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Student Sues to Be a Sole Valedictorian

Her GPA is best, but school says she had an advantage because she was tutored at home.

May 08, 2003|John J. Goldman | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — A student who doesn't want to share the title valedictorian with two others has filed a $2.7-million lawsuit, claiming discrimination because she has a medical condition that requires her to be taught at home half the day.

Blair L. Hornstine, 18, diagnosed with a chronic fatigue syndrome-like illness, has the highest grade point average at Moorestown High School in New Jersey.

But school officials came up with the idea of sharing the honor because students and parents complained that Hornstine was able to raise her academic average by taking more higher-weighted advanced placement courses at home than could pupils who remained in school all day.

Today, Hornstine is scheduled to appear with her lawyer in U.S. District Court in Camden, N.J., to press her case that she alone should be valedictorian.

Academic controversies increasingly have become a rite of spring. Students with top ranking who claim they are denied the honor of valedictorian are taking their feelings of rejection to court. Some schools have jettisoned the whole idea of valedictorians rather than face court challenges. Others are going to the multiple valedictorian model rather than splitting academic hairs among what are often the slightest of decimal point differences in grade points.

Hornstine has been accepted at some of the nation's most prestigious schools -- including Harvard, Princeton and Stanford. Her extracurricular accomplishments include co-founding a program that assembled 30,000 pounds of food for the needy, and chairing an effort that raised money to pay for 10 cleft-lip and palate surgeries for Chinese orphans.

Court papers filed on Hornstine's behalf said that in November, school Supt. Paul J. Kadri and other school administrators met with Hornstine's parents at the latter's request to discuss concerns about her medical condition and course load. The conference led to an independent review by the school's physician who concluded that a "reduction in course load is medically appropriate due to her exhaustion and overextending herself."

The suit charged that Kadri suggested that Hornstine drop all advanced placement courses and take a standard curriculum.

"This suggested approach would have drastically reduced plaintiff's weighted grade point average and jeopardized her admission to selected colleges," the suit said. It labeled the proposal a "malicious and intentional act" designed to reduce Hornstine's chances for academic success.

The suit said that when grade point averages were determined this year, Kadri met with the entire senior class to discuss the possibility that co-valedictorians would be named even though Hornstine's grade point average was highest. When Hornstine asked Kadri about his reasoning, the school superintendent declined to discuss his rationale.

In demanding $2.7 million, Hornstine's lawyers charged that she was defamed, that her rights to privacy were violated and that local officials and the Moorestown Board of Education ratified Kadri's "unlawful, deliberate, malicious, reckless and wanton conduct."

Kadri, local school officials and the Board of Education paint a far different picture.

They say that the student's father, New Jersey Superior Court Judge Louis Hornstine, told Kadri during a meeting that he would "use any advantage of the laws and regulations" to give his daughter "the best opportunity to be valedictorian."

"In the end, he flatly told the superintendent that he was going to manipulate rules designed to protect disabled students for the purpose of allowing plaintiff to win the valedictorian award," the papers said.

In light of the judge's statements and complaints from students that they were not able to "compete fairly on a level field," Kadri launched an investigation.

"What he found was a fundamental unfairness, a pattern which suggested that plaintiff had opportunities to gain an advantage no other students enjoyed in competing for the valedictorian/salutatorian award," the papers said.

The superintendent concluded that while other students were limited in their class schedules, Hornstine could take as many honors courses as she wanted because she could schedule them with her home tutors, giving her the opportunity to earn higher weighted grades than her counterparts attending classes full time at school.

Court papers said Kadri also discovered occasions that when it appeared Hornstine would be unable to earn a high grade while enrolled in a difficult class in school, she withdrew and sought home instruction.

Kadri found that some teachers in school had tougher grading standards than Hornstine's tutors, most of whom had not taught advanced placement classes and did not confer with teachers at the school about implementing the same grading standards.

Hornstine is a National Merit scholar, a Toyota Community Scholar, a Coca-Cola Scholar, a top Discover Card Tribute Award Scholarship winner and a USA Today Academic All American.

She has been an Olympic torchbearer, and captain since freshman year of the Moorestown High School varsity moot court competition team, where she researched U.S. Supreme Court decisions, prepared legal briefs and oral arguments.

Now, she faces a real world legal test.

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