News in Brief: A National Roundup

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Oklahoma District Settles Lawsuit Over Head Scarf

The U.S. Department of Justice and an Oklahoma school district have settled a lawsuit involving a Muslim girl who was prohibited from wearing a head scarf at school.

Under a consent agreement signed last week by the Muskogee public schools and the department, the district will allow Nashala Hearn to wear her head scarf, called a hijab, and will revise its student dress code policy to accommodate exceptions to its no-headcovering rule for bona fide religious reasons.

"The Department of Justice will not tolerate discrimination against Muslims or any other religious group," R. Alexander Acosta, the assistant U.S. attorney general for civil rights, said in a May 19 press release announcing the settlement. "As the president and the attorney general have made clear repeatedly, such intolerance is un-American, and is morally despicable."

Nashala, a 6th grader at Benjamin Franklin Science Academy, was suspended twice last fall for wearing the hijab, but was later permitted to wear it while a lawsuit brought by her family was pending.

The Justice Department intervened in the case in March, arguing the public schools cannot interfere with students’ religious liberty.

Under a consent decree that must be approved by a federal court, the district is to amend its policies and provide a training program for teachers and administrators on the revised dress code.

Eldon Gleichman, the superintendent of the 6,300-student district, said last week he could not comment on the settlement because of a gag order in the case.

—Ann Bradley

Georgia District Hopes to End Segregated Community Proms

A community in south Georgia may move away from racially segregated high school proms next year.

The Toombs County school board voted 5-0 on May 13 to appoint a faculty adviser to organize a combined, school-sponsored prom next spring.

This spring, Toombs County drew national media attention when local Hispanic students organized their own community prom. The county already had community proms for white and black students. ("Alternative Proms Gain in Popularity," May 19, 2004.)

Toombs County Superintendent Kendall Brantley said last week that local black ministers and residents had expressed concerns at a school board meeting about the lack of a school-sponsored prom. They contended that a school prom might encourage students of all races and ethnic backgrounds to attend.

While Mr. Brantley contended that race relations were not a big problem in the 2,800-student school system, he said the move toward a school- sponsored prom might increase "harmony in the community."

—Alan Richard

Senator Moving to Withhold Money for D.C. Schools

Congress is likely to withhold $13 million that was approved for the District of Columbia public schools as part of a federally enacted voucher program for Washington students, officials said last week.

Sen. Mike DeWine, the Ohio Republican who chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee on the capital city, believes its school leaders "did not provide sufficient justification" to show how the money would be spent, as required by the law, said his spokeswoman, Amanda Flaig.

Sen. DeWine’s aides told The Washington Post that the senator had the support of other key congressional leaders in moving to hold the money back until a new superintendent is hired to run the district’s schools. The school board is conducting a search and has said it hopes to appoint a new schools chief this summer.

Interim Superintendent Robert C. Rice and other school district leaders met with congressional staff members last week to explain how the money would be spent, said Lucy Young, a spokeswoman for the school district.

"We were under the impression that the meeting went fine, so we are surprised at the position [Sen. DeWine] has taken now," Ms. Young said.

A $40 million package approved by Congress in January was envisioned as a three-pronged strategy to improve education for the city’s 65,000 public school students. It is divided among tuition vouchers, the city’s regular public schools, and its charter schools. ("Federal Plan for Vouchers Clears Senate," Jan. 28, 2004.)

—Catherine Gewertz

Wis. District Given Reprieve On Songs Copied Onto Prom CDs

The theme of the spring prom was "Escape to Egypt," and Chippewa Falls, Wis., school leaders are relieved to have escaped a potential lawsuit over copyright tunes distributed to prom-goers at the 1,441-student Chippewa Falls Senior High School.

Columbia Records, a label of Sony Corp. of America, owns the rights to the three songs: "Walk Like an Egyptian" by the Bangles, "Born to Fly" by Sara Evans, and "100 Years" by Five for Fighting.

Students on the prom committee, a faculty adviser, and the spouse of another faculty member copied the music, using their home computer equipment, onto 500 compact discs to be gifts to attendees at the May 8 event.

More than 400 copies, presented in leather cases, were distributed, according to Principal James H. Sauter.

Columbia Records informed school officials last week that it would grant the school retroactive licensing to use the songs.

Administrators had alerted the record label to the potential copyright violation, he said.

"It certainly raised our consciousness regarding these issues of copyright laws," he added.

—Andrew Trotter

Complaint Alleges Md. District Biased Against Black Students

The Anne Arundel County, Md., branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has filed a discrimination complaint against the county’s public schools.

NAACP officials, parents, and community members held a press conference announcing their decision to file the complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights on May 17, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which overturned legal segregation in public schools.

The NAACP contends, among other complaints, that black students in the 75,000-student Anne Arundel system are more likely than whites to be expelled from school; more likely to be enrolled in special education classes; graduate at lower rates than white students; and have less access to Advanced Placement classes.

Superintendent Eric J. Smith, who was credited with reducing the achievement gap between minority and white students as the superintendent in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., his previous job, acknowledged that black students are not performing as well as whites.

But he said the district had made significant progress in increasing the number of black students taking AP classes, and would work with the NAACP to address other inequities.

"We do take the complaint very seriously," he said in an interview.

—John Gehring

Former Mich. School Official Pleads Guilty to Racketeering

The former construction manager for the East Detroit, Mich., public schools has pleaded guilty to federal charges of racketeering in a wide-ranging fraud scandal.

William J. Hudson Jr. pleaded guilty on May 18 before U.S. District Judge Patrick Duggan in a case that involves charges that Mr. Hudson and others defrauded the 5,900-student East Detroit district and the nearby Clintondale Community Schools of $3 million by inflating costs and creating bogus contracts, according to a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Detroit.

The racketeering charge carries a 20-year prison sentence, but under a plea agreement reached with federal prosecutors, Mr. Hudson is to receive a maximum of seven years.

Two former East Detroit superintendents have pleaded guilty to involvement in the scandal.

No sentencing date has been set, according to the spokeswoman.

—John Gehring

Texas Teachers Are Suspended For Showing Video of Beheading

Two teachers in Texas will be placed on paid leave until the end of the school year after showing students a videotape of the beheading of Nicholas Berg.

Michelle White and Andy Gebert, teachers at Northwest High School in Justin, Texas, played the videotape during class on May 14 and 17. The body of Mr. Berg, an American who was in Iraq on business, was discovered on May 8 alongside a road near Baghdad. Terrorists have claimed responsibility for his death, which was recorded on a video that has circulated on the Internet.

Jerhea Nail, the special assistant to the superintendent of the Northwest Independent School District, said teachers have employee handbooks that spell out the district’s policy and guidelines for using videos. "These staff members exercised poor judgment," Ms. Nail said.

The teachers expressed remorse for the incident in letters written to parents.

—Tal Barak

Vol. 23, Issue 38, Page 4

Published in Print: May 26, 2004, as News in Brief: A National Roundup
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