Thursday, February 24, 2005


An employee's car parked at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School lot has sparked fury among some parents ushering their children inside the school each morning. The car -- a red, late-model Ford Mustang with a novelty plate on its front end reading "Fight crime, shoot first" -- irritated one parent so much that she complained to her son's pre-kindergarten teacher. The parent, who asked to remain anonymous, also took the issue up with school Principal Sandra Dunning earlier this week, as well as Superintendent of Schools Karla Brooks Baehr. "Being a member of the staff, well, you have to be an example to the kids," the mother insisted. "You don't just do whatever."

"I can listen to parents and listen to their concerns," Dunning said. "But we do live in America. That's part of our democracy, free speech."

The parent, however, says the school's responsibility to provide positive role models to children supersedes the right to free speech, and that the offending license plate is a breech of the public trust placed in school employees. "I don't think it's just a question of freedom of speech," the mother said, noting that while her son is still learning to read, the school's older students have full reading ability. "You don't leave it for the kids to see every day."

The First Amendment of the Constitution, which protects freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition and was added in 1791, stipulates that Congress shall not "(abridge) the freedom of speech." According to Taylor Flynn, a Northeastern University professor and expert in Constitutional law, the school employee with the plate might actually find favor if the case found its way into court, particularly because, in her view, the evidence that students' education is being disrupted by the plate is on the lean side. "However, I think there is a fairly strong possibility that a court would find that the staff person's First Amendment rights are being violated if the employee feels (directly or indirectly) coerced into covering the plate or is doing so over her objection."

Principal Dunning, who admitted she was "a little surprised" by the plate, initially echoed Flynn's concerns, saying that such a message might be considered inappropriate if it entered the building. But outside? Dunning said that's a different matter entirely. "If anything disrupts the educational process, we do have the right to ask staff and teachers to maintain a code of conduct," she said. "What is parked in a lot or on a street is a different matter, however. Whatever happens in the building we have control over. I think it's inappropriate," she said. "I think we all take responsibility to model appropriate language and behavior. Yes, they see all sorts of things on TV, in ads, that lots of people would find inappropriate as a model for a 5- or 6-year-old. But having (the license plate) there in the lot suggests we condone it."

The solution? Dunning and Baehr plan to mandate that the staff member somehow cover the plate upon arrival each morning, possibly with magnets and a cloth. The plate will be covered by the first day of school after February break, Feb. 28, Behr said. "I expect cooperation on the part of the staff members to cover it up or obscure it in some way," Baehr said. And when the staff member is not on school property -- and by that, Baehr means either in the building or in the parking lot -- "she's free to do as she pleases."

The parent who initially complained said she was happy with that solution, though put off that "going public" with the story was the route to compromise. "I'm aggravated because they only did something when I said I was going to talk to The Sun," the mother said. "I feel that I had to go outside the school to solve a little problem, because this could have been solved within the school."


Michigan: Overreaction to BB gun: "School officials continue to investigate a third-grader who brought a BB gun to Summerfield Elementary School on Tuesday. The boy, 8, is not allowed to attend school for three days while officials investigate. A suspension or an expulsion could be issued, said Larry Watkins, the district's director of school safety. 'The school principal is doing an investigation, but it does not appear he brought it to do any harm,' Watkins said. The gun wasn't loaded.

Louisiana: Woman kills attacker inside her home: "An East Feliciana Parish woman fired a bullet into the chest of a man who had broken into her farmhouse, then fought off his beating until the man died from the gunshot wound. Georgia Belle Sullivan says she was sleeping before dawn yesterday when her dogs' barking woke her up. She retrieved her gun, then saw a shadow move behind a line of chairs. She told authorities that's when a man lunged at her. She fired once at close range ... In the beating after the shooting, Sullivan suffered bruises to her face and elsewhere, and lacerations on her arms. Sullivan says the gun discharged several more times during the struggle. She says when Sanford realized he was hit, he told her his name, asked her not to shoot him again and he let her go."

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