News in Brief: A National Roundup

October 24, 2001 7 min read
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Judge Rules Columbine High Must Display Religious Tiles

The Jefferson County, Colo., school district violated the First Amendment free-speech rights of the parents of two students slain at Columbine High School when it barred them from contributing tiles with religious messages to a wall inside the school, a federal judge ruled last week.

Families of the 12 students and one teacher killed by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold in the 1999 gun attack at Columbine, as well as rescue workers and others, were invited by an art teacher to paint ceramic tiles and add them to a wall inside the high school.

The parents of two of the victims, students Daniel Rohrbaugh and Kelly Fleming, sought to paint tiles with religious themes such as “Jesus is Lord” and “Jesus Wept.”

School officials told the families the tiles could not include religious themes or references to the date of the attack. But the families argued in court that many of the other tiles included references to the date and religious symbols such as a “Jesus fish.”

U.S. District Judge Wiley Y. Daniel of Denver ruled from the bench on Oct. 15 that the 89,000-student district had created a limited public forum for free speech when it opened the tiled wall at Columbine for decoration by outsiders. He also said that administrators had been inconsistent in applying the rules about what could go on the tiles and that religious messages could not be excluded.

The school district was weighing an appeal last week.

—Mark Walsh

Miami-Dade School Board Taps Interim Superintendent

A former county manager will be the interim superintendent of Florida’s Miami-Dade County schools.

The school board voted 5-3 on Oct. 17 to appoint Merrett R. Stierheim, a veteran local public administrator. Mr. Stierheim will begin running the nation’s fourth-largest district this week. In his career, Mr. Stierheim has served twice as Miami-Dade County manager, as the chief executive officer of the Women’s Tennis Association, and as the president and chief executive officer of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. He has served as a local troubleshooter of sorts, working for free as the Miami city manager in 1996 and uncovering a $68 million shortfall.

Mr. Stierheim replaces Roger C. Cuevas, who was fired Sept. 26 after serving as superintendent for five years.

In his letter of application to the board, Mr. Stierheim cited the budget and classroom overcrowding as “immediate critical issues.”

—Karla Scoon Reid

Authorities Investigate Cause Of Fatal Nebraska Bus Crash

Investigators are looking into the causes of a school bus crash in Omaha, Neb., that killed two students and a parent involved in a marching-band competition.

One lead authorities are pursuing is whether a tour bus carrying students from Norfolk High School in Norfolk, Neb., crossed into the lane occupied by a bus from Seward High School in Seward, Neb. Two 14-year-old students from Seward and a parent died; 29 other students were injured in the Oct. 13 crash.

The bus drove through a guard rail and plunged 62 feet into a creek.

“We have conflicting reports about what happened,” said Capt. Dan McGovern of the Douglas County sheriff’s office. Three tour buses were traveling in the opposite direction of the Seward bus, he said, one of which might have crossed the center line.

At least one Seward student said the bus driver steered to avoid the tour bus from Norfolk, which was also traveling for the marching-band competition, he said.

—Mark Stricherz

Teachers in Illinois City Return To Work After Strike

The 19-day teachers’ strike in Granite City, Ill., ended last week as school officials and the district’s 412 teachers approved an agreement on salaries and health-insurance benefits.

The teachers, who called the strike on Sept. 12, were criticized by some community members for taking that action on the heels of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. (“Teachers Criticized for Striking During National Crisis,” Sept. 26, 2001.)

Steven M. Bayen, the district’s superintendent, said the new, six-year contract will give teachers salary increases of 3.5 percent this year, more than the 3 percent the district originally offered. Future raises will be determined later.

In addition, teachers will have to join a health-maintenance organization and pay $29 a month for family coverage. Previously, the teachers were not required to pay for their health insurance, Mr. Bayen said.

Both sides ended up getting what they wanted from the contract, said Lee Wilson, a field-service director for the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the chief union negotiator.

The only issue still to be resolved, he said, is how students and teachers will make up the lost days.

—Michelle Galley

PTA Treasurer in N.M. Confesses To Stealing

The PTA treasurer of an elementary school in New Mexico has admitted taking more than $15,000 from the association’s treasury to feed a gambling addiction.

Linda DeBuck confessed to the PTA president of Matheson Park Elementary School in Albuquerque on Sept. 9, and promised to repay all the money within a few months, according to a police report filed the following day.

Ms. DeBuck, 42, whose husband is a captain in the Albuquerque Police Department, could not be reached for comment. But she told The Albuquerque Journal she was sorry for the pain she caused others, and said she had always intended to repay the money.

Capt. Craig Loy, who wrote the police report, said in an interview that Ms. DeBuck had also admitted to him that she took the money, explaining that a gambling habit she developed first at casinos and then on the Internet left her in debt.

The problem was uncovered on Sept. 5, when PTA President Teri Johnson opened a bank statement reflecting the treasury’s account. The balance was less than $2,800 when it should have been about $18,000, the police report said.

Capt. Loy said no charges had been filed yet.

—Catherine Gewertz

Two Students Charged With Rape of Girl at School

Two students from Milford Mill Academy in Baltimore County, Md., were charged with first-degree rape last week in the assault of a 15-year-old girl at the public school. Two other students were being sought for questioning in the case.

Police said the girl entered a school elevator, typically used by handicapped students, along with four boys. The boys stopped the elevator between floors and one of them allegedly assaulted her, police said.

Cpl. Vickie Warehime of the Baltimore County police department said there was no known motive behind the assault, and that the students involved apparently did not know one another beforehand.

The two boys, both 17, are being held without bail. They were charged as adults after turning themselves in to police a few days after the incident.

Charles Herndon, a spokesman for the Baltimore County schools, called the assault an “isolated incident.”

Only one of the students, a boy who uses a wheelchair, was supposed to be in the elevator, he said. “The others were just catching a ride apparently,” Mr. Herndon said.

—Marianne Hurst

Judge Bars Association From Ban on Cheerleading

A Pennsylvania judge has issued a temporary injunction to lift the ban on acrobatic cheerleading imposed by a local athletic association.

Lehigh County Court Judge James Gardner issued the order Oct. 11, after parents and students from Catasauqua Area High School in Catasauqua and two other neighboring high schools sued the association over the ban on such activities at school games.

The judge set a Nov. 26 date to further review the lawsuit.

John P. Karoly Jr., a lawyer who represented the plaintiffs, argued that the Colonial League had violated the state’s “Sunshine Act” in imposing the rule last May. The act requires public bodies to advertise their meetings and open them to the public.

Al Wilson, the president of the Colonial League, disputed that the league fell under the sunshine law, but said it would abide by the injunction. The league imposed the ban out of fear for cheerleaders’ safety.

—Marianne Hurst

Calif. District Tackles Abuse After Boy Beaten at School

The Orange Unified School District in California plans to post signs in every school saying that abuse of any kind will not be tolerated after a middle school boy was severely beaten on his birthday.

The 14-year-old was hospitalized for 10 days with internal injuries after classmates at Portola Middle School in Orange, Calif., beat him on Oct. 5. Officials in the 30,000-student district said “play punching” students on their birthdays is a school tradition.

The boy, who has yet to fully recover, will be taught at home for at least the next two months, according to Frank Boehler, the director of the district’s child-welfare and attendance office.

Three alleged assailants have been arrested on misdemeanor battery charges, but officials may seek felony charges because of the severity of the boy’s injuries. The students may also be expelled.

The students allegedly punched the boy several times in the stomach, damaging his spleen and causing internal bleeding.

The incident unleashed a wave of concern in the community. School and law enforcement officials have told students in several assemblies that the punching tradition must stop.

—Rhea R. Borja


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