News in Brief: A National Roundup

April 02, 1997 7 min read

Calif. Students, Teacher Attack Drug-Sniffing Searches

A California school district’s policy of using drug-sniffing dogs to search students’ lockers, desks, and belongings is being challenged in a federal lawsuit that claims it violates the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The Galt school board voted last year to authorize the searches, which are conducted on a random basis by a private security firm. The lawsuit, filed last month in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, was prompted by a Feb. 6 dog search in a criminal-justice class at Galt High School.

According to the lawsuit, officials ordered students to leave their belongings in the classroom to be searched by a drug-sniffing dog. Senior Jacob Reed objected. He was sent to the office, where a vice principal told the youth that there was reasonable suspicion to search him because he had complained, the suit claims. A second plaintiff, junior Chris Sulamo, was searched after the dog “alerted” to possible drugs in his jacket. No drugs were found on either youth, the suit says.

The teacher whose classroom was searched, Michael Millet, also is a plaintiff in the suit, which seeks an injunction barring further searches.

Superintendent Ron Huebert said he could not discuss specifics, but he defended the district’s search policy.

Seattle Dumps Ad Policy

Facing strong community opposition, the Seattle school board has voted to rescind a policy that would have allowed corporate advertising in the public schools.

Board members voted 4-1 last month to end the effort, although an advisory committee will continue to investigate the issue, a district spokeswoman said.

The school board had anticipated that the proposal would bring as much as $1 million into the 47,000-student district. to help offset a budget shortfall.

But the proposal had been mired in protests by students, teachers, and parents ever since the board adopted it last November. In February, Superintendent John Stanford recommended that the board postpone implementing the policy while a committee reviewed the plan. (“Seattle Board To Review Plan To Allow Ads in Schools,” March 5, 1997.)

Hawaii Limits School Size

Hawaii’s school board has approved a policy to curb the size of new schools.

The policy, adopted last month, imposes enrollment limits of 550 students per elementary school, 600 students per intermediate school, and 1,000 students per high school.

The board said that it was ready to make a commitment to smaller schools because research shows that students do better in them. Current capacity exceeds 1,200 students at some elementary and 2,000 students at most high schools.

Although the policy applies only to new schools, the board is considering dividing the existing 245 schools to give them some of the advantages of smaller ones.

The single statewide system of 188,000 students has been growing by more than 2,500 students a year. Because of a continuing fiscal crisis, the building of new schools in Hawaii, where land prices are extraordinarily high, is uncertain.

Pa. Union Must Open Books

A U.S. District Court has ruled that nonunion teachers who are challenging collective bargaining fees will be able to look at the Pennsylvania State Education Association’s financial records.

Judge William Caldwell ruled last month that the National Education Association affiliate must disclose selected financial records no later than next week to comply with investigations into whether compulsory dues that nonunion teachers pay are supporting political activities or other activities unrelated to bargaining. The U.S. Supreme Court and local contracts say that nonunion teachers are not required to contribute to political efforts.

The Springfield, Va.-based National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation is representing the nonunion teachers from the Grove City and Shaler districts.

Nonunion teachers are required to pay about 80 percent of the $500 annual dues, which reflects the costs of representation and collective bargaining, said PSEA spokesman Wythe Keever.

Calif. Schools Count Crimes

There were 22,387 batteries and other types of assault and $22.7 million worth of property crimes in California schools last school year, according to a new report.

“Promoting Safe Schools,” which is the state’s first comprehensive look at school crime in nearly 10 years, also found that 20,592 offenses, or 26 percent of all those reported, were drug- or alcohol-related. The state stopped tracking such data a decade ago because the figures were considered unreliable.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin said that the report confirms that “our schools, in fact, are generally safer places for our students to be than their surrounding communities.”

The state’s three school homicides for the 1995-96 school year occurred in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Ga. Court Spurns Voucher Law

Georgia school boards do not have to abide by a 1961 state law allowing parents to request vouchers to send their children to private schools, the state supreme court has ruled. Three metropolitan Atlanta parents, dissatisfied with the education their children were getting in the public schools, had tried to get the courts to revive the segregation-era law.

The statute, however, was not ruled unconstitutional in the decision last month. That leaves a door open for other parents who want to request vouchers from their local districts, said Frank Lightmas, the plaintiffs’ lawyer. He said that in recent years more school board members who support vouchers have been elected throughout the state.

Ky. Superintendent To Resign

Steve Towler, the Russell County, Ky., schools superintendent and former state superintendent of the year, has announced that he will resign rather than face mismanagement charges that could force him from office.

State education officials in January charged Mr. Towler and three school board members with mismanagement and failure to reduce a budget deficit that climbed from $221,000 in 1995 to $647,739 last year, according to education department spokeswoman Lisa Gross.

The board was under orders to get state approval for any spending. The charges against Mr. Towler and the board members include more than 20 instances in which either he or the board allegedly hired employees, paid bills, or made purchases without permission.

No case will be pursued against Mr. Towler now that he has resigned, Ms. Gross said. His resignation was scheduled to take effect at the end of this week.

Charter’s Leaders Indicted

The director of a failed charter school in Phoenix has been charged with 31 counts of theft, fraud, and misuse of public funds.

Citizen 2000’s founder and director, Lawndia White Venerable, and her sister, Loretha Johnson, who served as assistant principal, were scheduled to be arraigned in Maricopa County Superior Court this week. A grand jury indicted Ms. Johnson on 17 similar charges.

Ms. Venerable allegedly used state funds for personal purposes and inflated enrollment figures to keep $250,439 in state aid.

The Arizona state board revoked the charter in November because of numerous financial discrepancies. Just before the action, Ms. Venerable filed for bankruptcy. The school has been closed since then. (“For First Time, ‘Hands Off’ Ariz. Revokes Charter for School,” Nov. 27, 1997.)

Neither Ms. Venerable nor Ms. Johnson could be reached last week for comment.

N.J. Priest Accused of Theft

A New Jersey grand jury has indicted a Roman Catholic priest for allegedly stealing thousands of dollars from the parochial high school he led for more than a decade.

Prosecutors allege that the Rev. Dominic A. Scolamiero stole $75,000 in tuition funds from Morris Catholic High School in Denville, where he was the principal from 1979 to 1993. He is also charged with taking another $75,000 from a fund to assist retired religious and more than $500 from school vending machines.

Officials of the Diocese of Paterson said that they first noticed irregularities in a regular audit of the school’s finances soon after Father Scolamiero left in 1993.

Neither Father Scolamiero nor his lawyer could be reached for comment last week. His lawyer told The New York Times that the charges were the result of inaccurate accounting.

Teacher Charged in Robbery

The chairwoman of a Kentucky high school special education department, whom co-workers describe as a “mother hen” to her students, has been charged with armed robbery.

FBI agents and state police handcuffed and arrested Nora Lee Mastin, 40, outside Knott County Central High School--the 850-student school where she teaches--as students looked on last month.

According to federal officials, Ms. Mastin and her brother held up a bank in Floyd County last July. Officials say the robbers, who wore motorcycle helmets with dark visors, fled on all-terrain vehicles, escaping to the neighboring hills with $14,266.

Ms. Mastin was being held without bond last week pending a hearing. She has been a teacher in the Knott system for 12 years. Her lawyer could not be reached for comment last week.