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Archive for Saturday, March 2, 2002

D.A. says school board violated sunshine laws

March 2, 2002

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— Members of a school board who intervened after a teacher gave failing grades for plagiarism are accused of violating the Kansas Open Meetings Law.

Wyandotte County Dist. Atty. Nick Tomasic filed a civil petition Thursday against all seven members of the Piper school board, accusing each of five counts of violating the law by discussing the plagiarism incident behind closed doors.

Each violation carries a fine of up to $500.

In December, Christine Pelton failed 28 of the 118 students in her sophomore botany class at Piper High School after she determined they plagiarized a project worth 50 percent of their grade.

When some parents complained, the school board told her to reduce the penalty. Pelton resigned her job in protest.

Tomasic's office spent three weeks investigating the matter, interviewing board members, administrators and Pelton. The petition filed Thursday in Wyandotte County District Court accused the board of meeting illegally twice on Dec. 11.

The law requires governing bodies of public organizations to meet in open session except under specifically defined circumstances, and no binding action can be taken in closed session.

Louis Clothier, the school board attorney, said after reviewing the petition that he remained convinced the board did not violate the law.

"But I don't have all of the investigatory materials that the District Attorney's Office has gathered, and so I want to look at those" before recommending what the board should do, he said.

The board maintains that it went into closed session to protect the privacy of students and nonelected personnel, one of the exceptions provided by the law. But, Tomasic said, the board did not discuss any particular students or personnel during its closed sessions.

Tomasic said the board also violated the law by discussing matters that it did not identify before going into closed session. Most of the time was spent discussing the meaning of plagiarism, the petition said, and the way the biology project was being graded.

The petition said the board also violated the law by agreeing the grades should be changed without taking a public vote.

In the second executive session, the petition states, Supt. Michael Rooney suggested that he direct the teacher to grade the biology project in a way that would not affect the accused students so harshly.

The petition said all members but one agreed with the superintendent's suggestion. It quotes board member James Swanson as telling Rooney, "This ought not to rest on your head, blame the board for this one, you know, that (way) you don't have to take the hits for this one."

The next day, Rooney told Pelton to change the worth of the project from 50 percent of the course grade to 30 percent. She also was told to give students credit for the portion of the project that was not plagiarized, changes that allowed many of the students to pass.

Swanson said Thursday that he was disappointed that Tomasic announced the filing of the petition at a news conference and had not told the board members before proceeding with it.

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