News in Brief: A National Roundup

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Wis. Court Upholds Partners Benefits

The Madison school district did not violate Wisconsin law when it offered to provide health insurance to the domestic partners of its teachers, a state appeals court has ruled.

The 4th District Court of Appeals, in upholding a lower-court decision, rejected a claim that state law permits the 25,000-student district to offer health insurance only to employees, their spouses, and dependent children—and not to same-sex partners or unmarried partners.

Three taxpayers filed a lawsuit against the district after school officials included the benefit in a contract with the teachers' union, Madison Teachers Inc., an affiliate of the National Education Association. The provision took effect in June 1998. Madison is the only district in the state to offer the benefit.

District officials later expanded the benefit to the domestic partners of all employees. So far, 74 of the 4,100 school district employees eligible for medical benefits have signed up their partners, said Ken Syke, a spokesman for the district. The added benefit costs the district about $200,000 a year, he said.

None of the three plaintiffs could be reached for comment. The three have received financial assistance with their legal bills from the Alliance Defense Fund, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based nonprofit group that provides money for conservative causes.

—Scott W. Wright

Miami Grand Jury Raps Schools

A Miami-Dade County grand jury has found that the Florida district continues to fall short in ensuring that its schools are safe.

A report released this month found that a number of schools in the 361,000-student district continue to have serious safety hazards. It follows a statewide review of fire- and safety-code compliance that found that more than 150 Florida schools had deficiencies, including broken fire alarms. ("Fla. Fire-Code Audit Wraps Up," Oct. 18, 2000.)

Among the grand jury's recommendations was a suggestion that state law be changed to grant fire marshals the authority to ensure that school safety violations are corrected. The grand jury, which has no authority to enforce its recommendations, said the Miami-Dade system should "discontinue its dangerous policy of viewing [safety] requirements as mere technical code violations."

Alberto Carvalho, the district's spokesman, said district officials were reviewing the Feb. 8 report. The superintendent and the school board are trying to balance building new schools to keep up with burgeoning enrollment with repairing aging schools, he noted.

—Karla Scoon Reid

High-Tech Pool Alarm Purchased

The Fort Wayne, Ind., school system has hired a company to install a drowning- detection system at a district high school, following a student's drowning there last fall.

The 32,000-student district in northeastern Indiana got in touch with Poseidon Technologies, a European company that also has an office in Beverly, Mass., after reviewing the drowning at South Side High School.

"This is really sophisticated technology," Superintendent Thomas Fowler-Finn said.

The computer-aided system, called Poseidon, uses cameras underwater and above the pool to help detect struggling swimmers. If a swimmer remains motionless or underwater for too long, a beeper alerts lifeguards in less than 15 seconds.

Mr. Fowler-Finn said Poseidon is believed to be one of the first such systems to be used in the United States.

Poseidon Technologies gave the district a reduced rate for the system, which is expected to cost between $8,000 and $12,000, after the high school agreed to become a pilot site and allow other pool directors to visit the facility. Administrators hope the system will be installed by June.

—John Gehring

Manager Charged With Fraud

Federal prosecutors have charged a former maintenance manager for the Jefferson County, Ala., public schools with bilking the district of $28,000 through a fraudulent scheme.

Glen A. Williams, 41, allegedly participated in a scheme by which the 42,000-student school system reimbursed him for supplies and equipment he claimed to have purchased, but which the district never received, according to court papers filed by the U.S. attorney's office for the northern district of Alabama.

The federal prosecutors also allege that Mr. Williams filed a federal income-tax return that did not include income derived from the invoice scheme. The activity took place between January 1996 and March 1997, prosecutors claim.

The district has been plagued by financial problems for several years and was taken over by the state last February. Since 1997, an FBI investigation into the school system's purchasing practices has led to several arrests. A former employee and a former school vendor pleaded guilty to fraud and other charges, and another employee was convicted of similar charges.

Mr. Williams' lawyer, David Cromwell Johnson, declined to comment on the charges.

—Erik W. Robelen

District Settles Testing Lawsuit

A Pennsylvania school district has settled a federal lawsuit over psychological testing that parents said invaded families' privacy.

The Gateway district in Monroeville, Pa., a Pittsburgh suburb, was sued in 1997 on behalf of 50 parents and guardians by the American Center for Law and Justice, a Virginia Beach, Va.- based public-interest legal advocacy group founded by the religious broadcaster Pat Robertson.

Also named in the suit were school board members, the University of Pittsburgh, and its Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. A professor at the university developed the test, which a lawyer for the university said was designed as a behavior-management tool.

The lawsuit claimed that the test, the Pittsburgh Schoolwide Intervention Model, administered in 1995, asked "highly personal questions" of students and was administered without parental permission. The 4,300-student district no longer administers the test.

The insurance carriers for the defendants agreed last week to pay $225,000 to the families and their lawyers. In addition, the district will destroy any remaining tests and results and has pledged to work harder to improve communication between educators and parents.

—Ann Bradley

Teachers Quit NHS Panel

The teachers in charge of the selections for the National Honor Society at an Austin, Texas, high school have quit the group to protest the district's new rules for admitting the students to the service organization.

The five-member NHS faculty council at Austin High School, along with the program's two advisers, resigned over new district policies that they say lowered the standards for entrance into the prestigious group, according to one of the teachers.

The new rules allow students to select the teachers who will recommend them to the faculty council. In the past, all Austin High School teachers could comment on a student's application, according to Rita Williams, an English teacher at the school and one of the former NHS advisers.

"The standards have been lowered, and the administration makes decisions without full knowledge of what's going on," Ms. Williams said.

The 77,000-student Austin district made the changes to standardize the rules for its 12 high schools, said Wanda Flowers, the director of secondary education for the district.

—David J. Hoff

Drugs-for-Grades Deals Alleged

A Roy, Utah, special education teacher was charged last week with possession of a controlled substance and burglary after police said she had been trading grades for prescription painkillers.

Michele Opheikens, 30, was placed on administrative leave last month when students began reporting that the teacher had offered them higher grades in exchange for painkillers such as Lortab, Percocet, Darvocet, and Tylenol 3. She has since resigned.

Nate Taggart, a spokesman for the 1,400-student Beaver school district, said student reports of the teacher's solicitation of the drugs led officials to call the police.

Ms. Opheikens was arrested after she showed police a student's prescription bottle from her desk. She was charged with burglary for allegedly searching a student's home for painkillers.

In a statement issued by her lawyer, Michael Boyar, Ms. Opheikens said she was resigning because she believed her departure was in the best interest of her students, the district, and her own recovery.

Mr. Boyar said the teacher, who is now seeking treatment, became addicted to painkillers after a series of painful back and knee surgeries.

If convicted, she could face up to 15 years in prison, police said.

—Marianne Hurst

Vol. 20, Issue 23, Page 4

Published in Print: February 21, 2001, as News in Brief: A National Roundup
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