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Balanced Fare: We Report, You Deride

Friday, May 09, 2003

Deeply Troubling

"Judge Rules Disabled Student Will Be Sole High School Valedictorian":

A federal judge ruled yesterday that a South Jersey high school senior with an immune deficiency would be the sole valedictorian for her graduating class this year, after she contended that the school district was discriminating against her by proposing that two other students share the honor.

The student, Blair L. Hornstine, 18, sued the Moorestown school district, its superintendent and the township of Moorestown after learning that although she had the highest grade-point average in her class, she might have to share the honor with two others. She maintained that the proposal would diminish the award and her academic career.

But lawyers for the school district in Burlington County argued that because of her immune deficiency, Ms. Hornstine is classified as a disabled student and is granted privileges that other Moorestown High School students are not.

In her ruling today, Judge Freda L. Wolfson of United States District Court in Camden agreed with Ms. Hornstine.

Because of her illness, Ms. Hornstine spends only a few hours a day at the high school taking classes, and the rest of the day at home with private tutors. Because she is exempt from physical education classes, school officials said, she was able to take more weighted academic classes.

Earlier this year, several parents and students expressed their concern to the superintendent, Paul J. Kadri, that Ms. Hornstine had an unfair advantage over other students because of her home schooling and ability to take multiple advanced placement classes, according to court papers.

...In the lawsuit, Ms. Hornstine asked for $200,000 in compensatory damages and $2.5 million in punitive damages. Judge Wolfson is expected to address those requests in a later ruling, Mr. Jacobs said.

A lawyer for the school district, John B. Comegno II, did not return several messages, and Mr. Kadri was unavailable for comment.

Ms. Hornstine's lawsuit is hardly a novelty. In recent years, students in Michigan, Ohio and Washington have gone to court to prevent schools from naming co-valedictorians.

Mr. Jacobs said that his client would attend Harvard in the fall and that she planned to become a lawyer. He said he did not know what topic Ms. Hornstine would address during her commencement address on June 19.

Well, the topic of her commencement address will probably not be "How to win friends and influence people." As to the "right" thing to do, I am stuck. It's not fair that she has this disability, it's not fair that she gets tutors and extra scheduling, life is not fair. If the school had created a special category for "Disabled Valedictorian", that would not fairly recognize her very real achievement. If the rules do not create a special category then she won, and what are we arguing about? Other than, of course, a complete failure of manners and common sense. Or, as my wife wondered, did anyone ever teach these kids about sharing?

That said, the idea that she is also asking for another $2.7 Million eliminates my sympathy for her. I am only guessing here, but I suspect that her school district does not have the odd million or three lying about. I also suspect that the private at-home tutors have been paid for by the school district over lo these many years, and I expect her parents had to slug it out with the district over that, so we may be seeing the last act in a gruesome "I know my rights!" drama. Further, her attorney surely wants a payday, but this is absurd. Where do I sign up for jury duty? She will get a special education, all right.

Have a great time at Harvard. Maybe you can sue them, too. And prospective employers will no doubt find the story of your high school experience quite interesting, before they accidentally lose your resume.

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