Skip to comments.First in Her Class: The valedictorian sued, and the town turned on her
Posted on 06/27/2003 9:27:59 PM PDT by Pokey78
Moorestown, New Jersey
NO ONE in Moorestown can remember a graduation day quite like the one the class of 2003 had on June 19. The valedictorian was nowhere to be seen. The salutatorian was greeted like a conquering hero, with a long standing ovation. And then of course, there were the media. Television crews and print journalists descended on the small Philadelphia suburb, while banks of photographers crowded in the gymnasium's crevices. They came not to see graduation but to report on the girl who had graduated top in the class and wasn't there, Blair Hornstine.
Blair Hornstine became a celebrity this spring by suing the Moorestown school district. To accommodate unspecified disabilities, the district had arranged home instruction for most of her high school career. This proved an academic boon--she ended up with a 4.689 grade point average, .055 higher than runner-up Kenneth Mirkin's 4.634. For a variety of reasons, superintendent Paul Kadri wanted to name the two of them co-valedictorians. Whereupon Blair sued--not just to retain the distinction for herself but also for $2.7 million in damages. She won the first round--getting an injunction that made her the sole valedictorian. But in the process, she made a lot of enemies in this one-Starbucks town.
In a few months Blair will leave Moorestown and begin her freshman year at Harvard with a star-quality résumé--academic honors, extracurricular achievements, scholarships and charitable works galore. A surprising number of townspeople, though, will be delighted to see her go. They view her no-holds-barred effort to secure the top spot in the Moorestown class of 2003 as a Bobo version of the Texas cheerleader case--a combination of obsessive pursuit of academic credentials and parental ambition run amok. In recent years, an increasing number of American high schools have given up naming valedictorians altogether--a move that proponents of excellence and high achievement typically denounce as misplaced egalitarianism. It may be that in part. But the Moorestown saga suggests a simpler explanation: self-defense on the part of school officials.
BLAIR HORNSTINE lives in a pristine neighborhood where the houses sell for anywhere from $550,000 to $1.5 million. Her father, Louis, is a New Jersey superior court judge in neighboring Camden County, and her mother, Linda, is a stay-at-home mom who's been active in the community for many years. Her brother, Adam, graduated as Moorestown High's valedictorian in 1999 and also went to Harvard.
In 1999 Blair enrolled as a freshman and began compiling the type of résumé that college admissions counselors dream of. That first year, she won the Prudential Spirit of the Community award and was featured on CNN for her extensive volunteer work. As a senior, she was a third-team member of USA Today's All-USA High School Academic squad. Over the past four years, she's won enough scholarships and awards to fill a small truck, including an essay prize from MENSA (the high-IQ club), $20,000 from Toyota, a $20,000 Coca-Cola scholarship, and a $25,000 award from Discover, the credit card company. She also joined the model Congress and debate team and became captain of the moot court team.
Then there's the charitable work. As chair of the Tri-County Food Drive she collected, according to her bio on the Points of Light Foundation's website, 56,000 pounds of food for the Food Bank of South Jersey and some 600 prom dresses for needy teens with the Tri-County Prom Dress Drive, which she founded. As the New Jersey state chair for the Smile Train, she raised money for cleft palate surgeries in China.
But Blair's health was poor. She and her family have never disclosed the exact nature of her disability; it is alternately referred to as "chronic fatigue" and an "immune system disorder." A close friend of the family told me "she developed an illness when she was visiting Turkey, and when she came back--it's kind of a disease that you break out in blisters all over you. And the only way you can control it is medication," which made Blair "very tired."
Following federal and state disabilities law guidelines, the school district's child study team came up with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) to accommodate Blair's health problems. Mostly this meant home tutors and extra time for assignments and tests. She took two classes at home during her freshman year. Her sophomore year, she took four classes at home. By junior year she was coming to school only for homeroom and two periods. During her senior year she came to school for homeroom and one class--all of her other instruction was provided by home tutors.
