News in Brief

February 11, 2004 8 min read
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New York Civil Liberties Union Settles Lawsuit

The New York Civil Liberties Union has settled a federal lawsuit against the New York City department of education on behalf of five female students who were suspended for refusing to supply school officials with the results of tests for pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court last July, accused school officials of violating state and federal laws regarding the students’ right to privacy and of imposing illegal conditions on them because of their gender.

Rebekah Diller, the director of the organization’s reproductive-rights project, said last week that the case was settled for an undisclosed sum. In addition, the city’s education department agreed to pay reasonable lawyers’ fees, revise school policy, and provide staff training on the issue of student privacy and medical tests.

The 8th graders were pulled from their classes at the 1,200- student Intermediate School 164 last April, after they skipped school to attend a “hooky party” where sexual activity allegedly occurred, according to the lawsuit.

The principal questioned the girls in meetings with their parents and effectively suspended them until they submitted the test results, it said. The students missed between two and three days of classes, and one student was removed from the school by her parents.

Officials with the city education department could not be reached for comment.

—Marianne D Hurst

Los Angeles Officials Resolve School Inspection Standoff

The Los Angeles city attorney’s office and the school district have ended a tense impasse by agreeing to share oversight of school inspections.

City and school leaders had both been vying for the lead role in inspecting dirty restrooms, unsafe classrooms, and unsanitary school kitchens. (“Urban Education,” Jan. 7, 2004.)

In a joint news conference on Jan. 28, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo and Superintendent Roy Romer of the Los Angeles Unified School District outlined plans to join the forces of their respective inspection programs.

At first, the program will feature city and county inspectors riding along with district inspectors. The city and county inspectors will later conduct their own, independent inspections and will report findings to school and local government leaders, officials said.

The 728,000-student school district launched an inspection program hailed as a national model two years ago, but the city attorney proposed his own program in November, contending he had a “moral obligation” to ensure school safety.

—Catherine Gewertz

Man Charged With Taking Funds From Fla. Scholarship Program

The leader of a nonprofit foundation has been charged with stealing about $268,000 set aside to subsidize private school scholarships for Florida students from low-income families.

James K. Isenhour, of Ocala, Fla., was charged Jan. 29 with grand theft, following an investigation by the state, according to Assistant State Attorney Mark Simpson.

Mr. Isenhour is accused of tapping money from Florida’s corporate-tax-credit scholarship program for personal use, Mr. Simpson said. State law allows businesses to donate money for the scholarships in exchange for tax breaks, but the money cannot be used for any purpose except scholarships for eligible students.

As the chairman and director of the Silver Archer Foundation in Ocala, Mr. Isenhour is accused of collecting donations and using the money for other purposes. A lawyer for Mr. Isenhour could not be reached for comment.

The investigation into the Ocala scholarship group has spurred calls for greater state oversight of the scholarships and other school choice programs in Florida. (“Fla. Cracks Down on Voucher Schools; Suspends Aid to 46,” Nov. 26, 2003.)

—Alan Richard

Judge Throws Out Challenge To Walton Family Foundation

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit against the Walton Family Foundation by the former head of the National Charter School Alliance.

Marc Dean Millot had claimed that the Bentonville, Ark.-based foundation reneged on a commitment to finance the fledgling association of state charter school groups, costing him his $180,000-a-year job.

The foundation argued that it made no legally enforceable promise to finance the alliance. In a ruling from the bench on Jan. 30, U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema essentially agreed, and threw the suit out of federal court in Alexandria, Va.

Mr. Millot’s lawyer said last week that the former president and chief executive officer of the alliance was reviewing his legal options.

Unaffected by last month’s ruling was a second federal lawsuit that Mr. Millot has filed against three members of the search committee that recruited him to the alliance. He has charged them with misrepresenting the group’s financial position to him. None would comment on the matter.

Mr. Millot has also filed a complaint with the American Arbitration Association, alleging that the alliance itself misled him about its financial situation when it hired him. Officials with the alliance also declined to comment.

