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Federal court partially dismisses former employee’s Title IX retaliation suit against Florida district

The Herald-Tribune reports that a federal district court in Florida has partially dismissed a lawsuit brought by a former school employee against the Manatee County School District (MCSD). Adinah Torres, formerly employed as a parent liaison at Manatee High School (MHS), filed an amended legal complaint alleging she and several students were sexually harassed by Rod Frazier, an assistant football coach at MHS, and that school officials retaliated against her when she reported the harassment.

The court dismissed two of three counts in Torres’ lawsuit, ruling that Title IX was preempted by the similar Title VII employment discrimination law and Torres did not file a Title VII lawsuit. Craig Berman, Torres’ attorney, insists Torres’ complaints should be covered under Title IX and not Title VII. He said that he plans to appeal the ruling with the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.“We are confident Title IX provides adequate recourse,” Berman said.

The court dismissed Torres’ claim of sexual harassment by Frazier, along with her claim of sexual harassment of students and teachers. However, it left her claim of sexual harassment of students intact. According to Torres’ suit, she informed MHS administrators that Frazier was sexually harassing students and, as a result, was moved to a new office that made bathroom breaks difficult and was denied vacant teaching positions for which she was qualified.

Frazier, a former assistant football coach at Manatee High, pleaded no contest on April 30, 2014 to four counts of battery against former employees and students at Manatee. Frazier received six months house arrest and three years’ probation.

Three other suits have been filed in connection with Frazier’s sexual harassment. Steve Gulash, a former parent liaison and MHS assistant football coach, has filed a retaliation suit. MHS teacher Lynn Aragon has also filed a Title IX suit against MCSD. In addition, Danielle Kaddatz, the student whose letter alleging inappropriate behavior by Frazier sparked a police investigation, has filed a Title IX lawsuit.

Source: Herald-Tribune, 8/25/14, By Chris Anderson

[Editor's Note: The district court’s opinion in Torres v. MCSD acknowledges that neither the U.S. Supreme Court nor the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which has federal appellate jurisdiction over Florida, has addressed the issue of whether Title VII preempts Title IX when school employees seek redress for discrimination and retaliation unrelated to their students. After noting that there is a split among the federal circuits as to whether Title VII preempts Title IX as to school employees’ discrimination and retaliation claims unrelated to their students, the district court held “Title VII preempts Torres’s Title IX claims to the extent that Torres seeks redress for retaliation based on her reports of being sexually harassed.”

 

 

Massachusetts’ highest court rules former teacher can keep pension benefits, despite prior criminal convictions for child pornography

Garney v. Massachusetts Teachers’ Retirement Sys., No. 11493 (Mass. Aug. 18, 2014)

Abstract: The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that a former public school teacher, who pleaded guilty to several counts of purchasing and possessing child pornography, did not forfeit his pension by operation of state law based on his criminal convictions. The court concluded that the law in question, which requires forfeiture of public employee retirement benefits “after final conviction of a criminal offense involving violation of the laws applicable to [the employee's] office or position,” was not applicable to the former teacher’s criminal convictions because those offenses “neither referenced public employment nor bore a direct factual link to his teaching position.”

Facts/Issues:  Ronald T. Garney (Garney), a ninth grade science teacher, was arrested in 2006 for the purchase and possession of child pornography. Shortly after his arrest, he received notice that he would be dismissed from his position for conduct unbecoming a teacher and resigned prior to his dismissal. On August 7, 2007, after his arrest, but prior to entering a plea, he filed a retirement application with the Massachusetts Teachers’ Retirement System (MTRS).  His retirement became effective on August 22, 2007. Garney was thereafter indicted and on December 20, 2007, he pleaded guilty to eleven counts of purchasing and possessing child pornography.

