News in Brief: A National Roundup

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Charges Filed in Probe Of D.C. Teachers' Union

A chauffeur who worked for the former president of the Washington Teachers' Union in the nation's capital has been charged with laundering union funds over a period of six years for himself and his bosses.

The charges, filed last week by the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, maintain that Leroy Holmes conspired with union President Barbara A. Bullock, her assistant, and the union's treasurer to steal more than $1 million from the 5,000-member organization, according to court documents.

If convicted, Mr. Holmes could face a maximum of 20 years in prison or be forced to pay up to $500,000 in fines, said Channing D. Phillips, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office. An arraignment date had not yet been set as of late last week.

The charges are the only ones filed so far in the widening union scandal, which was first uncovered after members protested a dues overcharge last year. The union's parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers, seized control of the WTU last month. ("Union Local Loses Control of Operations," Jan. 29, 2003.)

Mr. Holmes could not be reached for comment last week. The former president has declined to comment on the investigation. Ms. Bullock, her assistant, and the WTU treasurer all left last fall under pressure.

Meanwhile, the AFT has appointed a committee to recommend possible changes for increasing oversight of local affiliates.

—Julie Blair & Bess Keller

Kansas City, Mo., District Asks Court to End Supervision

The Kansas City, Mo., school district has filed a motion to end the final portion of its 26-year-old desegregation case.

The only area in which the district remains under court supervision is student achievement. Superintendent Bernard Taylor Jr. and Al Mauro, the president of the school board, said at a Jan. 23 news conference that the city's schools have successfully closed a portion of the gap between the test scores of black and white students.

U.S. District Judge Dean Whipple ruled last year that the district had met the court's orders in the areas of racial balance, facilities, budget, and transportation, but ordered further progress on closing the score gap on the Missouri Assessment Program.

Arthur A. Benson II, the lawyer who has represented the plaintiffs in the case since 1979, said in a statement that he hoped the district's claims were true. But he noted that a similar claim of progress in test scores made in 2001 had to be abandoned when an analysis showed that the gap had not been closed.

The district has asked for an April hearing date on its motion.

—Ann Bradley

Clayton County, Ga., Board Buys Out Superintendent

The school board in Clayton County, Ga., has bought out the contract of Superintendent Dan Colwell, following a month in which the panel first voted to fire him, then changed course and instead suspended him after he sued the panel.

Hired to lead the 50,000-student district in 2000, Mr. Colwell saw his fortunes take a nose dive last year, when a local election left him facing a hostile school board majority. The new board voted to fire the schools chief at a January meeting.

When he challenged the termination in court—claiming proper procedures hadn't been followed—the board opted to put him on leave and appointed an interim superintendent. In a letter to Mr. Colwell explaining its actions, the board gave few details, but cited "insubordination, willful neglect of duties, immorality," and "failure to improve test scores."

A lawyer for Mr. Colwell said the 34-year educator wanted to stay in his job, but took the $232,000 buyout to avoid a prolonged fight. The board now plans a search for a permanent superintendent.

—Jeff Archer

Denver 5th Graders Suspended In Probe of Poisoning Attempt

Seven 5th grade students accused of trying to poison a classmate at their Denver school this month have been suspended.

The intended victim, an 11-year-old at Harrington Elementary School, told police that some friends said they were going to give her a birthday present, but the youths instead poisoned her water bottle with glue, chalk, and a pill.

The girl told police she discarded the bottle without drinking its contents. But the other students attempted to poison her two more times, once by putting glue, lead, and a pill in a soft drink bottle on Jan. 13, and then by putting a pill in a can of soda the next day at lunch, according to a district spokesman. The girl reportedly saved the contents of the soft drink bottle.

Police and school officials were still investigating the incident as of last week. Authorities were waiting for a lab analysis of the pills put in the girl's drinks.

The accused students were initially suspended for five days, but school officials added another 10-day suspension while they await the results of the police investigation.

—Darcia Harris Bowman

ACLU Sues Two Districts On Behalf of Gay-Straight Clubs

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed separate federal lawsuits against school officials in Kentucky and Texas, alleging that they have blocked students' efforts to set up Gay-Straight Alliances.

The ACLU charges that high schools in Boyd County, Ky., and Klein, Texas, a Houston suburb, violated students' rights under the federal Equal Access Act and the First Amendment. The federal act requires secondary schools receiving federal money to permit noncurricular student clubs to meet on an equal basis.

In Boyd County, a rural community near Ashland, the board of education suspended all student clubs last December to try to prevent the Gay-Straight Alliance at Boyd County High School from meeting, the lawsuit charges. The formation of the club had caused weeks of controversy in the community. ("Ky. Protests Highlight Increasing Visibility of Gay-Straight Clubs," Nov. 27, 2002.)

Kim McCann, the district's lawyer, did not return a call for comment last week.

At Klein High School in Texas, officials changed the rules for organizing student clubs after receiving an application for a Gay-Straight Alliance, the lawsuit says. After students submitted a new application, school officials still have not responded, according to the suit.

Liz Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Texas district, did not return a call for comment.

— Ann Bradley

Chicago Schools Offer to Cut Teacher's Damages Bill

The Chicago public school system has offered to accept $500 in damages from a former teacher who published parts of a citywide test in a newspaper, rather than the $1.3 million the district had once sought in the case.

But George Schmidt, who has since been fired from his position as a high school teacher, said he would not accept the reduced damages and planned to appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit.

Mr. Schmidt, who was a teacher at Bowen High School, published portions of the Chicago Academic Standards Examination in Substance, a newspaper that he edits, to show what he called the flaws in the test.

The district was forced to spend money to rewrite portions of the exam, which is no longer given in the city's schools.

Joi Mecks, a spokesman for the 432,000-student district, said the offer to reduce the damages was made to end the case. The district won a lawsuit upholding its copyright of the tests, she noted.

Mr. Schmidt said last week that the tests were "a pile of junk" and said he did not intend to pay any damages.

—Ann Bradley

N.Y.C. High School Student Charged With Making Threat

A New York City student has been charged with threatening to stage a terrorist attack on his high school with guns and bombs.

Lukasz Lagucik, 17, was arrested at his home in the borough of Queens on Jan. 24 after a female Arkansas teenager reported a threat made during an online conversation in an Internet chat room, according to a report from the office of Queens District Attorney Richard Brown.

The Arkansas girl told police that Mr. Lagucik, who used a different name in the chat room, had bragged that he and a friend were building bombs and stockpiling guns for a shooting like the 1999 attack on Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo. Mr. Lagucik attended Forest Hills High School in Queens.

Mr. Lagucik, who faces up to seven years in prison if convicted, returns to court Feb. 7. Kenneth L. Finkleman, his lawyer, argued that Mr. Lagucik is not guilty of violating state law for making a terrorist threat because his statements were not intended to terrorize a population.

—Darcia Harris Bowman

High School Grades of College Freshmen

The high school grade point averages of students entering four-year colleges and universities of all types continue to increase, according to an annual survey of freshmen by the University of California, Los Angeles. Overall, a record high of 45.7 percent of freshmen reported earning A averages in high school in the fall 2002 survey. Students entering private universities reported the highest grades.

Copies of "The American Freshman: National Norms for Fall 2002" are available for $25 plus shipping from the Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, 3005 Moore Hall, Box 951521, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1521.

Vol. 22, Issue 21, Page 4

Published in Print: February 5, 2003, as News in Brief: A National Roundup
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