Kennedy Manzo

La. Cheating Inquiry Ends

A federal prosecutor in Louisiana has closed his investigation of cheating on an administrators' exam without bringing any indictments.

Mike Skinner, the U.S. attorney for the state's western district, uncovered a widely circulated study guide that included questions on the Educational Leadership: Administration and Specialists Test. But investigators found no conclusive evidence that test-takers knew the study guide contained portions of the exams they were scheduled to take, Mr. Skinner said.

The Educational Testing Service, the Princeton, N.J., nonprofit organization that administers the exam for the state, reached a similar conclusion in its investigation. The ETS voided the test scores of those who took the test in several sites throughout the state, according to Raymond Nicosia, the director of test security for the ETS.

--David J. Hoff

ACLU Files Honor Society Suit

A Kentucky district violated federal and state law when two teenage mothers were barred from their high school's honor society, a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union contends.

The Grant County school board violated the rights of students Somer Chipman and Chasity Glass when the students were not accepted to the Grant County High School chapter of the National Honor Society because they were pregnant and gave birth though unmarried, according to the suit filed last month in U.S. District Court in Covington. The district's action was illegal under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the Kentucky Civil Rights Act, and the state and federal constitutions, the plaintiffs claim.

The 3,500-student district conducted an investigation of the allegations last spring and found no discrimination occurred and no policies or laws had been broken, said Ruth Odor, a spokeswoman for the district.

The ACLU is seeking unspecified compensatory damages and the induction of the two 17-year-olds into the honor society as full members.

--Katie Weeks

OCR Finds No Discrimination

The U.S. Department of Education has determined that no discrimination against Hispanic students occurred at nine schools in the Volusia County, Fla., system that were the target of complaints last year.

That decision by the office for civil rights ends a 13-month investigation into formal complaints, filed in May 1997, that school officials discriminated against Hispanic students in the 60,000-student district in Deland. The charges included allegations that the district did not provide a sufficient number of Spanish-speaking teachers or other services for students and parents whose primary language is not English.

About three-fourths of the students in the district are white, 17 percent are black, and 7 percent are Hispanic.

Following the conclusion of the civil rights investigation last month, district leaders agreed to provide additional services for the schools' Spanish-speaking communities, including the addition of a district-level bilingual employee and a resolution to disseminate all official school communications in both English and Spanish.

--Jessica L. Sandham

Chicago Principal GETS To Stay

A Cook County, Ill., circuit court judge has rejected a Chicago school board lawsuit challenging how a city elementary school's local council chose its principal in 1997.

The school board ruled last year that the 1,100-student Gale Elementary School's council--a school-based governing body that includes parents, local residents, and teachers--had not followed the correct process in hiring Beverly Martin, said Marilyn Johnson, a lawyer for the school board.

According to the lawsuit, the school's council failed to hire a principal within the required 90-day period and may have violated the state open-meetings act.

But Cook County Circuit Judge Albert Green overruled the board last month, saying that Ms. Martin has a "valid and enforceable contract" to be the principal of the predominantly black school on Chicago's North Side.

Ms. Johnson said the board is appealing the ruling.

--Kerry A. White

Field Trip Death Roils District

A hundred teachers at a Dallas magnet school have voted to stop sponsoring field trips after two teachers were suspended with pay when a student died on a school trip they chaperoned last winter.

Lee Bloomfield and Marsha Evans, both teachers in the 160-student magnet program for gifted students at the Yvonne A. Ewell Townview Center, were put on suspension last month until an investigation by district officials is completed.

Colt Perryman, a 14-year-old freshman, fell to his death while hiking on a Jan. 17 field trip with 50 students to Big Bend National Park in western Texas.

The district is charging the teachers with neglect, said Aimee Bolender, the vice president of the Alliance for Dallas Educators, a teachers' group that has come out against the suspensions.

Ms. Bolender said many of the parents don't believe that the teachers did anything wrong. She said parents were aware of the dangers of the trip and all signed permission slips. To support the teachers, several hundred students protested at district headquarters last week.

Mr. Bloomfield has been slated for dismissal, and it has yet to be determined what will happen to Ms. Evans.

The 155,000-student district has declined to comment or to state the nature of the charges against the teachers, describing the issue as a confidential personnel matter.

--Adrienne D. Coles

Board Fined Over Illegal Meeting

A school board in Iowa violated the state's open-meetings law when it closed a student-suspension hearing, the state supreme court has ruled.

In its July 29 decision, the court upheld a district court ruling that compels the school board in Lisbon, east of Cedar Rapids, to open student-disciplinary hearings if the student involved so chooses. The high court also affirmed a $3,000 award to pay the legal fees of the family that challenged the board's action.

IowaAccording to court papers, the case arose when a student, Kyle Schumacher, called Deb Lord, a teacher's aide at Lisbon High School, a vulgar name. After administrators of the 600-student district investigated the incident, Ms. Lord was disciplined with a letter in her personnel file for purportedly scuffling with the student, and administrators proposed a one-day suspension for Mr. Schumacher.

The school board closed its subsequent hearing on the matter at Ms. Lord's request. Mr. Schumacher and his parents appealed and later filed suit. A district court ruled that a hearing to determine whether a student should be suspended could not be closed when the student objects.

