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Inside the Law

"Bong Hits 4 Jesus" Legal Concerns Ruling on Racial Integration

"Bong Hits 4 Jesus" Ruling Underscores Acute Legal Concerns

The Supreme Court recently ruled against a former high school student in the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" banner case, which might seem to be a move towards limiting students' free speech rights, although law experts say the legal boundaries are much more complicated than that when it comes to schools.

The National School Boards Association and the American Association of School Administrators applauded the decision. "The Court clearly spoke to the health and the well-being of our students, not their constitutional rights of free speech," says NSBA General Counsel Francisco Negron. "This decision reaffirms the school's role in regulating messages that are detrimental to student welfare."

AASA Executive Director Paul D. Houston was not surprised by the court's decision, but says that determining how best to act in such instances of student behavior can be extremely difficult.

Suzanne K. Bogdan, an attorney with the Education Practice Group at Fisher & Phillips, one of the oldest and largest law firms in the country representing management in employment, civil rights and employee benefits, says that the ruling "does not really change the landscape at all," but she also notes that administrators will almost always face uncertainty when it comes time to act during contentious instances of free speech, with the decisions being made on a case-by-case basis.

The case, Morse v. Frederick, dates back to when Joseph Frederick unveiled a 14-foot paper sign on a public sidewalk outside his Juneau, Alaska, high school in 2002 during a school-sanctioned Olympic Torch Relay pass for the Salt Lake City Winter Games. Principal Deborah Morse ordered him to remove the sign and he refused, which led to his suspension and then a lawsuit against the school.

Bogdan says school leaders walk an extremely fine line and "must often make split-second decisions" when considering how to respond during instances of disruptive student behavior concerning free speech. She says that avoiding lawsuits boils down to establishing that the behavior in question is "substantial and material" from a reasonable perspective.

FAST FACTU.S. 15-year-olds rank 24th out of 29 nations in math literacy and problem solving. Source: Program for International Student Assessment (PISA)

What makes a perspective "reasonable" can be difficult to ascertain, for Bogdan feels that, given its tone and the culture we live in, the banner in question was an inappropriate promotion of illegal drug use and that the principal's response was justified. She notes, however, that if the banner instead had said "Legalize Marijuana," the school would have had a much harder case, and the court might have in fact ruled in favor of the student.

Bogdan says the best way for school leaders to avoid lawsuits (or win cases) is to become as familiar as possible with first amendment cases in schools and hold workshops and sessions so administrators and superintendents can bounce ideas off one another.

Supreme Court Issues Ruling on School Racial Integration

As reported in the February issue of District Administration, "Supreme Court Reviews Race in Assigning Schools," the court has been considering on two school diversity cases, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 and Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education. Recently it ruled that local school districts may not take voluntary steps to overcome racial inequality and unequal educational opportunities. The ruling could cripple similar plans in hundreds of districts nationwide.

Reading and Math Scores Are Up, but Does NCLB Deserve Credit?

A new report from the Center on Education Policy (CEP), "Answering the Question That Matters Most: Has Student Achievement Increased Since No Child Left Behind?" has found that student scores on state reading and math tests have improved since the federal No Child Left Behind law was enacted in 2002; however, there are contrasting interpretations of what the data exactly mean.

The study was designed to be the most comprehensive and thorough on test scores since the enactment of NCLB, analyzing results from all 50 states. The study asked states to verify the accuracy of the test scores collected, instead of just taking the data for granted.

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said in a statement that the findings provide evidence to reauthorize NCLB.

"This study confirms that NCLB has struck a chord of success with our nation's schools and students. ... We know the law is working, so now is the time to reauthorize," she said.

The report notes, however, that there is a difference between scores going up since NCLB and scores going up because of NCLB. It states that it is "difficult, if not impossible," to determine the extent to which the improved test scores can be attributed to the education law.

"With all of the federal, state and local reforms that have been implemented simultaneously since 2002, it becomes nearly impossible to sort out which policy or combination of policies is responsible for test score gains and to what degree," the report says.

The complete CEP report is available at

State Teachers of the Year to Reform NCLB

With the reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind law looming ahead, the fifty teachers who were voted to be their respective state's teacher of the year for 2007 have united to establish a set of 10 recommendations for improving the controversial education initiative.

Thirty of the state teachers of the year discussed their proposed changes at a press conference in Washington, D.C., one day after President Bush honored the national Teacher of the Year, Andrea Paterson, from Washington state, at a White House ceremony. She was not present at the conference because the Council of Chief State School Officers, which sponsors the Teacher of the Year competition, disallowed it as an acceptable event.

The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have emphasized changes that align with the fifty teachers' recommendations- recasting the definition of a highly qualified teacher, demanding sound growth models that measure progress, and language that addresses the special needs of students with disabilities among them-but teachers said they feel compelled to speak out directly.

"Teachers need to be included in this reauthorization," said Madaline Fennell, the Nebraska teacher of the year. "Please, leave no teacher behind."

Graduation Promise Act to Quell Dropout Crisis

Representative Ruben Hinojosa (D-Texas) recently introduced the Graduation Promise Act (GPA), which would set aside $2.5 billion each year to transform the nation's lowest-performing high schools into effective centers of teaching and learning.

The legislation's largest component is a $2.4 billion High School Improvement and Dropout Reduction Fund that focuses on the nation's 2,000 "dropout factories." According to researchers from Johns Hopkins University, dropout factories are schools where no more than 60 percent of freshmen become seniors three years after finishing ninth grade.

States would use money from the fund to create or expand comprehensive accountability and improvement systems for the schools and allocate resources to implement evidence-based improvement activities.

There are a number of pending high school reform bills in Congress, but the GPA is one of a select number that focuses on comprehensive high school reform.