News in Brief: A National Roundup

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Ala. Officials Denounce Curb on Religious Practices

The governor of Alabama and a state judge known for keeping a display of the Ten Commandments in his courtroom have reacted defiantly to a federal judge's recent injunction prohibiting many longstanding religious practices in the public schools.

U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent of Montgomery, Ala., last month barred public schools in the state from allowing organized prayers in classrooms, over school intercoms, or at graduation ceremonies. His injunction in a lawsuit involving the DeKalb County schools also barred the distribution of Bibles to students. ("Judge Defines Church-State Rules for Ala.," Nov. 5, 1997.)

Gov. Fob James Jr. said last week that he would "resist Judge DeMent's order by every legal and political means with every ounce of strength I possess."

The Republican governor has been vocal in recent months in criticizing U.S. Supreme Court decisions prohibiting classroom and graduation prayers.

Under Judge DeMent's ruling, the governor asserted, any teacher could be fined or jailed for leading students in a prayer after a national disaster such as the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.

"The federal government has no right to interfere" in public or private prayers of Alabama citizens, Gov. James said.

Meanwhile, Etowah County Judge Roy S. Moore, who has gained nationwide attention for refusing to remove a plaque of the Ten Commandments from his courtroom, issued an order Nov. 4 barring Judge DeMent's injunction from taking effect in Etowah County.

The federal injunction "appears to be an unconstitutional abuse of power in its explicit proscription of allowable speech and behavior by children in the public school system," Judge Moore said.

Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said Judge Moore "is an extremist on the farthest fringes of legal opinion."

The Washington-based organization backed the federal legal challenge to religious practices in DeKalb County.

Court Sides With Utah School

A private school in Utah did not violate the Americans With Disabilities Act when it fired a teacher whose manic-depressive son had threatened faculty members and their families, a federal appeals court has ruled.

Howard Den Hartog, who had taught at Wasatch Academy, a private boarding school in rural Mt. Pleasant, Utah, for nearly 30 years, sued the school after it refused to renew his contract in 1994.

Mr. Den Hartog's son, who was 21 at the time and who suffers from bipolar affective disorder, had threatened the headmaster and his teenage children, other faculty members, and also allegedly assaulted a student.

While the ADA outlaws discrimination against disabled employees or employees who have disabled relatives or associates, employers are allowed to take measures to ensure a safe workplace, the Denver-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit ruled on Oct. 29.

"We hold that the ADA permits an employer to discipline or discharge a nondisabled employee whose disabled relative or associate, because of his or her disability, poses a direct threat to the employees' workplace," Judge David Ebel wrote in the decision, which upheld a lower court's ruling.

East St. Louis Chief Fired

The superintendent of the East St. Louis, Ill., schools has--once again--been fired by the state.

A three-member state panel appointed in 1994 to oversee the troubled school system notified Geraldine Jenkins on Oct. 29 that she will be out of a job at the end of this school year.

Geraldine Jenkins

The Financial Oversight Panel had ordered the local school board not to renew Ms. Jenkins' contract in 1995, but school board members instead rehired her for three years and raised her salary to $81,000 a year.

The Illinois Supreme Court ruled last month that the state panel has the authority to fire the district's superintendent and remove school board members.

Richard Mark, the chairman of the state panel, contended that the problems of the beleaguered 11,700-student school system have worsened under Ms. Jenkins' tenure.

He said dropout rates are climbing, test scores are falling, and financial mismanagement is rampant. Both the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service are investigating alleged corruption in the school system.

Ms. Jenkins could not be reached for comment last week.

Policies on Admissions Vary

Starting next fall, three of Milwaukee's highest-rated public high schools plan to use rigorous new admissions criteria, developed under a new district policy, to screen their incoming students.

The district's 15 other high schools agreed last month to uniform, less demanding admissions standards that will require incoming students to meet new 8th grade exit standards, beginning in 2000.

The differences in the schools' requirements come after the school board approved a policy this past summer allowing high schools to set their own admissions criteria. ("Milwaukee Will Let High Schools Pick Their Students," Sept. 3, 1997.)

The criteria are intended to give qualified students the first priority in choosing their high schools. The three high schools opting for higher standards--Rufus King, Riverside University, and the Milwaukee High School for the Arts--have specialized programs and traditionally have long waiting lists for admission.

Opponents argue that the new policy will make some schools dumping grounds for low-achieving students.

CTA Backs Bilingual Education

The California Teachers Association has announced that it will not support the planned English for the Children initiative, which proposes to sharply curtail bilingual education in California.

Supporters are gathering signatures to place the initiative on next June's state ballot.

The proposal would require public schools to teach almost all classes in English, although it would offer one year of special English-immersion lessons to students who were not fluent in English.

"This initiative arbitrarily limits the access of some students to the curriculum by dictating a single method of language instruction," Lois Tinson, the CTA's president, said at a meeting last month of the CTA State Council of Education, which sets policy for the 270,000-member association.

The union is an affiliate of the National Education Association.

Union officials say the CTA believes the measure is poorly designed for dealing with complex issues of language acquistion that require individual flexibility and judgment.

The California Federation of Teachers and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund have also voiced their opposition.

Ron K. Unz, a former Republican gubernatorial candidate, and Santa Ana elementary school teacher Gloria Matta Tuchman are leading the drive for the controversial measure.

D.C. School Retains Charter

The District of Columbia school board has decided not to close the Marcus Garvey Public Charter School, despite the principal's conviction on assault charges.

In a case that raised questions about public oversight of charter schools, Principal Mary A.T. Anigbo and three staff members were found guilty in August of assaulting a reporter and two police officers last year.

The board voted last Thursday not to revoke the school's charter after the school's trustees agreed to put Ms. Anigbo on leave without pay for 30 days and on probation for another 60 days.

Ms. Anigbo could not be reached for comment.

Because charter schools like Marcus Garvey are not bound by most of the rules that govern the district's regular public schools, the board's only disciplinary option was to revoke the school's charter and take away its public funding.

Monitoring charter schools is one of the few duties of Washington's elected school board, which lost most of its authority over the troubled 79,000-student system last year.

District Bookkeeper Charged

One of just three central-office employees in the tiny Cozad, Neb., school district has been arrested and charged with felony theft following investigation of about $20,000 missing from school coffers.

Delores Knudsen, the 1,000-student district's bookkeeper, was arrested late last month on a warrant, a spokesman for the Dawson County's sheriff's department said.

Ms. Knudsen worked for the district for more than two decades before resigning in July.

"We discovered some irregularities and discrepancies after she left," said Superintendent Ken Nelson, whose four-school district has an annual budget of about $5.5 million.

Ms. Knudsen could not be reached for comment.

Mass. Bus Drivers Empowered

An initiative by the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles will allow school bus drivers to report motorists who fail to stop for school buses that are loading and unloading students.

Sizing Up Urban Superintendents

Race, ethnicity, and gender of urban schools superintendents by average salary and average K-12 enrollment as of July.

Bus drivers will record license plate numbers of the traffic violators and turn them in to the registry.

It is illegal to pass a school bus that has its lights flashing while it is stopped for students.

For a first offense in Massachusetts, violators can now be fined up to $500 and lose their licenses for up to 30 days.

"Every motorist knows they're not supposed to do this, but some do it willfully," said Carl Eastman, the executive director of the School Transportation Association of Massachusetts.

A similar effort in Florida encourages motorists who see others illegally pass a school bus to report them by calling a toll-free hot line.

Those who are reported receive notices of the reports against them.

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