Blair thrived academically under this plan, finishing each year with a GPA in excess of 4.0. (Moorestown uses a weighted grading system, where an A- is worth 3.7, an A is 4.0, and an A+ is 4.3. Honors courses add 0.5 to each grade, and Advanced Placement classes a full point.) But as Blair's senior year began last fall, a trickle of parents began making their way to the new superintendent, Paul Kadri, complaining that it was unfair to compare the grades earned under the ordinary regimen of classes and exams with the grades Blair had earned from her special arrangement. As one parent put it, "Lou Hornstine was bragging about the fact that he was manipulating the system and that his daughter was going to be valedictorian."
Because he was new on the job, Kadri began looking at the district's home instruction programs, and on September 19, he met with Judge Hornstine. There are conflicting accounts of the discussion. In court documents responding to Blair's lawsuit, Kadri claimed that Hornstine "told me that he had been salutatorian in school, and that he did not want his children to face 'the same embarrassment.'" Therefore, "he would 'use any advantage of the laws and regulations to give [Blair] the best opportunity to be valedictorian.'" According to Kadri, Judge Hornstine "told me that he was going to manipulate rules designed to protect disabled students" and said, "All I'm interested in is what is best for my daughter."
Eventually, Kadri concluded that Blair had received an unfair advantage over her fellow, full-time students. She "could take as many AP or Honors courses as she wanted to" because her home schooling eliminated scheduling conflicts--and the grades in these courses added extra points to her average. An A+ in an advanced placement course was worth 5.3 points. What's more, she had been medically excused from the gym course other students were required to take. The best a student could do in gym was an A+ worth 4.3 points, which would have dragged down her GPA. Kadri also believed that the home tutors did not grade as rigorously as some of the regular AP teachers.
Because he thought these findings raised concerns "about the fundamental fairness of the academic competition," Kadri decided to elevate the number two student to co-valedictorian with Blair. He then set out in search of a policy that would allow him to do so. In January, he met with the class officers for all grades and brought up the idea of co-valedictorians. In February, he met with the entire senior class and told them that the school was going to start having co-valedictorians. His plan was for the school board to vote at its May 12 meeting on the new policy, which would allow the board, at "its discretion, with the assistance of the administration," to "designate multiple valedictorians and/or salutatorians to ensure that all students have an equal opportunity to compete for these awards."
Kadri wanted the new rule to apply retroactively to the class of 2003. But before the board had a chance to meet, Blair sued. In a tort claim filed on April 3 against Kadri and the school district and school board, she argued that she "should have been awarded sole valedictorian" and that the superintendent and school district were attempting to deny her that status "solely by virtue of her disability." For violating her rights under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and other state and federal statutes, she sought $200,000 in compensatory damages, and $2.5 million in punitive damages. On May 1, she filed suit in federal court.
The case immediately made headlines, and not just because of the eye-popping price tag. There was also her choice of lawyer. Instead of hiring an expert in education law, Louis Hornstine hired Edwin Jacobs Jr.
JACOBS is something of a legend in Jersey legal circles. He first rose to prominence in the mid-'80s defending Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo, a legendary Philly mob boss. With a practice in Atlantic City, Jacobs has represented a colorful array of organized crime figures along the Broad Street-Boardwalk corridor. How good is he? In 1998, he represented Philly drug kingpin Louis Turra, accused of plotting the assassination of underboss Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino. Jacobs never got to show his stuff on that case--Turra hanged himself in his cell before the trial started. But just three years later, Jacobs was defending Skinny Joey, who needed help beating a rap for three murders, two attempted murders, and a murder conspiracy charge.
The Hornstines may not have needed that good a lawyer, however. If the school board's case was weak to begin with, it teetered on collapse after Jacobs produced a certification from Judithann Keefe, Moorestown's assistant superintendent. Keefe sat in on the September 19, 2002, meeting between Superintendent Kadri and Judge Hornstine, and in her May 7 filing she contradicted her boss's account no fewer than eight times: "Louis Hornstine's educational record was never discussed," she said, and he "did not state that 'he would manipulate the system to benefit his daughter.'"