Garney received retirement benefits until 2009. In 2009, the MTRS board (board) issued a decision concluding that he had forfeited his benefits because of his conviction, by operation of G. L. c. 32, § 15 (4), which requires forfeiture of public employee retirement benefits “after final conviction of a criminal offense involving violation of the laws applicable to [the employee's] office or position.” After receiving the findings of a hearing officer, the board concluded that there was “a direct link between Mr. Garney’s employment and his possession of child pornography,” in part because he used an e-mail address provided by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.  Therefore, the board concluded that he met the requirements of the statute, warranting forfeiture.

Garney filed a petition with a state district court for review of the board’s decision. The district court affirmed the board’s decision finding that teachers hold a position of special trust and that the criminal acts committed by Garney directly contravened his duty to protect the welfare of children. As a result, the district court concluded that a requisite link between his criminal convictions and his public position was established, such that his crimes “involv[ed] violation of the laws applicable to his office or position.”  The judge noted that the private nature of the crime, and the fact that it did not involve school resources or any of Garney’s students, did not call for a different result where the welfare of children is a core tenet of the teaching position, and the crime that Garney committed was directly at odds with this tenet.

Garney petitioned for certiorari review in the superior court. That court reversed the decision of the district court, and vacated the decision of the board that Garney’s pension was forfeited under G. L. c. 32, § 15 (4). The superior court concluded that although Garney’s crimes were severe and undoubtedly warranted both criminal prosecution and dismissal from his position, there was not a direct link between his convictions and his position as a teacher since his criminal offenses did not involve the use of school resources and he did not use his position as a teacher to facilitate his crime. It rejected the district court judge’s interpretation of prior caselaw and MTRS’ argument that because teachers fill a special societal role, a conviction of possession of child pornography necessarily violates the laws applicable to that role.

MTRS appealed the superior court’s ruling and the state Supreme Judicial Court transferred the case from the Appeals Court on its own motion to clarify the scope of one of its previous decisions related to the forfeiture of retirement benefits.

Ruling/Rationale: In limiting its review to the scope of the forfeiture provision, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the superior court’s decision, which reversed the district court and vacated the MTRS board’s decision.  The state supreme court concluded that the fact that Garney’s position is one of special public trust, and that criminal conduct of the type committed by the Garney violates that trust, is insufficient in and of itself to warrant forfeiture of his pension benefits.  The court concluded that the conduct must either directly involve the position or be contrary to a central function of the position as articulated in applicable laws, thereby creating a direct link to the position.

The court began its analysis by pointing out that the “direct link” requirement of the forfeiture law does not mean that the crime must necessarily reference public employment, the employee’s particular position or duties, or that the crime necessarily must have been committed at or during work. However, the court emphasized that in the absence of such circumstances, “there must be some direct connection between the criminal offense and the employee’s official capacity by way of the laws directly applicable to the public position.”

The supreme court concluded that Garney’s offenses neither referenced public employment nor bore a direct factual link to his teaching position. It cited the fact that his crimes were committed outside school, did not involve the use of school resources and no student was involved in his illicit activities. In a footnote, the court stressed its agreement with both the district and superior courts that Garney’s use of a government issued email address to access at least some of the pornography websites did not establish a sufficient factual link between his criminal offenses and his teaching position. It cited a number of cases in which the lack of a factual link had been fatal to the MTRS board’s claim that forfeiture was warranted.

The court rejected MTRS’ argument that even in the absence of a factual connection between Garney’s crimes and his public position, a direct link exists because his position as a teacher involves holding a special public trust and “his criminal conduct of possessing child pornography strikes at the ‘heart’ of this position by violating one of its ‘fundamental tenets,’ as embodied in the professional standards for teachers.” Instead, it concluded that the fact that Garney held a special public trust as a teacher and that his criminal activity violated that trust, was insufficient on its own to warrant forfeiture under G. L. c. 32, § 15 (4).

The supreme court pointed out that the standards entering or remaining in the profession of teaching “are not the same as the standard for forfeiting a pension to which an employee has contributed and that he or she earned over the course of many years of public service.” It found that the forfeiture law requires “something more specific than a violation of a special public trust in the particular public position.” While acknowledging conduct betraying that public trust may warrant dismissal from the profession,” it is insufficient to justify forfeiture under G. L. c. 32, § 15 (4).

