A National Roundup

December 13, 2000 6 min read
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Security Probe Faults Philadelphia Schools

A state investigation of security in Philadelphia schools has concluded that incidents of violence are underreported, offenders often go unpunished, and crime victims end up leaving the district. The 11-month study by a state House of Representative subcommittee recommends that the district assign repeat offenders to alternative education programs and implement uniform discipline standards for all schools.

Members of the bipartisan urban-affairs committee’s subcommittee on first-class cities found that only 15 students were expelled during the 1998-99 school year, even though 905 weapons were brought to school that year.

Rep. John J. Taylor, the Philadelphia Republican who chairs the subcommittee, said he believes the district was fearful that an accurate report of crimes in schools would drive more students to the suburbs.

Philip R. Goldsmith, the district’s interim chief executive officer, has met with the city’s police commissioner and the police captains who oversee the schools. Alexis Moore, the district’s spokeswoman, said that there was “absolutely no policy to hide” any of the incidents identified in the report.

—Karla Scoon Reid

Animal-Cruelty Charges Filed

A 7th-grade teacher who attempted to suffocate a rabbit in front of his special education students has been charged with animal cruelty under California law.

Godwin Collins Onunwah, 47, asked pupils at Gage Middle School in Huntington Park, Calif., to bring animals to class for dissection last September, according to Madeline Bernstein, the president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals in Los Angeles, which conducted the initial investigation.

The teacher allegedly placed a live rabbit in a plastic bag, sealed it, and waited for the animal to die, she said. When the rabbit was still alive at the end of class, she said, Mr. Onunwah put it in a cupboard over the weekend.

Mr. Onunwah has been placed on administrative duty, said Hilda Ramirez, a spokeswoman for the 723,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District.

The district does not permit dissection in middle schools, Ms. Ramirez said, and dissections at high schools can be performed only on animals purchased from scientific centers.

Mr. Onunwah, who was charged with a misdemeanor, will be arraigned later this month. He could serve up to one year in jail and be fined up to $20,000. He could not be reached for comment.

—Julie Blair

Teen Pleads Guilty in School Fire

A teenager who dropped out of Fairview High School in Cullman, Ala., last year has pleaded guilty to setting a fire that caused $4 million in damage to the school.

Nicholas Edward Weaver, 18, was convicted of burglary in September after admitting to breaking into the school and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. The jury deadlocked on arson charges, however.

Last month, as Mr. Weaver was scheduled to be retried for arson, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced in the Cullman County court to 12 years in prison and ordered to repay almost $1.2 million in damages. The sentence will run concurrent with the burglary term, said his lawyer, C. Blake West.

The June 1999 fire damaged a building at the school with 22 classrooms, offices, a computer lab, and an auditorium. Students are attending class in portable buildings while repairs are underway.

—Ann Bradley

Vote on Hartford Board Fails

An attempt to chart a new course for the governance of the Hartford, Conn., schools was turned back last week, when a referendum that would have changed the makeup of the school board failed to garner enough votes.

The proposed changes to Hartford’s city charter would have stipulated that when the currently state-governed school district returns to local control, its board would be made up of four elected members and three members picked by the mayor.

A state-appointed board of trustees has overseen the 22,500-student system since 1997, when Connecticut lawmakers declared it to be in crisis and dissolved the locally elected school board.

Proponents argued that a hybrid panel would help maintain the stability achieved since the state began its intervention and foster greater cooperation between local leaders.

The overwhelming majority of voters who went to the polls supported the plan. But the measure needed favorable votes from at least 15 percent of all eligible voters. The final tally was a few hundred short of the 6,731 “yes” votes needed. As a result, Hartford residents still are slated to choose an elected school board in 2002.

—Jeff Archer

District Appeals Drug Ruling

The Tulia, Texas, school board last week appealed a federal court ruling that found the district’s policy of drug testing for students unconstitutional.

U.S. District Court Judge Mary Lou Robinson of Amarillo ruled Nov. 30 that the district’s policy of requiring that all students involved in extracurricular activities be randomly tested for illegal drugs violated the constitutional protection against unreasonable search and seizures.

The judge rejected the district’s argument that its policy was similar to the Vernonia, Ore., school district’s policy, which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1995.

—Jessica Portner

Arrested Schools Chief Quits

The superintendent of a New York state district has resigned after crashing his district-owned car and being charged with driving while intoxicated.

Laval S. Wilson resigned on Nov. 28 as the superintendent of the 12,500-student Newburgh, N.Y., schools after rolling his car in a traffic accident on Oct. 7. He was arrested after his blood-alcohol level tested beyond the legal limit, according to the district.

Mr. Wilson spent three years in Newburgh, an industrial town 60 miles north of New York City. He was previously the superintendent of the state-controlled schools in Paterson, N.J., and served as the superintendent of the Boston public schools in the late 1980s.

—Alan Richard

Poll To Gauge Public’s View

Education Week and the Public Education Network, a Washington-based organization of community-based school reform groups, announced plans last week to conduct a national poll that will measure the public’s view of its own civic responsibility for ensuring a high-quality public education.

The poll will ask questions about what motivates the public to act on school issues, what Americans believe are the greatest challenges and priorities facing public education, how much of a difference people believe they can make, and what information they would need to become involved, among other other topics.

“Ultimately, we hope to create a national index to measure the intensity of public involvement,” Wendy D. Puriefoy, the president of PEN, said in announcing the five-year project.

Findings from the first poll, to be conducted by Lake, Snell, Perry & Associates of Washington, will be published in a March 2001 edition of the newspaper.

—Ann Bradley

Buffalo Union Fined in Strike

The cost to teachers in Buffalo, N.Y., for striking earlier this fall continued to mount last week, when a New York trial court judge fined their union $250,000.

Judge Kevin M. Dillon levied the penalty against the Buffalo Teachers Federation for walking off the job on Sept. 14 after he ordered them not to do so. Strikes by public school teachers are illegal in New York. (“Buffalo Teachers, District Reach Tentative Agreement,” Sept. 27, 2000.)

Although the National Education Association affiliate won a new contract shortly after the strike, it has paid a heavy price for the job action.

Three union officials were fined $1,000 each, President Philip Rumore was sentenced to 15 days in jail, and district leaders announced last month that the strike meant teachers would lose two days of pay this year.

Mr. Rumore called the fine “stiff,” but said it would not break the union.

—Jeff Archer

A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2000 edition of Education Week as A National Roundup


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