Teens accused in conspiracy file lawsuit against school board

Five teenagers who were accused of plotting an attack at their high school in the southeast Kansas town of Altamont are suing the school board, city and county officials, and law enforcement officials. The teens were accused by a classmate in 1999. They were charged with conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and spent two months in custody before the classmate recanted.

Daniel Smith, Jestin McReynolds, Josh Traxson, Aaron Spencer, and Bryan Vail, also known as Bryan M. McElroy, were joined by family members in filing suit in U.S. District Court in Topeka. The suit includes law enforcement officials, the Labette County Commission, the Altamont City Council, and the school board.

Attorneys are seeking more than $10 million for each young man on several counts, including being searched without probable cause, being arrested without probable cause, and defamation. The attorneys have asked that the trial be moved to Kansas City, Kan.

The charges against the young men were dropped a year ago, but the five were barred from school for the rest of the academic year.

The classmate was charged with falsely reporting a crime, a misdemeanor, but the case was dismissed.

The young men said they joked about mounting rocket launchers on a car and driving it through the school halls. They said the conversation was started by the classmate who turned them in. They also said they didn’t take the conversation seriously.

The case highlights how difficult it can be for school districts to interpret threats in the post-Columbine era.

“There is always the risk that school officials can significantly overreact and subject themselves to liability,” said Craig Wood, a partner at the McGuire Woods law firm in Charlottesville, Va., and a noted expert in education law.

But “I think the likelihood of this case being successful against school officials is minimal,” Wood added. He said the legal standard is different for law enforcement officials–who must have probable cause to make an arrest–and school officials, who only have to have “reasonable suspicion” to act on a possible threat.

“I do think school officials need to be careful to get all the facts before they take action, [conduct] a thorough investigation, and … not overreact simply because of Columbine and some other isolated events,” Wood said. “On the other hand, the failure to take appropriate preventative action that would prevent a violent episode [also] will expose the school official to risk, and I’d rather be sued for doing too much than be sued for doing too little … if the bottom line is trying to protect students.”


A checklist for creating safer schools

The February/March issue of the U.S. Department of Education’s “Community Update” newsletter, which focused on school safety, included the following tips for creating a safe school. The tips are taken from the department’s “1998 Annual Report on School Safety”:

    1. Provide strong administrative support for assessing and enhancing school safety.
    2. Redesign the school facility to eliminate dark, secluded, and unsupervised spaces.
    3. Devise a system for reporting and analyzing violent and non-criminal incidents.
    4. Design an effective school discipline policy.
    5. Build a partnership with local law enforcement agencies.
    6. Enlist trained school security professionals in designing and maintaining the school security system.
    7. Train school staff, including support staff, in all aspects of violence prevention.
    8. Provide all students with access to school psychologists or counselors.
    9. Provide crisis response services.
    10. Implement schoolwide education and training on avoiding and preventing violent behavior.
    11. Use alternate school settings for educating violent and weapon-carrying students.
    12. Create a climate of tolerance.
    13. Provide appropriate educational services to all students.
    14. Reach out to communities and businesses to assist in improving the safety of students.
    15. Actively involve students in making decisions about school policies and programs.
    16. Prepare an annual report on school crime and safety and distribute it to the public.

A complete list of strategies, including more information on each of the above suggestions, is available in the “1998 Annual Report on School Safety,” which can be downloaded from http://www.ed.gov/pubs/AnnSchoolRept98.

The February/March issue of “Community Update” also includes recent studies that point to declines in school violence, details of a comprehensive school safety effort in Wake County, N.C., and more. The full issue can be downloaded in PDF format from http://www.ed.gov/G2K/community/01-02.pdf.


California: Bill would protect families of students who report potential threats

The family of a 17-year-old California high school student sued by a classmate who allegedly made terrorist threats says legislators must protect children from potential litigation if they want them to speak out about violence.

“Why should they come forward when they’re going to be faced with legal bills that are insurmountable?” Kim Tapia, mother of Kristina Tapia, said about students coming forward with information.

Kristina Tapia and her family support AB 717, which was introduced in March. The bill would exempt students, their families, teachers, and school officials from liability for reporting threats.

Tapia informed administrators at Quartz Hill High School in Lancaster, Calif., that classmate David Belisle made threats shortly after the school shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

Belisle was expelled from the school and charged with making terrorist threats and intimidating a witness. A juvenile court judge ordered him to serve six months’ probation and the charges were dismissed.

Belisle sued Tapia and her family for defamation. A judge threw out the suit, but not before the family incurred a $40,000 legal bill they say they are have trouble paying.

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled in March that the Antelope Valley Union High School District and the Los Angeles County Office of Education aren’t responsible for the family’s legal bills.


Colorado: Gates Foundation gives $8 million to create smaller schools

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on April 25 donated $8 million to promote small high schools in Colorado by starting new ones and splitting existing ones into smaller units.

“The whole idea is that it’s possible to have a high school education that’s much more personal, with a different relationship between students and teachers, and really meaningful involvement by a community in a school,” said Barbara O’Brien, president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign. O’Brien added that smaller schools provide safer learning environments for students.