The court emphasized that to adopt MTRS’s interpretation of the statute would result in forfeiture of a teacher’s pension for the commission of just about any crime and this is well beyond what the legislature intended when it promulgated the statute.

The court then addressed the question of whether Garney’s conduct violated any laws applicable to his position as a teacher. It found that his conduct had not. It concluded:

Private possession of child pornography by a secondary school teacher does not directly contravene this central function where there is no indication that this possession compromised the safety, welfare, or learning of the children whom he was tasked with teaching or impeded his ability to provide adequate educational lessons to his students. As reprehensible as Garney’s crimes may be, the entirely private nature of his conduct does not call into question the effectiveness of the educational system of the Commonwealth.

Lastly, the supreme court rejected MTRS’s contention that Garney’s status as a mandated reporter of child abuse provides the requisite connection for forfeiture. It pointed out that the duty to report arises only when the teacher becomes aware of or suspects child abuse while fulfilling his professional duties.  It found that not only was Garney not aware of the identities of the children in the pornography and therefore did not have the requisite information, but he also did not learn of this abuse in his professional capacity.  The court said, “As Garney’s criminal conduct was independent of his role as a teacher, he was not required under the plain meaning of G. L. c. 119, § 51A, to report this conduct.

Garney v. Massachusetts Teachers’ Retirement Sys., No. 11493 (Mass. Aug. 18, 2014)

[Editor's Note: In July 2014, Legal Clips summarized an article in The Denver Post reporting that in Colorado, those designated as “mandatory reporters” under state law seldom face criminal sanctions for failing to report suspected child abuse to law enforcement or child welfare services. Educators are among those designated as “mandatory reporters.” Failing to do so can result in criminal charges and up to six months in jail.]

New York City reaches a tentative contract and a proposed settlement agreement with school safety agents’ union

The New York Times reports that the City of New York and Teamsters Local 237, the union which represents school safety agents and special officers, have reached a tentative contract and a proposed settlement in a class action pay equity lawsuit. The proposed settlement  would distribute $38 million in back pay to current and former school safety agents who are  overwhelmingly female. The tentative contract would raise wages by 10% over seven years and both job titles would fall under the same seven-year pay step plan. This would allow both the school safety agents and special officers to earn a maximum of $46,737 annually by March of 2017.

School safety agents and special officers are both unarmed guards who can make arrests.  Despite having the same duties, the school safety agents earn up to $35,000 annually while the maximum salary for a special officer is $42,332. Approximately 70% of the school safety agents are female, while 70% of special officers are male.

” The previous policy was wrong,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said bluntly during a news conference at Cobble Hill School of American Studies in Brooklyn. During his campaign, he had promised to resolve the litigation which dates back to more than four years.  Since taking the job in January, he has been praised for hiring women and for the prominence of women in top posts.

Kangela Moore, who started as a school safety agent 22 years ago and has been an agent instructor for 10 years, said that the narrowing of the wage gap would make a tremendous difference in her everyday life.” Now, I’m able to put food on my table,” she said at the news conference. ” We’re able to do so much more with the outcome of this lawsuit.”

The proposed settlement agreement is pending court approval next month. The cost of the overall raises for both agents and officers is $68 million, and the city would spend an additional $47 million to accelerate the salaries of agents whose pay was lagging. Agents employed for at least three years by September 1 and retired agents who worked between March 5, 2010 and August 31 would get $7,000 in retroactive pay.

Source: The New York Times, 8/26/14, By Nikita Stewart

[Editor's Note: In response to the U.S. Supreme Court's 2007 decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., 550 U.S. 618 (2007), rejecting a female employee's Title VII sex discrimination suit based on salary disparity with male counterparts (the female supervisor  discovered that a series of annual merit pay increases were between 15% and 40% lower than her male counterparts), the U.S. Congress passed and President Obama signed into law the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (LFPA)in 2009. 