The next day Judge Freda Wolfson granted Blair's request for a temporary restraining order to prevent the school from changing its valedictorian rules, and the judge took every opportunity to thump the administration while she was at it. "I think you don't have a leg to stand on," she told school board attorney John Comegno. "Whether or not Mr. Hornstine intended to manipulate the system is immaterial," because over the course of four years, "the Board approved every aspect of [Blair's] curriculum." She commended Blair, saying "the evidence in this case has shown that Ms. Hornstine earned her distinction as the top student in her class in spite of, not because of, her disability."
Moorestown went into an uproar. A petition supporting Kadri flew around town and collected 862 signatures almost overnight--275 of them from the senior class, nearly every member. Another petition materialized online, urging Harvard to rescind its offer of admission. Students made computer icons of Blair's face with tears streaming from her eyes. A cartoon appeared in the local paper, the NewsWeekly, showing Judge Hornstine shining his shoes with Lady Justice's robe. The Hornstines' house was egged twice and hit with black paintballs once. Blair received a threatening letter which warned that she "would have trouble" if she came to graduation. She stopped coming to school altogether.
"The kids have been awful," says Mary Betancourt, a retired English teacher who taught Blair in a number of courses and coached her throughout her debate career. "They have threatened to boo when she gets up to speak; to turn their backs while she's speaking. The school has let them have meetings where they talk about--some of them say 'rip her heart out' and 'they know how to take care of her, whether it's during graduation or after graduation.'"
On June 10, Jacobs sent a letter to Kadri informing him that "the hostile environment at the school has traumatized Blair both physically and emotionally, to the point that she cannot and will not attend the graduation ceremonies." At graduation, amidst the TV cameras and standing ovations, Blair Hornstine's name was not mentioned even once. The only allusion to her came from Kadri, who said in his speech, "In life, in order to pursue your goals, you will need to interact with or compete against others" (Kadri's underlining).
WHY WOULD an entire town go into a frenzy over a relatively straightforward disabilities case? "I don't think it's an accident," says one high school humanities teacher, "that the closer one is to this, the harder it is to find anybody who is supportive of Blair."
Maybe the biggest reason the town turned against the Hornstines is money. Blair's lawsuit puts the township on the hook for $2.7 million when the entire school system's annual budget is only $50 million. But there's also a real belief that, even though it was legal, Blair and her father did manipulate the system, and were acutely aware of every subtlety in the grading system.
For instance, Blair took Latin 1 in middle school, over the course of 7th and 8th grades. Unusually, she then retook Latin 1 as a freshman--and got an A+. During her sophomore year, Blair was enrolled in AP U.S. History and was taking it at the school with a teacher whose policy is to never give A+ marks. But she dropped the course and finished it the following year at home, with a different instructor. She got an A+. Blair was enrolled in gym class in 9th and 10th grades (receiving an A and A+, respectively). Just weeks before the end of her junior year, she received a doctor's note waiving her from gym altogether. Still, an A+ for the class showed up on her transcript. Her father wanted the grade removed, and since she shouldn't have been graded for a waived class, it was. As Kadri explained to the court, an A+ in gym is worth only 4.3, and thus would have lowered her cumulative GPA, which was well above 4.3 by that point.
At Moorestown High, the calculations for valedictorian are made at the end of the first semester senior year. Just a few weeks before that semester ended, Blair dropped AP European History--one of the two courses she was taking at the school--citing exhaustion. "The papers are killing her," Judge Hornstine told the child study team while trying to withdraw Blair from the class. At the time, Blair had an A- in the class. It would have been one of the lowest grades of her high school career.