--Bess Keller

Heat Kills Four Athletes

School administrators and coaches nationwide have been put on alert after four high school football players died recently of heat-related illnesses.

In Silver Spring, Md., a 13-year-old freshman attending his second day of summer football camp collapsed on the field and died of what were believed to be heat-related conditions Aug. 18.

That same day in Kansas, a 15-year-old sophomore from Towanda and a 17-year-old senior from Wichita died from heatstroke after practicing with their football teams in temperatures above 100. And in North Carolina, a 17-year-old senior football player from Autryville died the day after an Aug. 8 practice.

Officials at the four schools said they had followed appropriate hot-weather guidelines.

But Fred Mueller, the director of the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research in Chapel Hill, N.C., said that if players and coaches properly guard themselves against the heat--by being aware of heatstroke symptoms, properly hydrating, and lowering the intensity of the workout--heat-related injuries and deaths are preventable.

According to the center, heatstroke caused the death of one high school football player last year and two in 1996.

--Kerry A. White

Blind School Suit Settled

The Wisconsin Council for the Blind settled a lawsuit last week that had charged the state schools superintendent with overstepping his bounds in recommending the closing of the Wisconsin School for the Visually Handicapped.

State Superintendent John Benson, who agreed in the settlement to let the legislature determine the school's fate, had cited the school's falling enrollment when he recommended that the school be shut down. ("The End in Sight ," March 11, 1998.)

The state legislature alone has the authority to determine the fate of the state's only residential school for the blind, and lawmakers have opted to study the issue, said Mark Karstedt, a spokesman for the council, an advocacy group for people with visual impairments.

The study, scheduled to begin this month, will look at the support systems in place for handicapped children in local school districts.

Findings will be presented to the legislature as early as January, Mr. Karstedt said.

--Julie Blair

Parent Involvement

In a recent survey of 1,025 teachers of grades 6 to 12, the 905 white teachers and 120 minority teachers differed on their views of how important it is for parents to be involved in their children's education.

Parent Involvement
SOURCE: Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.

Ark. Boys Sentenced in Shootings

The two boys who killed four students and a teacher in a shooting spree at a Jonesboro, Ark., middle school last spring have begun serving their sentences at a local juvenile-detention facility.

During their sentencing at a juvenile-court proceeding last month, 14-year-old Mitchell Johnson pleaded guilty to the crimes, while the lawyer for 12-year-old Andrew Golden argued that his client was not mentally competent to stand trial.

But Circuit Court Judge Ralph Wilson dismissed the insanity plea and pronounced both youths "delinquent"--the juvenile equivalent of a guilty verdict--and sentenced them to be held in a youth-detention facility until their 18th birthdays, the maximum sentence.

Under Arkansas state law, the boys could be held in custody until they turn 21, but Arkansas doesn't have a facility built yet that could house them.

State law prohibits children younger than 14 to be tried as adults. Mitchell was 13 on March 24 when he and Andrew, then 11, pulled the fire alarm at Westside Middle School, hid in the woods, and then opened fire with high-powered rifles on the crowd spilling from the school. ("Arkansas Community Still Reeling After Fatal School Shooting Spree ," April 1, 1998.)

--Jessica Portner

Denver Settles Construction Suit

The Denver district has settled a reverse-discrimination lawsuit filed by a white-owned construction company that lost a contract to build a new elementary school to a black-owned firm despite being the lowest bidder.

The settlement last month effectively ends the 65,000-student district's affirmative action program in outside contracting. The district will pay $180,000 in lost revenue and lawyers' fees to Bassett & Associates, the Englewood, Colo., construction firm that had the lowest bid.

Although Bassett had been rated higher by district officials and had bid $120,000 lower than a black-owned company, the Denver school board questioned the amount of weight given to experienced contractors because black contractors complained it was difficult to gain such experience.

The black-owned firm won the contract and built the school.

Bassett & Associates sued, claiming the board had no legal basis for granting racial preferences because the district has no documented history of discrimination against minority contractors.

The district will ask voters in November to approve a $305 million bond issue to build nine new schools and renovate two dozen others.

--Mark Walsh

Milestone

Lewis F. Powell Jr., the retired U.S. Supreme Court justice who was the court's ideological center in landmark cases involving affirmative action in education and government aid to religious schools, died Aug. 25 at age 90.

Lewis F. Powell Jr.

Justice Powell, who was appointed by President Nixon in 1971 and served until 1987, was the author of a critical concurring opinion in the 1978 affirmative action case of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. His concurrence bridged two competing four-justice pluralities by barring the use of rigid racial quotas in higher education admissions but permitting race to be one factor.

In 30 religion cases, Justice Powell was never on the losing side. In 1985, for example, he provided the fifth vote to strike down programs aiding religious schools in New York City and Grand Rapids, Mich.

As the chairman of the Richmond, Va., school board from 1952 to 1961, hesuccessfully opposed calls by many white Virginia politicians during that time for "massive resistance" to the Supreme Court's desegregation rulings in Brown v. Board of Education. He also was a member of the Virginia state school board from 1961 to 1969 and was the president of the state board from 1968 to 1969.

--Mark Walsh

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