In Ledbetter, the Court rejected the “paycheck rule,”  holding that the statute of limitations on an equal pay claim begins to run when the employer makes the salary-determination decision. The LFPA amended Title VII , along with a number of other federal anti-discrimination suits,  so that the statute of limitations starts running afresh each time an employee is adversely affected by the salary-determination decision; i.e. each paycheck.]

Report says ten large California districts spent $125.6 million on lawsuits over the past three years

The San Jose Mercury News reports that ten large California school districts, including San Jose Unified (SJU), together spent $125.6 million on lawsuits over the last three years.  The report, released this week by California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse (CCALA), looked at the costs of verdicts, settlements and outside counsel, but not in-house counsel, for 10 large school districts from 2010-2011 through 2012-2013.

During that three-year period, SJU spent $2.24 million on outside counsel. It did not have any verdict or settlement costs. Superintendent Vincent Matthews noted that the district spent less than 1 percent of its general fund budget on legal costs, while not laying off employees or cutting instructional programs in those years.

The report noted that “Litigation costs place an enormous burden on school district budgets.” Of the 10 districts’ $125.6 million in legal spending, about 83% paid for outside lawyers. To reduce the costs of litigation, the report said some districts employ aggressive risk-management programs and some fight questionable claims rather than offering quick settlements.

Source:  San Jose Mercury News, 8/26/14, By Sharon Noguchi

[Editor's Note: The introduction to CCALA's report, 2014 School Litigation Report, states: 

While this report does not present an exhaustive accounting of the cost of litigation to school districts in California, the data it contains make one point exceedingly clear: high litigation costs reduce the financial resources available to California’s K-12 students. If California passed common sense legal reforms to reduce the incentives for abusive lawsuits against school districts, districts could focus more of their limited resources where they belong: providing students a higher quality education.]

Georgia parent seeks court order allowing him to carry gun when visiting his daughter’s school

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that GeorgiaCarry.org has filed suit on behalf of Huge Meyers seeking to establish his right to carry a gun while on school property. According to the suit, Beulah Elementary School’s principal told Meyers he would be arrested if he carried a gun on school property at times other than when he was dropping off or picking up his daughter, despite the fact that Georgia law, which took effect on July 1, 2014, allows a licensed gun owner to bring a firearm to school.

The suit states:

Meyers frequently comes to the school to support his daughter’s educational activities. While doing so, he desires to carry a firearm in case of confrontation, as the law now permits. He would do so, however, under threat of arrest and prosecution.

Meyers contends that when the law took effect, it became illegal only for unlicensed gun owners to have their weapons inside a school safety zone.

His brief supporting the motion for a temporary injunction says: “Now that it no longer is a state crime for a (licensed gun) holder to carry a firearm in schools, and that schools cannot independently regulate carrying weapons, including firearms, there simply is no basis for (school officials) to threaten … prosecution if he carries a firearm at Beulah.”

Meyers says that since he has a clearly established right to carry a gun at the school, he will be irreparably harmed if he is prevented from doing so.

Source: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 8/21/14, By Rhonda Cook

[Editor's Note: In March 2013, Legal Clips summarized a story from WZZM13.com reporting that members of the board of the Rockford Public Schools in Michigan had approved a new “weapons-free school zone” policy for the district, which would prohibit any unauthorized firearms on campuses. The new Rockford policy does not allow any weapons on school property, unless the person carrying the weapon is a police officer or other law enforcement official, or a person authorized by the superintendent to bring it onto school grounds for educational or security purposes. ]

District uniform policies are constitutional provided they do not limit student freedom of expression

Allentown School District (ASD) in Pennsylvania enters the second year of its uniform policy, reports The Express-Times.  Pennsylvania is among 22 states and the District of Columbia with laws permitting school uniform rules based on local school district preferences.

