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Loafing Wins First Amendment Lawsuit

Gag order lifted while controversy over charter school continues

Freedom reigned for the Fourth as Creative Loafing won a First Amendment victory Wednesday when a judge lifted a restraining order against the paper. The order temporarily barred the paper from publishing information from documents given to us by former teachers at Crossroads Charter High School. Those teachers claim the students' grades were changed to allow them to graduate.To support their allegations, the three teachers turned over educational records they kept at their homes. School attorney James Conrad, who contended the materials were "stolen," convinced a judge to slap a restraining order on CL two weeks ago to prevent the paper from printing the students' names. Before the order was filed, CL had already printed the first story about the situation without using the students' names.

In court on Monday, Conrad also asked Mecklenburg County District Court Judge Avril Sisk to force CL to turn over the teachers' personal records of the students' performance to the court where they would be sealed for safekeeping until the court could rule on who they rightfully belong to -- the teachers or the school. On Wednesday, Sisk ruled that CL had acquired the documents lawfully and would be allowed to retain them. She also lifted the restraining order, calling it an unconstitutional prior restraint on the paper. The issue of whether the paper would be violating the students' privacy rights if it chose to print their names would have to be decided by another court, she said. But restraining the paper beforehand because the printing of the students' names might be illegal was unlawful, she said.

"We are gratified by Judge Sisk's decision," said Creative Loafing editor John Grooms. "It was an unusual situation in that we were hit with the first gag order of a newspaper in North Carolina in decades, ordering us to do something we had no intention of doing anyway -- that is, printing any students' names. We agree that the students' privacy should be protected, but suddenly we were faced with a classic freedom of the press issue. The problem is that no newspaper can allow the courts or the subjects of its stories to substitute their judgment for that of the editor, or else the First Amendment becomes meaningless for everyone. We're glad we were able to strike a small blow for freedom today. Also, we're grateful for the readers who expressed their concern and support during this effort to restrain our freedom to publish. And we would have liked to have sent special thanks to all our fellow members of the media in Charlotte who rallied behind us and offered support in defense of the press's Constitutional rights -- but that didn't happen so we can't. Too many car wrecks to report on, I guess."

In the meantime,accounts surrounding activities at the school have gotten stranger and stranger. WBT reporter Pete Kaliner says that James Conrad, the school's attorney, told him that some of the staff members at the school were fired after it was discovered that the school's original principal, Amanda Rivers-Lucey, failed to conduct background checks on the teachers she hired to teach there.

This is not the same story Conrad originally told Creative Loafing about why the three teachers who brought charges of grade fixing against the school were fired. Conrad originally contended that the three teachers were fired for transgressions committed while teaching there. On Monday, Conrad sent us a fax denying he had told WBT's Kaliner that background checks had led to firings. Kaliner has reconfirmed his account of what Conrad told him.

"He led me to believe that what was in those background checks was what they were fired for," said Kaliner.

Conrad cannot, by law, disclose information from teachers' personnel records.

As he did in the cases of most of the other former Crossroads employees who have levied charges of improprieties against the school, Conrad claims Rivers-Lucey was terminated -- and like most of those employees, Rivers-Lucey says she was not fired. She insists that she quit her job last fall after two months at the school and emphatically denies Conrad's claims that she failed to conduct background checks on teachers. She says she quit her job because the building the school was using had several code violations that made it dangerous to the students, that the school's board had ignored the violations and she didn't want to be held responsible for the students' safety. Rivers-Lucey claims she initially hired a staff of 15. If that figure is correct, at least half the staff was fired or resigned before the end of the school's first year of operation.

Conrad says Rivers-Lucey was ordered by the school's board to immediately do background checks on the teachers once it was discovered that none had been conducted. Even then, he says, Rivers-Lucey only submitted a request for Mecklenburg County records and failed to check the teachers' records in other states.

In another development, Conrad and another school official also now claim that eight of the students who walked across the stage at graduation did not actually receive diplomas. When Creative Loafing initially interviewed Conrad, the paper was assured that all the students who walked across the stage at graduation had graduated. In addition, a list of the students whose grades the three math teachers claimed were fixed was read to Conrad during that interview, along with the failing grades the teachers claimed they had received for all the quarters in which the teachers taught them. Until last week, Conrad and school officials had made no claims that any of the students who took part in the graduation ceremonies didn't actually graduate.

Lee Powell, a Spanish teacher at the school who claims she wasn't fired and finished out the school year, says that she, like other teachers, was pressured by administrators to give the kids passing grades they had not earned and has no plans to return to Crossroads next fall.

State education officials say they plan to review the processes and procedures used by the school. We wish them luck untangling the mess.

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