And while she was on home instruction, Blair's experience was markedly different from that of other students. At the most basic level, she had about half as much class time as school-bound students, freeing her up for extracurricular activities. (When asked by the Discover Card scholarship how she got everything on her résumé done, she replied, "There's plenty of time in the day!") Her education plan stipulated that she would be allowed "more time to take tests and quizzes," and "will not be required to take more than one test or examination per day." What's more, "When absent or significantly fatigued, teachers will make appropriate accommodations to due dates for assignments. The parents will advise teachers when Blair has been too fatigued or otherwise unable to complete or to submit work in timely fashion."
It's important to remember that such accommodations are commonplace under modern disabilities law. All of these arrangements were checked off from standard bureaucratic forms used by school districts across the state. And David Rhody, a Latin teacher who's also a lawyer, remembers Blair as "very bright, very interested, very curious--good student."
EXCEPT, of course, for the plagiarism. On June 3, the local paper, the Courier-Post, published a brief editor's note explaining that five essays Blair had written for the paper contained "information from sources that was not properly attributed." Beginning in October 2002--the same time she was struggling with the killer papers in AP European History--Blair began contributing to the Courier-Post. Mary Betancourt, an exceptional teacher with 43 years of service who spent her last 25 years as head of Moorestown High's English department, says that she's the one who "encouraged Blair to submit her writing" to the paper.
So Blair threw herself into the task, writing on such topics as religion in public schools and art censorship. She even tackled tough geopolitical issues, such as the conflict in Iraq and U.S. policy on the Korean peninsula. In the process she used large unquoted chunks of other people's writing--a speech given by Bill Clinton, the Family Research Council's i.e. magazine, Christian Teachers Aid, Justice William Brennan, and Steve LaMontagne, an analyst at the Nautilus Institute in Washington, D.C. Sometimes she would change a word in the middle of the sentence. More often she would lift them whole. As a follow-up article in the Courier-Post noted, two of the articles were "composed mostly of material written by others."
The Hornstines went into damage-control mode. Jacobs, their lawyer, told the Associated Press, "It was a whole lot of nothing. She wrote some fluff pieces for a kid-chat column. We have more important things to deal with." The immediate concern was that Blair's GPA might take a hit because of a provision in the student handbook which says that plagiarism in school work "will result in a failure for that course." In a statement printed in the Courier-Post, Blair noted that "these voluntary articles were not written for class assignments." She then allowed, "I erroneously thought the way I had submitted the articles was appropriate. I now realize that I was mistaken." The nature of the mistake? Newspapers don't have footnotes. "Footnotes provide not only an outline of the logic of the author, but also a detailed road map to the past. Like bread crumbs dropped along a path, footnotes and citations allow aspiring academics to follow previous scholarship to better enhance our general knowledge."
Meantime, two other lawyers, Warren Faulk and Steven Kudatzky, played offense with Harvard to make sure Blair's acceptance there wasn't jeopardized. Kudatzky told the Harvard Crimson, "I am confident that, at the end of the day, Harvard will see that this is a non-issue, and quite frankly, something that is another example of Blair being singled out and victimized."
And the Hornstines' old family friend Mary Betancourt also swung into action. She wrote Harvard a multi-page letter defending Blair and attacking the Courier-Post, accusing the paper of hypocrisy, mismanagement, and systematic plagiarism, concluding that "If the paper's adult writers cannot give proper citations or attribution, how can they question a student who received no guidance?" She chalked the entire episode up to "an effort to discredit Blair."
"Newspapers do it all the time," she told me. And Betancourt smelled a rat. "I don't think the paper's ethical motives are pure," she said. "Guess who has an aunt who works for the Courier-Post?" she asked. "John Comegno." Comegno, the school board attorney, replies, "I think that statement's unfortunate and it really doesn't justify a response. Following that logic, though, I don't have any relatives at any other papers that I'm aware of, so I would assume that all the other papers are out to get her, too."
