News in Brief: A National Roundup

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Court Upholds Restriction On Boy's Religious Messages

A New Jersey school district did not violate the First Amendment rights of a young student when it barred him from distributing pencils and candy canes with Christian messages at classroom parties, a federal judge has ruled.

Daniel Walz, now 9, tried to distribute pencils with a "Jesus Loves the Little Children" message at his prekindergarten party in spring 1998. But school staff members in the 5,700-student Egg Harbor Township district said children and parents might assume that the school sponsored the religious message.

On two other occasions, administrators barred the child from giving gifts with similar messages.

Dana P. Walz, Daniel's mother, sued the district in 2000 with the help of the Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville, Va.-based legal organization. The suit alleged that the district's actions violated the boy's right to free speech and free exercise of religion.

In a Feb. 8 ruling, U.S. District Judge Jerome B. Simandle ruled for the district. He said school officials were not discriminating against the religious message because the classroom parties were not a forum for student speech.

Steven H. Aden, a Rutherford Institute lawyer, said the ruling will be appealed.

—Mark Walsh

School's Teacher-Wellness Day Draws Scrutiny in Erie

School board members in Erie, Pa., are questioning courses in yoga, scuba diving, and other topics offered as part of a wellness day developed by administrators at the district's 1,400-student Central High School.

Nearly 150 staff members and teachers attended a series of health- and stress-related seminars on an in-service day typically used by schools to discuss district agendas.

A local hospital offered the high school staff members free tests of blood pressure, cholesterol, and bone density, and then offered seminars on such subjects as coping with stress and women's health.

After the main seminars, staff members played basketball, attended classes that discussed strength training and aerobic exercise, or learned about scuba diving and low-fat cooking.

But school board President Jim Herdzik charged that administrators abused taxpayer dollars by holding the program while teachers were on the clock. Teachers receive 90 percent of their daily wages on in-service days.

Central High Principal Jerry Mifsud contends that board members have overreacted based on media accounts, and that they don't have all the facts. It was not a goof-off day, he said, but a well-planned event approved by district administrators.

If school employees are better prepared physically and mentally, they will do better on the job, he said.

—Marianne Hurst

District to Sell Drug-Test Kits; Results Will Be Confidential

The Lakeside school board in Hot Springs, Ark., has voted to allow the small, rural district to sell drug- and alcohol-testing kits to parents.

The decision grew out of a survey of students in grades 5-12 last year, in which the 2,600-student district found that the average age for first-time marijuana use was 11. That led district officials to form a 12-member committee of parents, teachers, and school administrators to discuss ways to combat drug abuse.

Committee members considered conducting random drug tests. That idea was rejected, however, as placing too great a burden on schools.

"It made us the drug police," said Superintendent Danny Slay.

The kits, which the district is purchasing from Bio-Tech Redwood Toxicology Labs in Santa Rosa, Calif., will cost $5 each, though low-income families will be able to get them free.

The drug kit uses a urine sample to screen for cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamines, and opiates. The alcohol kit uses a breathalyzer test. Parents are not required to share the results with district administrators.

—Marianne Hurst

Baltimore School Officials Order Checks of Older Buses

Worried about the aging fleet of contractor-owned buses that take Baltimore children to and from the city's public schools, education officials in Maryland's largest city have ordered monthly inspections of all school buses 10 years or older.

That policy will be superseded in the coming school year, however, by one that will ban any bus older than 10 years.

The new policies follow an article in The Sun newspaper of Baltimore reporting that more than a quarter of the 364 buses used to transport students failed safety inspections in the past three years—a rate several times higher than that of most other school systems in the state.

Baltimore's contractors have bought many of their buses from other jurisdictions, and almost half the fleet is at least 10 years old, school district officials confirmed. City and state records show no school bus accidents in the past three years because of mechanical failure.

—Bess Keller

Student Loses Lawsuit On Missing End of Senior Year

The Ohio Supreme Court has decided that a student who was put under in-school restriction during the last days of his senior year did not suffer damages.

Mark DeCastro, a former student at Wellstone High School, filed a lawsuit in April 1999 against the 1,700-student Wellstone city schools, claiming he should be entitled to damages because he had not been able to share the end of his high school career with friends.

In spring 1998, Mr. DeCastro allegedly argued with a replacement teacher during a teachers' strike and pounded on the window of a van. The school disciplined him for his conduct by having him spend his last four school days studying alone in a room, according to James D. Sillery, the lawyer representing the district.

The student received graduation credit and attended graduation ceremonies with his friends. The court concluded last month that he suffered no damages, Mr. Sillery said.

Mr. DeCastro's lawyer did not return a phone call requesting comment.

—Mary Ann Zehr

Minn. District Pays $500,000 In Wrongful-Death Settlement

A Minnesota school district has agreed to pay $500,000 to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the family of a student who drowned in a school pool.

Shuai Jiang, 13, drowned Nov. 16, 1999, during a swimming class at Apollo High School in the 10,400-student St. Cloud district. The 9th grader was found in more than 12 feet of water 20 minutes after the class had ended, said Leo F. Feeney, the Jiang family's lawyer.

A county district court judge approved the settlement last month. The school district's insurance company will pay the settlement. The Jiang family sued the district, claiming it was negligent in the operation, supervision, and maintenance of the pool, Mr. Feeney said.

—Darcia Harris Bowman

Phila. Council Members Go to Court Over Takeover

The legal assault against the state takeover of the Philadelphia public schools has now entered the federal courts. Twelve of the Philadelphia City Council's 17 members, joined by several local advocacy groups, have challenged the constitutionality of the state intervention in a lawsuit filed last week in the U.S. District Court for Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

Specifically, the complaint asserts that the state law allowing the takeover violates the U.S. Constitution's guarantees of due process and of equal protection. In December, state officials replaced the local school board with a five-person commission, with three members picked by Gov. Mark S. Schweiker, and two by Mayor John F. Street. ("It's Official: State Takes Over Philadelphia Schools," Jan. 9, 2002.)

The plaintiffs argue that the only legal way to disband the city's board of education would have been through a local citizens' referendum. Also last week, those filing the suit pledged to ask the same federal court in Philadelphia for an injunction to prohibit the new school commission from contracting with an outside firm to manage the 200,000-student district.

State courts have rebuffed other legal challenges to the takeover.

—Jeff Archer

Arkansas Principal Charged In Alleged Grabbing Incident

A high school principal in Arkansas has been charged with harassment after he allegedly grabbed the buttocks of a female student during a class in which he was showing students how not to dance at a school event.

According to Toby Giles, the chief deputy sheriff of Miller County, witnesses said Tommy Green, the principal at Bright Star High School in Doddridge, Ark., touched the 18- year-old student early last month while he was showing an English class types of "dirty dancing" that would not be tolerated at an upcoming Valentine's Day dance.

Mr. Giles said that, based on interviews with about a dozen students in the class, the incident occurred.

But, he added, it is not being categorized as sexual in nature. The principal, who remains on the job, faces a fine of up to $1,000 or one year in jail if convicted of the misdemeanor charge.

While the principal would not comment about the situation, a teacher who was in the room at the time said it was an innocent mistake by the principal.

—John Gehring

Vol. 21, Issue 25, Page 4

Published in Print: March 6, 2002, as News in Brief: A National Roundup
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