News in Brief: A National Roundup

March 19, 1997 7 min read

Federal Judge Strikes Down Alabama School Prayer Law

A federal judge last week struck down a 1993 Alabama law that authorized voluntary student prayers at school events such as graduation ceremonies and athletic contests.

U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent said that the law violates the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against government establishment of religion. The law created “excessive entanglement” between religion and the state and left some students with “no choice but to listen to the prayers of their peers.”

Michael Chandler, the assistant principal of Valley Head High School in the DeKalb County, Ala., district, filed a legal challenge to the law a year ago. Mr. Chandler’s suit, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, also challenged pregame prayers and other alleged religious practices in the district. (“Without a Prayer,” Oct. 30, 1996.)

The ruling gives the district and the plaintiff 15 days to reach a settlement on the challenged practices.

A spokesman for Gov. Fob James Jr., a Republican, told reporters late last week that the state would defend the prayer law all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and that the governor was unlikely to tell people in the state to obey the ruling.

N.M. Teachers Face Dismissal

Two teachers in Vaughn, N.M., have been suspended and threatened with dismissal after using what school officials characterized as ethnic- and religious-based materials in their classrooms.

Patsy and Nadine Cordova, who are sisters, were suspended with pay last month by Arthur Martinez, the superintendent of the Vaughn municipal schools. He has recommended that the school board fire them for insubordination.

Mr. Martinez ordered the Cordovas, who teach at the 65-student Vaughn High School, to stop using Chicano-oriented materials in their classes. School officials charged that after complying with the request, the sisters introduced new materials on racial and religious intolerance to the mostly Hispanic student body.

“We were complying with the curricular guidelines, but we were just being creative in finding materials that are interesting to our students,” Nadine Cordova said last week.

Hawaii Teachers Approve Pact

The Hawaii teachers’ union has ratified a contract that raises salaries 17 percent over 2« years and adds seven days to the school calendar.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association approved the contract by a 90 percent majority this month, said Danielle Lum, a spokeswoman for the union.

An agreement was reached Feb. 20, just 30 minutes before the union planned a strike against the statewide school system. (“Averting Strike, Hawaii Teachers Agree on Contract,” Feb. 26, 1997.) Ms. Lum said the 12,000-member union, an affiliate of the National Education Association, expects the state legislature to approve the agreement by next month.

Calculators Barred for Test

Arizona students will not be allowed to use calculators on a new state-mandated standardized test, the state school board has decided.

Students in grades 3 through 12 began taking the exam, the latest version of the Stanford Achievement Test, last week.

The board’s decision reflects worries among educators that students without access to calculators might be disadvantaged on the test. Test directions allow use of simple calculators on some sections, but not all Arizona school districts would be able to supply the instruments.

Board president Wm. Byron Darden said the board endorses the use of technology in mathematics, and may reconsider the issue next year.

Judge Rejects N.C. Suit

A federal judge has dismissed a year-old suit that claimed that the current system of electing the Durham, N.C., school board denies white voters equal representation.

Filed by three white residents, the suit challenged the results of a merger between the Durham city and county systems begun in 1991. Although the county and city combined are about 70 percent white, the new plan created a seven-member board in which three members are to be elected from majority-black districts. (“Racial-Bias Lawsuit Threatens To Disrupt N.C. Board Elections,” March 13, 1996.)

A lawyer for the plaintiffs has pledged to appeal the decision.

More Children, Teens Fatter

Fueled by overeating and a lack of regular physical exercise, a greater proportion of U.S. children and adults has become increasingly fatter in the past two decades, a federal study reports.

Nearly 14 percent of children, 12 percent of teenagers, and more than 35 percent of adults are overweight, according to the March 7 report by the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention.

The share of children ages 6 to 11 who were classified as overweight grew by 3 percentage points from 1976 to 1991; the percentage of overweight adolescents from 12 to 17 increased by 5 percentage points during the same period.

Bias Alleged in Ga. System

Eleven black and white plaintiffs have filed a class action against Georgia’s higher education system, demanding that the state stop using race-based hiring and admissions policies.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Savannah this month, points to the use of remedial courses to enroll and retain black students. It specifically argues that the board of regents of the University System of Georgia has failed to integrate the student bodies and faculties of the state’s historically black universities, which enroll a disproportionate number of black students. The schools, therefore, have been “relegated to a mission of remedial education and second-class status,” the suit claims.

Chancellor Stephen R. Portch said that the board does not engage in discriminatory practices and that it is already working to “achieve equity of access.”

Tenn. Superintendent Resigns

The Chattanooga, Tenn., city schools superintendent whose secret marriage may have violated district policy has resigned, although he will stay on as a consultant until the end of next month.

Harry Reynolds, who had been with the district for nine years, handed in his resignation this month. His contract was due to expire at the end of June.

Last month, school board members charged Mr. Reynolds with violating the district’s nepotism and conflict-of-interest policies when he married administrator Elizabeth Gaines.

The school board last week appointed a management team to supervise the 19,935-student school system and retained Mr. Reynolds as a consultant until April 30, said Charlotte Adkins, the assistant to Mr. Reynolds and the school board. Ms. Gaines will remain with the system as the director of teaching and learning and student services.

Hepatitis Lawsuit Dropped

Three parents have dropped their lawsuit over hepatitis A vaccinations that were given to 9,482 mostly black students in 14 Memphis, Tenn., schools last year.

The suit alleged that administration of the vaccinations was racially discriminatory and unsafe and that waivers from the procedure were inconsistently granted. (“Memphis Parents Seek To Halt Vaccine Program,” May 15, 1996.)

Wanda Abioto, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said that the suit was withdrawn because her clients did not have enough money to proceed.

Since the suit was filed, a federal judge has ordered school and county officials to give parents prior notification of inoculations and to revise a waiver policy.

Tree Kills School-Bound Girls

Four schoolgirls were killed when 50 m.p.h. winds toppled a tree onto the privately owned van carrying them this month to the Allen Christian School in New York City.

The girls--two of them sisters--were 10 to 12 years old. They were pronounced dead at the scene of the March 6 accident, a police spokeswoman said. The driver of the van, her husband, and four other children suffered minor injuries.

The 400-student school is affiliated with the Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church, a congregation of 8,000 headed by U.S. Rep. Floyd H. Flake, a minister.

Suspect Arrested in Stabbing

A 20-year-old man has been arrested in connection with the recent stabbings of two students at Bayonne High School in Bayonne, N.J.

Hudson County Prosecutor Carmen Messano said that David Rodriguez fatally stabbed Aubrey Taylor, 18, and seriously injured Akim Garland, 17, after a random hallway encounter led to a verbal confrontation “over the way people were looking at each other.” The suspect came to the school looking for his younger brother, according to authorities.

Mr. Rodriguez pleaded not guilty during a court appearance last week.