“It is something that the parents have wanted,” said Nicolas Perez, director of community and student services for ASD. District officials indicate that the new uniform policy has been a success.

Districts that want to regulate clothes can’t do it at the expense of individual expression, according to Perry Zirkel, a Lehigh University education and law professor. To avoid a free speech lawsuit, districts’ school dress code policies must be “content neutral,” meaning that they don’t favor any particular viewpoint or message. If uniforms are mandated, they need to be available at reasonable prices, Zirkel said.

This year, ASD will allow more color options for sweaters and shoes. The longer the policy remains in place, the more students and families will adjust, said Perez. “If we know that there is an issue as to why the student didn’t wear a uniform, maybe a home issue, we try to accommodate the student,” Perez said. “We have uniform banks with clothes students can borrow for the day if need be, and we communicate with the parents.”

According to the Education Commission of the States, the following states also have laws permitting school uniform policies for public schools: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Virginia.

Source:  The Express-Times, 8/25/14, By Pamela Sroka-Holzmann and Sara K. Satullo

[Editor's Note: In February 2014, Legal Clips summarized a decision by a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit three-judge panel in Frudden v. Pilling holding that a Nevada public elementary school’s uniform policy implicates students’ First Amendment Free Speech rights and, therefore, must be analyzed under the strict scrutiny standard.  The mandatory uniform policy required students to wear shirts containing the school’s motto (“Tomorrow’s Leaders”), which constituted compelled speech under the First Amendment. The uniform policy also included an exemption allowing students to wear the “uniform of a nationally recognized youth organization such as the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts.” The panel determined that the provision was content-based, thus implicating First Amendment rights.  The case was remanded for the district court to apply the strict scrutiny analysis to the policy.] 

ED Secretary Duncan offers teachers leeway on job performance tied to standardized tests

According to The Washington Post, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently announced a plan to allow states to delay using student standardized test results on teacher performance evaluations, a move widely seen as an effort to calm tension between Duncan and the nation’s educators.

Duncan said that the delay will allow states “to take pressure off teachers” who had expressed concern over standardized exams which this year will include new material based on Common Core standards.  “If we can provide some flexibility, we will do that,” he said.

Duncan spoke about the plan D.C. Public School’s Jefferson Academy middle school in Southwest D.C.  While there, he participated in a panel discussion with teachers from the city and around the country on new testing proposals. “We’re concerned about this issue of over-testing,” Duncan said. “We don’t want them taking all their time taking tests or in test preparation.”

Under the new guidelines, states can apply for permission to delay including testing data on teacher ratings, a key provision of No Child Left Behind.  The announcement marked the second time in a little more than a year that the Education Department has revised how student performance data may affect teachers.  In June 2013, Duncan announced that states could also wait one year on any personnel decisions for teachers whose evaluations were based on student performance on standardized tests.

This latest action by Secretary Duncan marks yet another move which looks to be aimed at repairing the relationship between him and educators.  At a National Education Association convention this year, delegates called on Duncan to resign because of his “failed education agenda.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers – the country’s second largest teachers’ union – called the announcement a step in the right direction.” The department’s admission today that testing has gone too far is a good step, if there is a real course correction that is linked to concrete action and no[t] just words,” said Weingarten, who represents 1.6. million teachers.  “The over-testing this administration has often championed has sapped our students and our classrooms of the joy of learning.  We need to restore that joy now.”

Duncan acknowledges that the administration still thinks that standardized tests provide a valuable resource to schools and principals.  He stated that standardized tests are important to students and teachers but not so much that they overshadow learning in the classroom.  “No teacher, no school district should ever be defined as a single test score.”

