News in Brief: A National Roundup

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Drug-Free Schools

A majority of teenagers surveyed by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University said their schools were free of drugs. Sixty-two percent of 12- to 17-year-olds said their public schools were free of drugs, the first time since 1996 that a majority of students chose this response. Teenagers who attend drug-free schools are at roughly half the risk of substance abuse as those attending schools where drugs are used, kept or sold, the center said.

Drug- Free Schools

NOTE: Survey was not conducted in 2001.
SOURCE: The National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse VII. Teens, Parents, and Siblings

School Official Charged With Stealing $395,000

A former business manager for the Jefferson County, Colo., school district has been arrested and charged with embezzling more than $395,000 in district funds, which he allegedly stole in small amounts over several years by submitting false invoices for tools.

Gary Charles Dutra was arrested on Aug. 23 at his home in Bailey, Colo., and charged with felony theft and felony computer fraud, as well as embezzlement of public property and forgery of a government-issued document, both misdemeanors, according to the Jefferson County district attorney's office.

Mr. Dutra was the manager of the 89,000-student district's facilities-information center, where he was responsible for purchasing tools and equipment for district buildings, among other duties.

According to an arrest affidavit filed by the Lakewood police department, Mr. Dutra began by taking small amounts, such as $100, from the petty cash fund. He later submitted invoices for as much as $500 at a time for supposed purchases of tools from a chain known as Tool King.

But the invoices were false, according to the affidavit. Because the large district typically budgeted more than $500,000 a year for tool purchases, Mr. Dutra told a police officer he was never questioned about his frequent purchases from the petty cash fund. He used the proceeds for jewelry, clothes, and Colorado Avalanche hockey tickets, among other things, explaining the extra income by telling his wife and others he was operating two consulting businesses on the side, according to the affidavit.

Mr. Dutra was dismissed from the district in June. He was still being held in the Jefferson County Jail last week on a $200,000 bond, authorities said. He faces a total of more than 30 years in prison if convicted, but Pam Russell, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office, said prosecutors were more likely to seek as much restitution of the public funds as possible.

—Mark Walsh

Texas District Changes Policy On Personal E-Mail by Workers

The school board of Dallas' Highland Park district has changed its policy on employees' personal e-mail to allow religious content after the policy was challenged as unconstitutional.

The board made the change last month, after the American Center for Law and Justice, a legal-advocacy organization based in Virginia Beach, Va., filed a lawsuit on behalf of Highland Park employee LaDonna DeVore.

The suit, filed earlier last month, alleges that the 5,580- student district's policy on personal e-mail violated her free-speech rights under the First Amendment, as well as her rights to equal protection and due process under the 14th Amendment.

On April 30, Ms. DeVore, the district's front-desk receptionist, sent a personal group e-mail about President Bush's proclamation of a national day of prayer. A school administrator told Ms. DeVore that her e-mail violated the district's policy, which allowed "limited personal use" but banned messages for "commercial, for-profit purposes, political purposes, religious worship, or proselytizing," according to court documents.

The district decided on Aug. 13 to change the e-mail policy, agreeing that religious content was constitutionally protected, said William L. Banowsky, a lawyer for the Highland Park schools.

As a result of the change, Ms. DeVore agreed to have the lawsuit dismissed, he said.

Mr. Banowsky emphasized that the district readily agreed to the change. He said the district was concerned not so much about religious content as about the large number of personal e-mails some employees send. A handful of employees have been reprimanded or have had their e-mail privileges suspended as a result, Mr. Banowsky added, since the system's capacity is strained by the messages.

—Rhea R. Borja

N.M. School Board Members Found Guilty of Violations

Five former school board members in Las Cruces, N.M., have been found guilty of violating the state's open-meetings laws and fined $500 each.

After a jury trial, they were convicted last month of the misdemeanor charges, the first ever filed by the state attorney general's office to enforce the open-meetings statute. The law requires that boards take formal action in public, following public notice, and that printed board meetings reflect boards' actions. ("Criminal Charges Filed Against School Board for Its Closed Meetings," Feb. 13, 2002.)

