News in Brief

October 27, 1999 6 min read

Mercury Exposure Closes Calif. Intermediate School

Students at Fitz Intermediate School in Santa Ana, Calif. returned to classes Oct. 18 after a mercury-exposure incident shut down the school for two days and sent four students to the hospital.

Local firefighters and Orange County health officials scoured the school for traces of the toxic substance after the Oct. 13 incident, in which one student brought “nearly a pint” of mercury to the school and allowed other students to play with it, said Derick Evans, the principal of the 875-student school.

More than 100 students were tested for mercury exposure; four were admitted to the hospital and later released. The 7th grader responsible for bringing in the mercury reportedly got it from his uncle, who had purchased it at a garage sale.

Officials at La Tijera School, a K-8 school in Inglewood, Calif., evacuated a classroom after an Oct. 15 incident involving a smaller quantity of mercury. Nine students and one teacher went to the hospital and were later released.

--Jessica L. Sandham

Football Coach Indicted

Seven people--including one of South Carolina’s best-known high school football coaches--have been indicted in Sumter, S.C., on charges of benefiting from a former school official’s embezzlement of more than $1 million.

State Attorney General Charlie Condon called the case, in the 10,000-student Sumter school district, one of the worst breaches of public trust in state history. Indicted was E. Thomas Lewis Jr., the suspended head football coach and athletics director at Sumter High School, along with an assistant coach, two retired administrators, a retired police officer, and two businessmen.

The charges against Mr. Lewis include receiving stolen goods and breach of trust with fraudulent intent. The alleged benefits listed in the indictment include home repairs, trips, casino gambling, and “the company of female escorts.”

John Ford, Mr. Lewis’ lawyer, said that his client and others believed the spending was authorized and that Mr. Lewis denies any inappropriate behavior.

--Alan Richard

Bonfire Event Doused

At least 14 students from Jamesville-DeWitt High School just outside Syracuse, N.Y., have been given detention for their attempt to tape three freshmen girls to a goal post during a homecoming bonfire.

For several years, it has been a “rite of passage” for Jamesville-DeWitt seniors to select one student to be taped to a goal post, according to the school’s principal, Barbara Goessling, who said the school has been trying to put a stop to the practice. Some parents classified the prank as hazing.

Calling the Sept. 30 incident a “troubling source of so-called fun,” Ms. Goessling said in an Oct. 14 letter to parents that the 840-student school would cancel the bonfire for the next few years.

--Adrienne D. Coles

Firearms Raffle Planned

Shotguns and hunting rifles are to be raffled off at a private K-12 school in Hobgood, N.C., to raise money for the school’s Future Farmers of America

The Dec. 6 fund-raiser is seen by many in the community as a reasonable way to collect extra money for the school, said John Hardison, the headmaster of the 300-student Hobgood Academy.

Mr. Hardison noted that hunting rifles and shotguns are common in Hobgood, a small town 90 minutes east of Raleigh.

But critics worry that bringing guns to campus, even for a closely monitored fund-raiser, could send a message to children that guns in school are acceptable, said Joanne McDaniel, the assistant director of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence in Raleigh.

--Julie Blair

Sentence Appealed

The superintendent of a northern California district is appealing a sentence of 10 days in jail and a $7,010 fine for placing a camera disguised as a smoke detector in a principal’s office.

Superintendent Craig Drennan of the 1,000-student Modoc Joint Unified School District was sentenced Oct. 12, a month after a jury convicted him of felony eavesdropping, said Modoc County District Attorney Tom Buckwalter.

Mr. Drennan, who has been suspended due to his conviction and replaced with an interim superintendent, said in court that he had acted on advice from the district’s lawyer and with permission of the school board to determine who was searching through personnel files after hours. Mr. Buckwalter contends the superintendent was trying to find “dirt” on the principal.

--Alan Richard

Columbine Video Aired

An attempt by Jefferson County, Colo., school officials to keep video-surveillance footage of Columbine High School from being broadcast on television ended this month when CBS aired the tape on its evening newscast.

The video was originally used by the Jefferson County sheriff’s office in its investigation of the April 20 shootings at the school by two students, and had been given to the nearby Littleton Fire Department for training purposes.

It shows students in the cafeteria scatter and hide as a bomb explodes. When the smoke clears, one of the student gunmen is seen shooting at a propane tank bomb. According to officials, the 89,000-student district has not decided what to do in response to the broadcast.

--Adrienne D. Coles

Former Maine Chief Settles Suit

A former Maine education commissioner has paid $11,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging he collected unauthorized payments while serving as a local superintendent.

Wayne L. Mowatt, who was the state commissioner of education from 1995 until 1996, made the payments last month to dismiss a civil suit by ECO 2000, a collaborative of rural school districts in northern Maine that he ran while the superintendent of School Administrative District 24 in Van Buren.

Mr. Mowatt settled the suit without admitting any wrongdoing, according to Richard L. Currier, the lawyer for ECO 2000. He never faced criminal charges.

--David J. Hoff

Sick (and Tired) of Unruliness

Teachers who allegedly staged a sickout to call attention to student discipline problems at a Cleveland middle school may themselves be disciplined.

Twenty-eight of the 40 teachers who work at the city’s Mary B. Martin Middle School failed to show up for work Oct. 14, according to William Wendling, the spokesman for the 77,000-student district. Administrators and substitutes kept classes running.

Cleveland Teachers Union officials say their association didn’t organize the sickout, but teachers at the school were upset with what they saw as a lax attitude toward student discipline.

The district’s chief executive officer, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, has met with teachers to discuss student behavior. As of late last week, she was considering disciplinary action against the teachers who called in sick, Mr. Wendling said.

--Jeff Archer

Another System for Prayers

To get around a federal court ruling forbidding prayer over school public-address systems, a ministerial alliance in Van, Texas, is providing a public-address system for prayers at local high school football games.

Mark Pool, the superintendent of the 2,100-student Van district, discontinued the tradition of the district’s including an opening prayer at football games. He said the district should obey the ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit that school PA systems not be used for prayer.

The district replaced an opening prayer with a moment of silence. But the local ministerial alliance, at recent football games, has provided a PA system and recruited high school students from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes to offer prayers.

Scott Dornbush, the pastor of the Van United Methodist Church, said the alliance has asked the students to make the prayers nonsectarian and nonproselytizing.

--Mary Ann Zehr


William M. Soult

William M. Soult, who was active on the national and local levels in teacher standards and school boards, died of pancreatic cancer Oct. 1 at his home in Longmont, Colo. He was 60.

Mr. Soult had served the past six years on the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and was the president of the National School Boards Association in 1993-94.

A former mathematics and physics teacher in Harrisburg, Pa., he was also a former president of the Colorado Association of School Boards.

--Alan Richard