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Top Student Wins Temporary Ban on Split Honor

Judge bars a New Jersey school from naming more than one class of 2003 valedictorian.

May 09, 2003|John J. Goldman | Times Staff Writer

CAMDEN, N.J. — A federal judge issued a temporary injunction Thursday barring school officials from naming more than one valedictorian in a bitter dispute that has divided a suburban New Jersey high school.

Judge Freda L. Wolfson ruled that Blair L. Hornstine, who is taught at home part of the day because she suffers from an immune disorder with chronic fatigue symptoms, should not have to share the honor.

Hornstine, who has the highest grade point average in the senior class at Moorestown High School, filed a $2.7-million lawsuit claiming that her privacy and federal equal opportunity laws protecting people with disabilities had been violated.

"This court finds the plaintiff is likely to succeed on her discrimination claims," the judge said.

"She should be named the sole valedictorian of the class of 2003," Wolfson announced after a hearing in U.S. District Court. Instead of taking pride in her "fine achievements," the judge ruled, "the board of education seeks to strip her of her award."

Hornstine has been a student at Moorestown High, which has an enrollment of about 1,000 students, since her freshman year.

At times, Wolfson sharply questioned the lawyer representing school Supt. Paul J. Kadri and other administrators who argued that the 18-year-old student benefited unfairly from accommodations made for her disability.

The officials contended that Hornstine was able to take more higher-credit advanced placement courses while at home than were classmates who had to remain in school all day and attend classes carrying fewer credits, such as gym.

Wolfson said that Hornstine had earned the top spot "in spite of, not because of, her disability." The judge said accommodations made to Hornstine "were aimed at putting her on a level playing field."

Hornstine was not present in court. She is a National Merit scholar and has won a number of prestigious scholarships. She has been active in a variety of community projects and has been accepted by Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and other colleges.

Her attorney, Edwin J. Jacobs Jr., said that his client was already affected by the dispute and that "it wasn't worth making her any more ill.... The last few days have been very tough."

Jacobs said that Hornstine had received hostile phone calls and e-mails, and her home was vandalized early Sunday by someone who threw eggs. The incident was reported to school authorities, he said.

The lawyer explained that Hornstine decided to fight the school board's plan to change its rules by considering the naming of a second valedictorian after asking herself the question: "Do I forget what I did for four years or do I undergo some unpleasantries?"

School board officials who were in court offered sparse comments after the judge's ruling.

"We're disappointed," said Cyndy Wulfsberg, the board's president. "The board has a lot to consider."

She declined to elaborate on what she thought its options would be.

Kenneth Mirkin, 18, a student whom administrators had said was being considered for a second valedictorian's slot, attended the hearing and expressed frustration after the ruling.

"I think the senior class and student body of Moorestown High School have been taken advantage of," he said.

Hornstine and Mirkin plan to attend Harvard.

During the hearing, Wolfson told John Comegno, the lawyer representing the board, that Hornstine was "pinpointed" after complaints from some students and parents that she had managed to manipulate the system.

As to the school's plan to have more than one valedictorian, Wolfson asked Comegno: "How can you argue that such a retroactive action is appropriate?"

"Judge, you took the words literally out of my mouth," Jacobs said when it was his turn to speak.

Wolfson asked Hornstine's lawyer why he believed she was harmed.

"They can change their policy.... They can do anything they want as long as they don't do it retroactively and it affects us," Jacobs replied.

"Here's the harm. She is laboring under a disability. She has the protection of two federal statutes. You are telling every disabled student in every school system they are not going to be treated as other students," the lawyer contended.

"The truth is she had to work harder than an able student."

"She has been targeted because she is disabled and the board wants to disable her a second time," Hornstine's lawyer later added.

During a brief recess while the judge pondered her decision, Jacobs said money was not the prime issue in the case, but he would confer with Hornstine's family over whether to press the claim for damages following the ruling.

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