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School Leaders Tested on Legal Knowledge

Superintendents and principals have several weak spots in their knowledge of education law, and they could benefit from more regular professional development on legal issues, according to a study presented here at the annual meeting of the Education Law Association.

The Dayton, Ohio-based organization includes many professors who teach school law to law students or to educators pursuing advanced degrees. The association's membership also includes school lawyers and administrators with an interest in the subject. The group's Nov. 15-17 conference covered many of the most hotly debated issues in school law.

The study was based on surveys of Texas superintendents, secondary school principals, teachers, and school board presidents by researchers at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas.

Each category of respondent was given a series of questions based on well-settled education issues in federal and state law. Teachers, for example, were asked whether a teacher monitoring a group of students engaged in private group prayer around the school flagpole could join in the prayer. (No.) Principals were asked whether they could remove sections of a student newspaper without violating the First Amendment rights of students. (Yes.)

Principals did well on questions about student searches, special education, and student freedom of speech. But they were weak on such issues as teacher freedom of speech, compulsory attendance, and religion in the curriculum.

Superintendents did well on questions about teacher contracts, special education, and the Texas Open Meetings Act, but fared poorly on student residency and student transportation.

Classroom teachers were weak in most areas of their survey, while board presidents scored best of any of the groups.

"I have a feeling they asked their superintendents for help," Mark Littleton, a professor of educational administration at Tarleton State and a co- author of the study, said of the school board leaders.

"Or their school board attorney," said an audience member.

School policies of "zero tolerance" for weapons, drugs, or rules violations came under attack in one of the more provocative sessions of the meeting.

Bernadine Dohrn, the director of the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University's law school, called zero tolerance a symbol of the "criminalization" of innocent youth behavior.

"The majority of our students spend their days in maximum-security environments— their schools," said Ms. Dohrn, who is the co-editor of Zero Tolerance: Resisting the Drive for Punishment in Our Schools, a new collection of essays.

"A culture of informing and snitching is encouraged among kids," she contended.

She called for educators to instead employ such tactics as smaller schools and alternative discipline.

Ms. Dohrn was in the news recently when a handful of Northwestern alumni objected to her presence on the law school faculty because of her past as a leader of the radical Weather Underground. Northwestern has indicated that her job is not in jeopardy.

Thomas Mooney, the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, was the session's respondent to Ms. Dohrn and other speakers who attacked tougher school discipline policies.

"We have to deprive an offending student of the right to an education in the regular environment some of the time, because they are depriving other students of an education," he said.

On the same day that "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" opened in movie theaters, one legal expert here warned that schools were going to face more legal challenges based on what he called "the coming of the witches."

Christopher B. Gilbert, a lawyer with Bracewell & Patterson, a Houston firm that represents many Texas school districts, said, "We've reached a stage in this country where we're going to encounter more esoteric religions."

"I use the term loosely," he added. "It's any religion we're not familiar with."

When they hear religious claims made by students or parents who call themselves Wiccans or Satanists, principals "probably think these are made up, but I work with schools to try to get them to take these seriously," Mr. Gilbert said.

Mr. Gilbert said schools might expect challenges both from those who practice esoteric religions and from those in the religious mainstream who may feel threatened by them.

—Mark Walsh

Vol. 21, Issue 13, Page 12

Published in Print: November 28, 2001, as Law Update
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