Ohio Principal Defends Political Field Trip as Questions Continue

By

Published November 04, 2010

| FoxNews.com

CINCINNATI -- The election may be over, but the legal battle over a high school field trip to a Cincinnati voting station has just begun.

Cincinnati Public Schools announced Thursday that Hughes High School social studies teacher Dennis McFadden, 61, violated district policy on Oct. 13 by allowing students to be transported in donated vans and without proper supervision when he escorted a group of high school students to vote at the Board of Elections.

McFadden will be suspended for one day without pay, effective on Friday, Janet Walsh, a spokeswoman for the school district, told FoxNews.com.

The field trip prompted allegations of partisan politicking -- the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) and a local Republican, Thomas Brinkman, filed a court complaint alleging that the students were given only Democratic sample ballots before they voted and were taken for ice cream afterward.

Walsh said Virginia Rhodes, principal of Hughes High School, will be suspended without pay for five days -- also effective Friday -- for failure to follow the district's procedure when authorizing transportation and for background checks of chaperones and drivers. She also violated district policy by allowing students to be transported in donated vans and without proper supervision.

Prior to the announcement of the disciplinary action, Rhodes, 57, who was not on the trip, took full responsibility for the excursion, saying McFadden arranged the trip "with [her] enthusiastic permission," according to a statement she sent to the Cincinnati Enquirer.

"It is more than appropriate to provide this type of trip in the community, especially in a Government class," Rhodes' statement read.

She claimed that the students were given only Democratic literature because a Republican campaign worker declined to provide it -- "That's the reason students only saw Democratic literature, not because of any action by the teacher," she wrote -- an assertion vehemently denied by Brinkman's lawyer.

Christopher Finney, an attorney for Brinkman, who lost on Tuesday in the race for Hamilton County auditor, disputed Rhodes' version of events, saying the campaign worker had no literature to distribute and was only soliciting signatures for an anti-tax increase initiative.

"He had nothing to hand out," Finney told FoxNews.com on Thursday. "He handed nobody anything. That is simply and demonstrably untrue. He solicited signatures and he wore a T-shirt for Tom Brinkman and encouraged them to vote orally. His mission was to wear the T-shirt and collect signatures."

Finney said some of the students even signed the petition circulated by campaign worker Stephen Johnson.

In her statement to the Cincinnati Enquirer, Rhodes said she would "particularly scold" the Brinkman campaign worker for the "cold shoulder" he gave the students as they prepared to vote.

"In addition, I do think our students were marginalized and disrespected by the Republican's decision to ignore this group of new, young African-American voters," Rhodes' statement read. "I would particularly scold the Brinkman campaign worker for the cold shoulder he gave these students as they prepared to cast their vote. Does Brinkman's campaign not want to cultivate interest in his party's belief and ideas?"

Finney said that claim was a "thinly-veiled" allegation of racism.

"She clearly doesn't know the facts," he continued. "In this case, we can show the signatures of the kids that weren't ignored. The entire basis of her defense is a falsehood."

Rhodes, who has been employed by the district since 1993, could not be reached for comment. Walsh declined to indicate what disciplinary action could await McFadden, who has been employed by the district since 1990.

Any punishment, according to Rhodes' statement, would send a "chilling message" to all teachers who employ project-based learning assignments.

Finney, as well as attorneys for the school district, filed an agreed order late last month that calls for the district to "not use any personnel or property" for advocating any particular political candidate or party.

The agreement, which was signed by Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Beth Myers, states: "All future efforts to transport students of the Cincinnati Public Schools to a polling place so that those students may vote as part of an educational activity shall comply with all policies of the Cincinnati Public Schools and Ohio law concerning field trips for students."

But school officials "expressly" denied any wrongdoing, and Finney said a lawsuit against the school system will continue despite the order. It seeks to have the incident declared a violation of Ohio law and district policy and to have a permanent injunction issued to never allow students to be subjected to partisan political activities during school hours. It also seeks to have Cincinnati Public Schools pay Finney's attorney fees, or at least $10,000. The case is scheduled to continue later this month.

URL

http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2010/11/04/ohio-principal-defends-political-field-trip-questions-continue/