Those other papers include the Philadelphia Inquirer, which in late May reported that Blair's volunteer work is often helped along by her father. "Most of her volunteer work is done by phone now," Jennifer Moroz and Toni Callas reported. "And Louis Hornstine often is the one on the other end of the line," said Kristin Valente, volunteer coordinator for the Food Bank of South Jersey. "I have dealt a lot with her father because we're open during school hours," Valente told the Inquirer. "A lot of times it would be their father delivering [the food donations]," Betty Mendez, the executive director of the Food Bank told me. "He would come in his car. . . . That's the one thing I admired, he would bend over backwards for his children."
BEYOND the résumé jealousy, small-town rivalries, hostility to litigiousness, and concern for fairness is a deeper reason for Moorestown's hostility to its valedictorian, which finally comes up in almost every interview: Few people in town believe that she's really sick. This cynicism is fed by the fact that the Hornstine family guards its privacy and won't explain what her illness is, which is of course their right. (Through a family friend, Blair and her family referred my interview requests to her lawyer, who did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.)
"I think that the view is there is not a genuine disability," explains a parent from the community. "And if there is any disability, it was inflicted by the father. . . . I think most people's view is that this man put so much pressure on his daughter to be perfect that she literally is a nervous basket case." One of Blair's former friends expressed similar sentiments to the Crimson: "From what I've seen and heard, I don't believe she has a disability that really prohibits her from going to school," said Allie McGuigan. "And I'm not sure whether it's all her, or whether it's her father. Knowing her and knowing her father, I think he owns this situation as much as she does."
The cynics point to her activities. In 2000, Blair ran with the Olympic torch when it came through Philadelphia. The Inquirer reported in May that she works out at a local gym. She went on the senior class trip to Disney World this spring, and in the summers, she does intensive academic work. During previous summers she enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell. Last summer she spent eight weeks at Stanford taking classes in Expository Writing (A-), Psychology (A), and Philosophy of Public Speaking (A). Interviewed in July 2002, she told a reporter from the Courier-Post, "If I didn't lead a busy life, I'd be bored. And I hate being bored."
In June 2001, Blair was given the Congressional Award Gold Medal. To qualify for this honor, students must complete and document 400 hours of voluntary public service, 200 hours of personal development, 200 hours of physical fitness, and a 4-day exploration. Kelly Fanning, from the Congressional Awards office, says, "For her physical fitness she did jogging, power-walking, and dance." Moorestown High School students, it should be noted, take roughly 75 hours of Phys. Ed. class per year.
The trial phase of Blair's lawsuit will unfold slowly over the coming months, in part because Judge Wolfson is pressuring both sides to settle. Observers with varying sympathies think Blair is in a position of strength, with a friendly judge and an opportunity to seek further damages since, as she told the Courier-Post, she was "victimized" and "terrorized" out of attending her own graduation. Having vociferously supported Kadri, the school board is in a tough spot. They will have to publicly vote on the terms of any settlement, leaving them vulnerable at the voting booths.
And what about Blair? She'll go off to Harvard with the rest of her family. Brother Adam will be entering Harvard Law School this fall, and according to one of the court documents, Judge Hornstine will "be spending a lot of time in an adjunct position that he accepted at Harvard." And salutatorian Mirkin, who ended up with a cumulative GPA .055 points behind Blair Hornstine? He'll also be going to Harvard.
It's easy to wonder, under the circumstances, if being valedictorian is all that it's cracked up to be. But there are always the intangibles of being Number One. Three years ago, a newspaper reporter spoke briefly with 16-year-old Blair and asked her what it was like to carry the Olympic flame: "Not many people get this honor," she said. "When I am running with that torch, I will be the only person on Earth at that time who has it. To me, that's fascinating."
Jonathan V. Last, online editor of The Weekly Standard, was a 1992 graduate of Moorestown High School. He was not valedictorian.
It's a shame, really, that 90% of the lawyers give the other 10% such a bad name. Hey, Atticus Finch was a lawyer, right?
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The evil Hornstine clan is the reality of the legal industry.