O’Brien and Gov. Bill Owens announced the grant to the Children’s Campaign, which must raise $16 million in matching funds in five years.

The Gates Foundation, launched in 2000 by the founder of Microsoft and his wife, has promoted smaller schools among its education initiatives. The foundation has given $225 million in grants and $1.3 billion in scholarships nationwide. The Colorado grant marks the first time the foundation has given money to support the creation of smaller schools outside of California.

The grant will pay for three initiatives: starting charter high schools for technology; improving large, poor-performing public high schools; and creating a network among existing charter schools.

The New Schools Development Corp. will create four technology-centered charter schools with about 400 students each. The first is scheduled to open in 2003 at the former Lowry Air Force Base in Denver.

Manual High School in Denver will be the model for the large-school program. Manual will receive at least $660,000 to transform from a single school with 1,112 students into three small schools with distinct missions. Denver school board members approved the plan last week.

The network of charter high schools is intended to increase communication and share expenses, such as teacher training.


Maine: Lawmakers want schools to adopt bomb threat policies

A year after bomb threats were reported at schools in 14 of Maine’s 16 counties, the Legislature is taking action to help schools respond to those kinds of incidents.

With no debate, the House of Representatives on April 24 overwhelmingly approved a bill requiring Maine school boards to adopt bomb threat policies, based on guidelines developed by the state in consultation with representatives of school districts.

Schools also would have to report bomb threats they receive to the state. If the bill becomes law, school handbooks will have to include bomb threat policies.

Costs to districts are expected to be minor.

The bill, which received final passage 113-14 in the House, was sent to the Senate for a final vote. The bill was the result of a legislative study launched in the wake of a string of bomb threats across the state.

Nearly 200 bomb threats were received by Maine schools during the school year that ended last June. Most went to high schools, but some also affected middle schools, elementary schools, and colleges.


Maryland: Mandatory gun safety education bill passes legislature

Public schools across Maryland would have to teach gun safety courses to students from kindergarten through 12th grade, under legislation that passed the General Assembly April 9.

Gov. Parris Glendening, who supports the idea of teaching children the dangers of firearms, is expected to sign the measure into law.

There was no discussion in the Senate as the bill passed on a 36-to-10 roll call.

Gun safety legislation had the support of influential leaders such as House Speaker Casper Taylor, D-Allegany, and Sen. Barbara Hoffman, D-Baltimore, chairwoman of the Budget and Taxation Committee.

It also was backed by some conservative Republican lawmakers, such as Delegate Carmen Amedori, R-Carroll.

Despite the support that ranged across the political spectrum, the bill was almost derailed by a dispute between the National Rifle Association and Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse over the content of the courses.

In the end, the two groups agreed that local school systems would determine the content and that they could draw on courses developed by the NRA and by national gun safety groups.

Representatives of Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse said at the time that the NRA was trying to dictate curriculum. NRA officials countered that the gun group wanted to use schools to teach that guns are bad.

Taylor said a compromise was made possible “when MAHA agreed to the House’s pro-gun position.”

The move to require gun safety education was given added impetus by the 1998 death of a 13-year-old Carroll County boy, John Price, who was accidentally shot by a 9-year-old neighbor.

The boy’s parents, John and Carole Price, devoted a great deal of time over the last year to secure passage of a bill.

The Senate bill was named for the boy when it was introduced, but his name was removed in the House, and Senate sponsors agreed to go with the House version to make sure the bill passed.


New Hampshire: Senate tackles youth violence bills

Youth violence prompted emotional debate April 19 in the New Hampshire state Senate, where lawmakers approved one bill aimed at making schools safer but rejected another.

Senators passed a measure that would make it harder for children and parents to sue teachers over the way they discipline their pupils. The bill, which now goes to the House, means teachers and other school employees would not be liable for harm they cause as long as they are acting within the scope of their jobs, don’t break any rules or laws, and don’t display willful misconduct or indifference to a student’s safety.

The bill also gives schools and employees immunity from civil or criminal suits if they report that pupils are involved with drugs, alcohol, guns, or have committed crimes on school grounds.

Supporters said changing the law would give teachers more control over their classrooms.

“We all want schools to be a safe place for our children. We expect children to behave responsibly, but on those occasions when they behave irresponsibly, we expect our school employees to maintain discipline,” said Sen. Jane O’Hearn, R-Nashua. “Even the threat of a lawsuit makes teachers tentative and reduces their effectiveness.”

Several lawmakers said they supported the bill only reluctantly. Sen. Ned Gordon, R-Bristol, said he agreed with giving teachers a greater sense of authority, but as a lawyer, had concerns about giving them immunity.

“We are not going to hold teachers accountable for their ordinary negligence,” he said. “I have some reservations about that.”

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Russell Prescott, R-Kingston, called it a simple issue of safety. “How can we expect our kids to learn if they don’t feel safe?” he said.

