News in Brief: A National Roundup

February 16, 2000 6 min read
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Suit Against Denver District Dismissed by Appeals Court

A parents’ group cannot sue the Denver school district over an allegedly “abysmal pattern of poor performance” in the city’s public schools, a state appeals court has ruled.

The Colorado Court of Appeals on Feb. 3 upheld a state trial court’s dismissal of a lawsuit brought by the Denver Parents Association on behalf of 3,400 parents in the city. The suit alleged that the district had failed to provide textbooks and keep discipline in classrooms, used credit waivers improperly to improve graduation rates, and “dumbed down” standards for measuring school performance.

The unanimous appeals court ruling termed the matter “political” and urged that policy issues be addressed “at the ballot box.”

Lawyers for the parents’ group said they were considering an appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court.

—Mark Walsh

L.A. School Groups Merge

Two leading local reform groups have combined to form a new organization that will push for management changes and decentralization of the Los Angeles Unified School District and work with other districts in Los Angeles County.

The Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project and the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now announced last week the creation of the LAAMP/LEARN Regional School Reform Alliance.

A board of directors that includes academic, business, labor, and civil rights leaders governs the group. Its first major action was to link the Los Angeles Unified district with a panel of financial executives that will help the district control spending.

—Alan Richard

Fatal Fight Prompts Legal Action

The mother of a boy killed during a fight on the grounds of his California middle school has filed a $10 million wrongful-death claim against the 20,000-student Palmdale Elementary School District, near Los Angeles.

In her claim filed Feb. 3, Mary Corson asserts that officials at Juniper Intermediate School did nothing to control a chaotic classroom environment that led to the Nov. 19 fight in which her 13-year-old son, Stephan, was killed when his head hit the sidewalk after he was punched by a classmate.

Melanie E. Lomax, the lawyer representing Ms. Corson, said that the fight was over a spitball and a racial slur directed at Stephan, who was black.

Martin Carpenter, the school district’s lawyer, said district officials were awaiting the outcome of a policeinvestigation.

—Jessica L. Sandham

Oakland Names New Chief

The Oakland, Calif., school board has chosen Dennis K. Chaconas, currently the superintendent of the nearby Alameda city schools, as the district’s new superintendent.

Mr. Chaconas, 52, described as a hands-on administrator with a record of improving test scores and attendance and resolving budget problems in his six years in Alameda, faces a host of challenges in the 54,000-student Oakland Unified School District.

Recent state audits have lambasted Oakland for everything from mismanaged finances and poorly maintained facilities to lagging student achievement. (“Calif. Audit Cites Litany of Troubles in Oakland Schools,” Feb. 9, 2000.)

Four of the seven school board seats are up for grabs in the March 7 election. Voters will also decide whether to allow Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown to appoint three additional board members, creating a 10-member board.

—Catherine Gewertz

Arson Damages Texas School

A Denton, Texas, high school suffered $12,000 in damages caused by a fire this month in an assistant principal’s office that officials say was arson.

The fire started around 3 a.m. on Feb. 4 when someone threw a brick and an incendiary device through a window at Ryan High School, according to Sharon Cox, the coordinator of public information for the 13,000-student Denton school district. The school’s sprinkler system extinguished the fire.

Ms. Cox said the school was not disrupted because the crisis-management team responded promptly.

The 1,800-student school and Crime Stoppers have offered a $1,200 reward for any information leading to an arrest.

—Candice Furlan

La. School for Deaf Investigated

A task force that investigated alleged sexual misconduct among students at the Louisiana School for the Deaf called for improvements in supervision and staff training in a recent report.

The 12-member task force, established by the state superintendent of education in November, reviewed the policies and procedures for student conduct and supervision by the staff at the school in Baton Rouge following allegations of student sexual misconduct.

The task force looked into 37 cases of student-to-student misconduct involving consensual sex over the course of four years.

State Superintendent Cecil J. Picard acknowledged that there had not been “adequate supervision” at the 265-student school and said appropriate disciplinary actions and preventive measures have been taken.

—Adrienne D. Coles

Asbestos Scare Closes School

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has ordered Fort Morgan High School to close indefinitely because of a high airborne asbestos reading following a construction project.

Built in the 1960s, the school will remain closed until the problem is abated, which, according to Superintendent Fred Openshaw of the Fort Morgan district, will cost between $2 million and $3 million.

The district is asking the state for emergency aid. The state commissioner of education has approved a district plan in which students from the high school will attend classes at the Fort Morgan Middle School, about a half-mile away.

The combined school would have more than 800 high school students and 500 middle school students who would attend on alternate days. The day would be a little over eight hours, and holidays would be eliminated.

—Naomi Greengrass

Fire Spares Scopes Collection

Virtually all documents and memorabilia from the famed trial of John T. Scopes survived a fire in the main academic building of Bryan College, a small Christian college in Dayton, Tenn.

The school’s public information officer, Tom Davis, said he believed the only loss relating to the Scopes collection was a copy of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species signed by William Jennings Bryan. The college is named for Bryan, who appeared for the prosecution in Scopes’ 1925 trial in Dayton on charges of violating a Tennessee law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools.

Mr. Davis said the copy of Darwin’s groundbreaking book was kept in the rare-books collection on the third floor, where most of the damage occurred.

—Naomi Greengrass

Pa. District Halts Religious Music

Choral groups in the Camp Hill, Pa., school district will be temporarily prohibited from practicing or performing religious selections after several complaints about a recent concert.

The legal adviser for the 1,100-student district was expected to make recommendations this week on what proportion of a public school music program can be made up of religious content.

Superintendent Cornelius V. Cain said several people complained after a concert last month in which at least half the selections were of religious origin.

—Kathleen Kennedy Manzo

Calif. District Draws Court Fire

A federal judge used a ruling last week on school admissions criteria to blast officials of the Pasadena, Calif., district for what he called the “abysmal” performance of their schools.

In his decision, U.S. District Judge Dickran Tevrizian barred the Pasadena district from considering “race, ethnicity, or gender” in admitting students to three schools of choice. He held that the policy—which combines a lottery with possible consideration of such factors—was unconstitutional under state and federal law.

The judge chastised officials of the 24,000-student district for a poor showing in California’s school rankings. But Maree Sneed, whose Washington-based law firm, Hogan & Hartson, represented the district, said the judge’s “show-stopping” remarks misconstrued the ranking system. When Pasadena is compared with districts serving similar proportions of students who are poor, who move frequently, and who do not speak English as a first language, it rated well, she said.

—Bess Keller

A version of this article appeared in the February 16, 2000 edition of Education Week as News in Brief: A National Roundup

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