The five board members were charged with trying to hide lucrative bonuses for former Superintendent Jesse Gonzales in February 2000 and 2001, said Sam Thompson, the public-information officer for the state attorney general's office.

Three of the board members opted not to run for re-election before the charges were filed; the other two were recalled after the investigation became public.

The former board members had not decided last week whether to appeal their convictions.

—Ann Bradley

U.S. Justice Department OKs Part of N.Y.C. Schools Change

The U.S. Department of Justice has approved a plan to strip New York City's 32 community school boards of their roles in appointing local superintendents. Instead, the schools chancellor will now make those selections.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said last week in a news release that the decision "brings us another step closer to establishing a system of accountability in New York City's schools."

The provision approved by the Justice Department is part of a state law giving the city's mayor control over the 1.1 million-student city school district. It was subject to federal approval under the Voting Rights Act. ("N.Y.C. Mayor Gains Control Over Schools," June 19, 2002.)

The Justice Department also has approved the sections of the law that reconstitute the citywide board of education and give the mayor the sole power to hire the chancellor. A fourth provision, which would abolish the local school boards, won't be submitted for Justice Department approval until next year, following a series of hearings to settle on a mechanism for ensuring community input into decisionmaking.

—Ann Bradley

Dallas School Board Settles Suit by Former Superintendent

The board of trustees for the Dallas Independent School District has agreed to pay Waldemar "Bill" Rojas $135,000 to settle a defamation lawsuit the former superintendent brought against two board members in the 166,000-student district.

Mr. Rojas claimed that Hollis Brashear and Lois Parrott defamed him when they publicly accused him of using his district credit card to pay for alcohol and personal trips. Those accusations were not substantiated.

The board of trustees fired Mr. Rojas in July 2000 because of what members said was his bad working relationship with the board. At that time, Mr. Rojas also received $90,000 in severance pay.

Settling the lawsuit was less expensive than defending it in court would have been, according to Ken Zornes, the president of the school board. A trial on the matter had been scheduled to start last week.

—Michelle Galley

Chicago Changes Policy On Student Field Trips

The Chicago board of education has changed its policy on field trips, following the drowning death of a student on a school-sponsored outing.

Overnight field trips that are not educational will no longer be allowed, under new guidelines approved last month. The board's Aug. 28 vote followed the death of Derrick Spencer, 14, on a school trip to an amusement park near Cincinnati in May. ("Chicago Officials Probe Student's Drowning Death," June 5, 2002.)

The student drowned in a motel swimming pool, despite the presence of several chaperones. No lifeguard was on duty, however, which was a violation of school board policy.

Arne Duncan, the chief executive officer of the 437,000-student school system, has moved to fire several employees involved in the incident.

—Ann Bradley

Students in Two States Die After Practicing Football

Two students died last week after practicing football.

Taylor Davison, 10, died at a hospital on Sept. 2, three days after collapsing during a practice of the Bartlett, Ill., team on which she played.

The cause of death was blunt head trauma, according to the Cook County medical examiner.

Joshua Johnson, 13, collapsed Sept. 3 during a light football practice after school in Tyler, Texas, and died a few hours later, officials said.

Taylor, who was starting 5th grade at Bartlett Elementary School, was the only girl on a tackle football team for children who weighed under 90 pounds and were younger than 11 before Sept. 1.

The team is part of the Bartlett Raiders Youth Football Association of the Bill George Football League. Association officials were unavailable for comment.

Joshua and the rest of Chapel Hill Middle School's 8th grade football team had practiced on the field for only 15 minutes, doing drills, when the boy fell over, said Joe Stubblefield, the superintendent of the Chapel Hill Independent district.

Though the temperature was about 93 degrees that day, the players were dressed only in shorts and T-shirts, with no pads, he said. The cause of the boy's death won't be known for at least eight weeks.

—Andrew Trotter

Vol. 22, Issue 2, Page 4

Published in Print: September 11, 2002, as News in Brief: A National Roundup
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