Source:  The Washington Post, 8/21/14, By T. Rees Shapiro

[Editor's Note:  In May 2014, Legal Clips summarized a report by The Washington Post which reported that seven high-achieving teachers, along with the Houston Federation of Teachers, had filed a lawsuit in federal court in Texas alleging that the Houston Independent School District uses a badly flawed method of evaluating teacher effectiveness, known as the “Educational Value-Added Assessment System.”  The teachers argue that the EVAAS is inaccurate and unfair but that it still plays a large role in determining how much teachers are paid and whether they can keep their jobs.  The suit contains claims under the Due Process and the Equal Protection Clauses of the U.S. Constitution. The "value added measure" purports to measure the “value” a teacher adds to student learning by plugging student standardized test scores into complex mathematical formulas that can supposedly factor out all of the other influences and emerge with a valid assessment of how effective a particular teacher has been.  The method has come under growing criticism in recent years, with assessment experts repeatedly warning that it is an unreliable method of making high-stakes decisions about educators.]

Alabama teacher suspended after shooting lesson

As reported by the Associated Press (AP) in the Montgomery Advertiser, an Alabama teacher was suspended without pay after being accused of having sixth-grade students re-enact the deadly police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, and the Trayvon Martin killing in Florida.

A local media outlet quoted Dallas County School Superintendent Don Willingham as saying the social studies teacher used poor judgment during a lesson on current events. School officials have not identified the teacher, who teaches at Brantley Elementary School.

Administrators were alerted to the Ferguson re-enactment this week after the mother of a student in the class posted a complaint on Facebook. The Missouri city has been wracked by protests since a police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown.

Willingham said his investigation showed the teacher told students to research and re-enact a current event of their choosing. The students picked the killings of Brown and Trayvon Martin, fatally shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer in 2012, he said. Students used paper guns and bullets, and students portraying victims fell on pillows, he said.

Willingham said the teacher “made a mistake” in judgment by having students re-enact the shootings. “There are consequences that we have for it, but that does not change our opinion of her as a teacher,” he said.

It is not clear exactly how the shootings were re-enacted since the exact circumstances of each death are in question. Willingham said students told him they were giggling and laughing during the re-enactment.

Willingham declined to reveal the length of the suspension, but he said the school anticipates the teacher returning to the classroom. “We are looking forward to her return,” Willingham said. “We’re excited about the rest of the school year.”

Source:  Montgomery Advertiser, 8/23/14, By AP

[Editor's Note:  In September 2013, Legal Clips summarized an article in The Day, which reported that the parent of an African-American middle school student had filed a complaint with the Connecticut Department of Education (CDE) after his child was forced to re-enact conditions of slavery, such as being sold at auction and picking cotton, while on a field trip. James Baker, whose daughter attends Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy, read her written statement to the school board. She said: “I had to hold my head down and could not make contact with the white masters. I heard the instructor ask kids behind me to open their mouths so their teeth could be checked. Some were asked to jump up and down.”]

North Carolina court rules state’s private school voucher program unconstitutional

WRAL.com reports that Wake County Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood has ruled that a North Carolina state law that awards taxpayer-funded vouchers to low-income families who want to send their children to private or religious schools is unconstitutional.

State lawmakers created the voucher program last year, setting aside $10 million for Opportunity Scholarships to start in the 2014-2015 school year. Voucher supporters argued that the Opportunity Scholarships would give low-income parents another educational option when public schools are not meeting their needs. They also maintained that the state could save money by shifting some students to private schools because of the high per-pupil cost in public schools.  About 5,500 students applied for the grants of up to $4,200 per child.

The North Carolina Association of Educators, the North Carolina School Boards Association (NCSBA), and dozens of local school boards challenged the scholarship program.  Upholding the legal challenge, Hobgood issued a permanent injunction prohibiting any more tax funds from being disbursed for vouchers.  He said that it would be up to the attorney general’s office to determine how the state would recoup the funds already handed out if the ruling is upheld on appeal.