Sen. Burt Cohen repeated those words later in unsuccessfully urging the Senate to support the second youth violence bill, one that would have banned anyone under age 21 from obtaining a permit to carry a concealed weapon.

Although federal law prohibits gun sales to those under 21, state law does not set a minimum age for permits. Instead, police chiefs decide whether applicants are “suitable” for permits. The bill originally set the age at 18, but police chiefs asked that it be 21.

“We have age limits for driving, alcohol, and tobacco, does it not make sense to have an age limit for concealed weapons?” said Cohen, R-New Castle. He said Milford police recently granted a license to a 15-year-old boy.

But opponents argued that police chiefs have the power to reject young applicants and that there is no proof that children are routinely applying for and receiving permits.


North Carolina: Lawmakers unveil plan to put character education in every school

Every school system in North Carolina would have to provide instruction in responsibility and respect, under legislation touted by Senate Democrats on April 5.

The legislation, unveiled at a news conference at Broughton High School, would require a character education component be included at all schools. School systems also would have to adopt “a reasonable dress code.”

“This bill makes sure every school system has a character education program, but it empowers local folks to take the lead in designing programs that will work in their schools,” said Sen. Walter Dalton, D-Rutherford, the bill’s primary sponsor. “They know the values that are important in their communities, and they can design programs that best reflect those values.”

The charter education program would include teaching about issues like good judgment, integrity, kindness, good citizenship, and self-discipline. The plan also calls on the state Board of Education to encourage tours of local government buildings and involvement in charitable community groups as part of its middle school civics curriculum.

Dalton said dress codes, already adopted by more than half the state’s school systems, would promote safety and discipline.

“Clearly, parents ought to teach values at home, but schools should do their part, too,” he said.

Gov. Mike Easley, who also attended the news conference, praised the proposal.

“We all like to believe that children are taught respect, responsibility, and character at home and in church, but the sad truth is some are not,” Easley said. “That is why we must take the initiative to educate our students’ hearts as well as their minds.”


Pennsylvania: Lawmakers propose bills to help schools buy defibrillators

By all accounts, 15-year-old Gregory Moyer was a healthy high school athlete; his most serious injury had been a broken finger.

No one suspected anything wrong as the Notre Dame of East Stroudsburg sophomore left the basketball court during halftime of an away game in December. But then he suddenly collapsed on the locker room floor in cardiac arrest. Efforts to administer CPR failed.

His mother, Rachel Moyer, believes her son’s chances of survival might have improved if a defibrillator had been available. His death has inspired the family to raise money to buy the heart-starting electrical devices for schools and other public places, and push for legislation requiring them in schools.

So far, the Gregory W. Moyer Defibrillator Fund has raised more than $80,000. Ten defibrillators have been purchased for schools in Monroe County, where Notre Dame of East Stroudsburg is located. The school is among the first in Pennsylvania to acquire such equipment, and other school districts around the state are preparing to do the same.

State lawmakers are also getting involved, introducing legislation in both the House and Senate that would provide grants to schools for up to 50 percent of the cost of a defibrillator, which generally runs between $2,000 and $3,000 apiece.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Kelly Lewis, R-Monroe, would set aside $6.3 million in grants. Similar measures proposed by Sens. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton, and Harold Mowery, R-Cumberland, would earmark $1.5 million. None of the bills mandate defibrillators in schools.

About 225,000 adults die of sudden cardiac arrest each year in the United States, according to the American Heart Association. As defibrillators have become smaller and easier to use, medical experts have been pushing to make them available in public places ranging from airplanes to malls.

“It’s certainly not a bad idea to have them in schools,” said Dr. James M. Fattu, president of the heart association’s Pennsylvania-Delaware affiliate. “You might not only be concerned about a student athlete, but also a spectator at a school event, or a family member who goes to the PTA.”


New research on bullying

Amid growing concern over school violence, a nationwide study has found that bullying affects nearly one of every three U.S. children in sixth through 10th grades. Young students and boys were most likely to be affected.

The authors say their 1998 survey of 15,686 public and private school students is among the first to document the prevalence of bullying in U.S. classrooms, and the results show that not enough has been done to prevent what is often seen as an unpleasant rite of passage.

“It’s a problem that has been in a lot of ways ignored for quite a while,” said lead author and researcher Tonja Nansel of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

The survey appeared in the April 25 Journal of the American Medical Association. It is part of the U.S. contribution to a study of worldwide childhood health and behavior by the World Health Organization.

Bullying has been implicated in recent school shootings, including the March slayings of two students in Santee, Calif., and the 1999 massacre of 13 by two suicidal students at Colorado’s Columbine High School.

Since nationwide research on bullying is so scarce, the survey doesn’t show whether the U.S. prevalence is rising, Nansel said.

Children who said they were bullied reported more loneliness and difficulty making friends, while those who did the bullying were more likely to have poor grades and to smoke and drink alcohol.

Other research has shown that people who were bullied as children are prone to depression and low self-esteem as adults, and that bullies are more likely to engage in criminal behavior.