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Published in Print: September 19, 2001, as News in Brief: A National Roundup

News in Brief: A National Roundup

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Rehnquist Turns Down
Injunction on 'Silence' Law

U.S. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist last week turned down a request to block a Virginia law that mandates a daily minute of silence in public school classrooms.

Seven families backed by the American Civil Liberties Union have challenged the 2000 law as a violation of the First Amendment's prohibition against a government establishment of religion. They have lost in lower federal courts, and the law has been in effect since last school year. Early this month, they asked Chief Justice Rehnquist for a temporary injunction to block the law, pending the outcome of their appeal before the full U.S. Supreme Court.

In a four-page opinion on Sept. 12, the chief justice said the challengers had failed to demonstrate that their legal rights in this case were "indisputably clear." He said the Virginia statute may be sufficiently different from an Alabama moment-of-silence law, struck down by the high court in 1985, to pass constitutional muster.

The chief justice also said the challengers had failed to meet the standard for an injunction because "after more than a year of operation, ... there is no allegation that Virginia schoolteachers have used the minute of silence ... to lead students in collective prayer."

—Mark Walsh


U.N. Session on Children
Postponed After Attacks

The United Nations' Special Session on Children—the first meeting devoted to children's issues since the 1990s world summit—has been postponed because of last week's terrorist attacks in New York City and at the Pentagon.

The three-day meeting had been scheduled to be held this week at the U.N. headquarters in New York, with many other events scattered throughout the city. According to organizers of the event, 80 heads of state had committed to attending the session, and more than 300 children were registered to take part in the activities.

Speculation had arisen over whether the United States would even participate in the session because of reservations among American officials over language in the draft of a 10-year plan for the world's children. The draft includes the phrase "reproductive health services," which many have interpreted to mean abortion.

Bush Administration officials, however, later announced that U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson would lead a delegation to the session, and that the United States was viewing it "as an opportunity to work together with other nations to set the coming decade's priorities for children."

—Linda Jacobson


Athletic Association Defends
Ban on Cheerleading Stunts

An interscholastic athletic association in northeastern Pennsylvania is standing by its controversial ban on cheerleading gymnastics.

The decision by the Colonial League to prohibit the 14 squads in the league from performing gymnastic stunts on hard floors and tracks has upset parents to the point that some are considering a lawsuit.

The Colonial League's 9-3 decision last May stems from a series of accidents involving cheerleaders over the past two years. One cheerleader reportedly fell out of a back flip into a spiked fence, suffering injuries that required more than 1,000 stitches.

John P. Karoly, an Allentown, Pa., lawyer who represents several parents, said this month that he believes the prohibition violates the rights and civil liberties of female athletes.

Al Wilson, the league's president, said the rule was established to better ensure student safety, but parents and students say it is discriminatory and sexist.

The league rule, he said, only grounds cheerleaders on hard surfaces where the potential for serious neck and spinal injuries are high. Cheerleading activities at games, he maintained, are designed to entertain, not for competitive sport.

Cheerleaders who are participating in competitions where tumbling mats are used to cushion falls are allowed to perform acrobatic stunts, Mr. Wilson noted.

—Marianne Hurst


$80 Million in Red Ink
Marks D.C. School Budget

The District of Columbia school system overspent its budget by $80 million in the 2000-01 fiscal year, school and city officials have revealed.

Special education services ran up $24.6 million of the deficit, plus an additional $6.1 million for special education transportation. Unbudgeted spending on utilities totaled $8.6 million. And the school system received $38 million less in Medicaid revenue than it had planned for.

Officials said the deficits—totaling nearly 10 percent of the operating budget of $832 million—would not derail attempts to improve the 67,000-student school system.

The district plans to make up $42 million of the shortfall by freezing budget items and reallocating school funds in the 2001-02 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. Growth in tax revenue is expected to make up the rest.

Officials said they did not learn of the shortfalls until late summer. The school system has fired six senior officials who had the responsibility of alerting leaders to the budget problems.

—Andrew Trotter


Youth Worker Charged
In Long-Ago Hijacking

The director of a middle school program in the Mount Vernon, N.Y., district was charged last week with a 30-year-old airplane hijacking.

Patrick Dolan Critton was employed by the Westchester Community Opportunity Program, which provides after-school and summer programs at A.B. Davis Middle School in the 11,000-student district. He was charged in connection with the 1971 hijacking of an Air Canada flight from Toronto to Cuba.

Canadian police, reactivating the long-dormant investigation, found Mr. Critton in New York state by running his name through an Internet search engine.

Mr. Critton, who police said confessed to the crime, faces extradition to Canada. He had worked in the Westchester County district's schools for several years, according to Superintendent Ronald O. Ross, and was a "superior person."

"Principals, students, and teachers had nothing but good things to say about him," Mr. Ross said. "I can't say what happened 30 years ago."

—Ann Bradley


Mass. School Gets Waiver
To Serve 9:30 A.M. Lunch

Thanks to a new schedule and overcrowding, lunchtime now begins at the early hour of 9:30 a.m. at Lowell High School in Massachusetts.

The school received a waiver this month from the Massachusetts education department to start lunch that early. Federal regulations specify that students be fed between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

As the only public high school in the 16,500-student Lowell district, the school has reached an enrollment of 3,900. When teachers got together and created a course in study skills to help students sharpen their analytic powers, cramming the course into the schedule became a challenge.

The answer was the early lunch period, said William Samaras, the principal. Because school starts at 7:15 a.m., and many students haven't eaten breakfast, he said he has not received many complaints.

—Ann Bradley


Child Sexual Exploitation
Widespread, Report Says

More than 300,000 children are victims each year of sexual exploitation in the United States, according to a University of Pennsylvania study released last week.

The study, "The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico," was conducted in partnership with government and private organizations and institutions in the three countries. Researchers interviewed about 1,000 children and law-enforcement and social workers in 17 U.S. cities, and compiled 288 surveys from state, local, and federal agencies that serve exploited children.

The report, partially financed by the U.S. Department of Justice, concludes that exploitation is more widespread than authorities may have realized.

Sexually exploited children come from all social, racial, and economic backgrounds. While some live with their families, it says, a majority are runaways or "throwaways," children who have been abandoned or kicked out of their homes.

Less than 4 percent of sexual abuse against children is committed by strangers, it found. Instead, 47 percent is committed by relatives, and 49 percent by acquaintances, including teachers and neighbors.

—Vanessa Dea


N.H. Police Investigating
Theft of Scholarship Money

A man hired to help the Keene, N.H., school district keep track of its scholarship money is under investigation after about $365,000 in district money disappeared.

Detective Carl Patten of the Keene police department said that the 4,000-student district hired an officer with the local Savings Bank of Walpole to take charge of its scholarship funds.

Accumulated over a number of years, the money was found to be missing from the bank last month.

The detective said that the bank official and his lawyer have been cooperating with police, and that the investigation continues. No charges have been filed.

Superintendent Phillip McCormack said police had asked him not to discuss the case.

—Alan Richard

Vol. 21, Issue 3, Page 4

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