In issuing his opinion, Hobgood stated that private schools can discriminate in their admissions, and do not have the same curriculum and teacher certification standards as North Carolina’s public schools.” Appropriating taxpayer funds to unaccountable schools does not accomplish a public purpose,” he said. Under the long running Leandro school funding lawsuit, the General Assembly is required to ensure that students receive a sound education and Hobgood said that lawmakers cannot delegate that authority to “unregulated private schools” and parents who have self-assessed their children to be at risk.

Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, which pushed the voucher program, called Hobgood’s ruling a “temporary roadblock” and expressed confidence that higher courts would reinstate the Opportunity Scholarships.

Source:  WRAL.com, 8/21/14, By Matthew Burns and Laura Leslie

[Editor's Note: NCSBA Executive Director Dr. Edwin Dunlap, Jr., has issued a press release on the court's decision. It quotes from Judge Hobgood's bench opinion, which states in part that the General Assembly “fails the children of North Carolina when they are sent with public taxpayer money to private schools that have no legal obligation to teach them anything. Without any such obligation, this appropriation is unconstitutional ...." Attorney Bob Orr of Poyner Spruill, the firm that represented the NCSBA, the school boards, and the individual plaintiffs, said, “We are pleased that Judge Hobgood agreed with our contentions about the unconstitutionality of this use of taxpayer money.”

NC Policy Watch provides an overview of Judge Hobgood's bench opinion. In his opinion, the judge ruled that the voucher program contravened North Carolina's constitution in seven ways:

"1) appropriates to private schools grades K-12, by use of funds which apparently have gone to the university system budget but which should be used exclusively for establishing and maintaining the uniform system of free public schools;

"2) appropriates education funds in a manner that does not accomplish a public purpose;

"3) appropriates educational funds outside the supervision and administration of the state board of education;

"4) creates a non-uniform system of education;

"5) appropriates taxpayer funds to educational institutions that have no standards, curriculum and requirements for teachers and principals to be certified;

"6) fails to guard and maintain the rights of the people who privilege the education by siphoning money from the public schools in favor of private schools; and

"7) allows funding of non-public schools that discriminate on account of religion."

In February 2014, Legal Clips summarized an article in the Lincoln Times-News reporting that Judge Hobgood had issued a preliminary injunction barring the state from rolling out the voucher program. The ruling subsequently was overturned by the North Carolina Supreme Court allowing the state to proceed with the program.]

Tennessee high school student suspended for saying “bless you” to a classmate who sneezed

WJLA.com reports that a Tennessee high school student was suspended, for breaking a class rule, when she said “bless you” after a classmate sneezed.

Dyer County High School senior, Kendra Turner, said that when she said ” bless you” to her classmate, “She [her teacher] said that we’re not going to have godly speaking in her class and that’s when I said we have a Constitutional right.” The teacher then told Turner to see an administrator. Turner finished the class period in in-school suspension.

This incident sparked a discussion with Turner’s youth pastor Becky Winegardner the following week at church. “There were several students who were talking about this particular faculty member there that was very demeaning to them in regard to their faith,” Winegardner said. “This was something that had come up previously in the last few weeks just since the beginning of school and I shared with all of those students what their rights were.”

Turner’s family met with school leaders after the incident. The teacher told them that Turner was being disruptive and aggressive. Some classmates showed support for Turner, on the day that school leaders met with the family, by wearing hand made “bless you” shirts.  Turner said that she does not want trouble for her teacher, but that she will stand up for her faith. “It’s alright to defend God and it’s our constitutional right because we have freedom of religion and freedom of speech,” Turner said.

Source:  WJLA.com, 8/21/14, By CNN

[Editor's note: In January of 2014, Legal Clips summarized an article in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune over the school district’s refusal to allow an elementary school student to distribute candy canes containing a religious message to classmates. According to the Advocates for Faith and Freedom, Merced Elementary student Isaiah Martinez attempted to give his classmates candy canes with a message attached containing the so-called legend of the candy cane — a story that claims candy canes were invented to represent the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. When Isaiah’s teacher noticed the religious message, she wouldn’t let him give it out, telling him, “Jesus is not allowed in school."]

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