—Caroline Hendrie

Chicago Schools Replace Telecommunications Vendor

The Chicago school system has replaced SBC Communications as the vendor in charge of linking the city’s schools to the Internet.

The move came nearly a month before congressional investigators spotlighted $5 million of equipment, purchased in previous years with federal E-rate funds, that was never installed by the company. (“E-Rate Purchases for Chicago Schools Found Wasted,” Jan. 28, 2004.)

District spokesman Peter Cunningham said the decision on the San Antonio-based company was “absolutely” unrelated to the investigation.

“We rebid every year. They were one of seven bidders, and the other firm had a more attractive bid,” Mr. Cunningham said.

Chicago-based Blackwell Consulting Services Inc. won the $26 million, one-year contract to wire classrooms and upgrade equipment, beginning July 1. Of that amount, the federal E-rate program will pay $16 million and the district will pay $10 million.

Blackwell and several companies with smaller pieces of the project meet the 438,000-student district’s “affirmative action” goal of 95 percent “minority business enterprise contract participation,” according to a Dec. 17, 2003, report by Arne Duncan, the district’s chief executive officer.

Mr. Cunningham said SBC refunded $8 million for equipment bought for the Chicago schools but not installed in timely fashion. SBC also installed in schools “more than $3 million” of the equipment notwithstanding, he said.

—Andrew Trotter

Kentucky District Settles Suit Over Gay-Straight Alliance

The Boyd County, Ky., school district has settled a lawsuit brought on behalf of students who had tried to form a Gay-Straight Alliance at its high school.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued the 3,500-student district in January of last year, after the school board decided to suspend all student clubs rather than allow the Gay-Straight Alliance to organize. Local ministers had organized protests in the community, and district officials maintained that the disruptions justified their action. (“Ky. Protests Highlight Increasing Visibility of Gay-Straight Clubs,” Nov. 27, 2002.)

Last spring, a federal judge granted an injunction ordering the district to allow the club to start meeting.

The settlement requires the district to treat all student clubs equally and to provide annual anti-harassment training for all district staff members and students in middle and high school.

—Ann Bradley

Philadelphia Schools Ban Sale Of Sodas to Students

The Philadelphia school district last week banned the sale of all carbonated soft drinks in city schools, starting this summer.

By a 3-2 vote, the School Reform Commission that governs the district approved a policy permitting only 100 percent fruit-juice drinks; drinking water without artificial sweeteners, flavorings, or colors; milk; and milk-flavored drinks to be sold in the 214,000-student system’s schools.

The policy applies to the sale of beverages from vending machines and over-the-counter locations. Vending machines in faculty lounges, which are off-limits to students, aren’t subject to the policy.

James Nevels, the chairman of the commission, said in a statement that the policy represented “one of the toughest policies of its kind in any school district in America.”

The policy, which was proposed last summer and debated in public hearings, comes as an increasing number of states and districts are taking steps to limit students’ consumption of sugary drinks.
(“States Target School Vending Machines to Curb Child Obesity,” Oct. 1, 2003.)

—Ann Bradley

Teachers Fired for Failing Test Could Work as Substitutes

Five former bilingual-program teachers in the Lawrence, Mass., school district could be rehired as substitutes while they work to pass an English-fluency test they had failed, under a settlement worked out by school officials.

The teachers lost their jobs last year because they had not passed the test, which is required under a year-and-a-half-old state law promoting English-language instruction for students speaking another first language. Some teachers were rehired to teach Spanish and others passed the test on a later try. About 10 teachers subsequently filed suit against the 12,000-student district, although only half want to continue as teachers there.

The agreement, which must be approved by the Lawrence City Council to go into effect, would also pay the teachers who sued up to $2,500 in compensation for the English-conversation courses they have taken and for lost pay, according to Superintendent Wilfredo Laboy. In exchange, the teachers would drop their suit.

The City Council is set to vote on the measure February 17. Mr. Laboy said he thought it was likely it would pass.

—Bess Keller


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