News in Brief: A National Roundup

July 10, 2002 7 min read
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U.S. Appeals Court Backs Ban On Columbine Religious Tiles

The Jefferson County, Colo., school district was correct in barring religious- themed tiles from being displayed in a memorial at Columbine High School, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Denver, ruled June 28 that schools have the right to regulate “school sponsored” speech, as long as the speech is related to educational concerns.

The decision overturned a U.S. District Court ruling last fall that said the school district violated the free speech and religious expression of the parents of two students killed in the 1999 Columbine shootings when it refused to display ceramic tiles they painted using religious phrases such as “Jesus wept.”

“It was difficult for us to be in an adversarial situation with these parents,” said Marilyn Saltzman, a spokeswoman for the 87,000-student district. “It’s not a case about memorializing the tragedy. It’s about school districts determining what is appropriate for the school walls.”

A lawyer for the parents did not return phone calls for comment, but said in local news reports that he would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

—Lisa Fine

Seattle Parents File Lawsuit Over Report Card Changes

Parents at an alternative K-8 school in Seattle are suing district Superintendent Joseph Olchefske, charging that he did not have the authority to mandate a new student report card, and that the grading procedure used on the card runs counter to the school’s beliefs about how students should be assessed.

Six parents from Alternative School 1 and the Sir Herbert Read Consortium, a nonprofit organization that supports the school, filed the lawsuit in King County Superior Court after the superintendent of the 47,000- student district instructed teachers to complete the “universal standards-based student progress report,” even for students whose parents said they did not want the information.

The report card, which measures student progress toward meeting state and district standards, asks teachers to rate students from 1 to 4, with 1 representing the lowest level and 4 the highest.

“We prefer not to label or rank children,” said Theresa Cardamone, who has a daughter entering 4th grade at the school. Three other alternative schools in the district, Alternative Elementary 2, Pathfinder, and Orca, are supporting the lawsuit and have formed a group called the Report Card Coalition.

Mr. Olchefske maintains that he did have the authority to mandate a report card, even though state law doesn’t explicitly state that he does. But he added that he’s willing to work with parents to devise what he’s calling a “scenario B” report card that might better meet their needs.

—Linda Jacobson

Federal Judge Ends Oversight Of Prince George’s, Md., Schools

The federal desegregation ruling that governed schools in Prince George’s County, Md., for 30 years has ended.

U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte declared last month that the suburban Washington district had reached “unitary” status, meaning the 132,000-student district had rid itself of the vestiges of segregation found in the 1972 court case.

Four years ago, Judge Messitte ended the busing plans that had been ordered in the early 1970s to achieve racial balance in the county’s schools. Since then, he has gradually released his grip over other school policies. He declared an end to his oversight of the district on June 25.

County officials and the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People supported Judge Messitte’s decision.

The school system will continue to spend $2.1 million in fiscal 2003 to maintain programs that are designed to prevent segregation from occurring again, Beatrice Tignor, the chairman of the county’s school board, said in a statement.

—David J. Hoff

Checking Underwear at Dance Costs Administrator Her Post

A high school assistant principal has been stripped of her administrative duties following complaints that she checked the undergarments of teenage students on their way into a dance to make sure they weren’t wearing thongs or other risqué clothing.

Rita Wilson of Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego angered parents and other administrators two months ago when several students accused her of stopping them and forcing them to lift their clothing outside the Friday-night event in April, in plain view of some of their peers.

Amid mounting criticism, the 32,000-student Poway Unified School District’s school board voted on June 17 to reassign Ms. Wilson to nonadministrative work, though her exact position has yet to be determined.

Ms. Wilson’s new job could be as a teacher, but it would not be at Rancho Bernardo High School, district spokeswoman Sharon Raffer said. Not long after the incident, Ms. Wilson apologized.

Some students and parents said Ms. Wilson’s actions at the event may have been prompted by students’ showing up in scanty clothing at a previous school dance.

—Sean Cavanagh

East Detroit, Mich., Board Member Pleads Guilty to Corruption Charge

A second member of the East Detroit, Mich., school board has pleaded guilty to taking bribes uncovered in a federal corruption probe of the district.

Four contractors and the district’s former finance director also have pleaded guilty to charges stemming from allegations of bid-rigging and kickbacks, with other indictments in the three-year investigation expected soon. Under scrutiny are a former superintendent of the 6,500-student district, a former district maintenance director, and a former construction manager for the suburban Detroit district, according to prosecutors.

As part of a plea bargain, board member Karen DeGrande resigned from the board on June 19 after admitting to taking some $30,000 in exchange for favorable votes on the board. She will get no more than 21 months in prison if she cooperates with authorities.

Former board member Bettie Huebner pleaded guilty to accepting $20,000 and a car in the bid-rigging scheme. Under a plea bargain, she will spend a maximum of six months in prison.

—Bess Keller

Boston School Board Repeals Plan For English-Language Learners

The Boston school committee has decided to repeal a 23-year-old plan, known as the Lau plan, governing the district’s programs for English-language learners.

Thomas W. Payzant, the district’s superintendent, had recommended the action, said Dave Overton, the director of communications for the 62,000- student school system. A federal judge ruled in May that the school committee could either decide to adhere to the plan or to repeal it by July 1. The board last month voted 5-1 in favor of the repeal.

Mr. Payzant is a proponent of bilingual education and has no intention of getting rid of it, the spokesman said. Repealing the Lau plan will make little difference in the operations of current programs, he said, although the parent advisory committees for programs for English-language learners will no longer receive district money for staff.

—Mary Ann Zehr


Justin W. Dart Jr., a longtime advocate for the rights of people with disabilities and a former U.S. Department of Education official, died in Washington on June 22. He was 71.

Mr. Dart, who used a wheelchair most of his life, was widely known as the father of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the landmark 1990 federal law on the rights of the disabled.

During the Reagan administration, he served for a year as the head of the Education Department’s Rehabilitation Services Administration. He was forced to resign that post in 1987 after he criticized the department’s leadership during a congressional hearing.

A scion of the family that established the Walgreen drugstore chain, Mr. Dart lost the use of his legs at age 18 after a bout with polio. His death was caused by the aftereffects of the disease and pneumonia.

—Debra Viadero

Thomas R. Lyon, a senior manager at the U.S. Department of Education, died of lung cancer on June 20 in Washington. He was 53.

Mr. Lyon, who spent 26 years at the department and whose career spanned six administrations, was most recently the chief of the news department, supervising media relations. He also developed and published the Daily Education News, a compilation of national and local news articles produced for agency staff members.

But Mr. Lyon, who grew up in Carlsbad, N.M., was also known for his wide-ranging interests in music and art. He played guitar and sang in several bands he formed, including Made for TV and Action Memos, which performed in Washington and New York City.

—Michelle R. Davis

A version of this article appeared in the July 10, 2002 edition of Education Week as News in Brief: A National Roundup


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