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Del. Benson moves forward with suit against school board

July 17, 1997

By VANDANA SINHA

Staff Writer

Maryland Delegate Joanne C. Benson said she is moving forward with a lawsuit against the Washington County Board of Education for what she alleged was student neglect, and she asked for support from the black community during a Wednesday night meeting.

Benson, D-Prince George's, said she plans to file a civil lawsuit against the school board for a practice by which she said some administrators encouraged certain students to drop out of school.

"Without a doubt, this is absolutely true," said the former Prince George's County principal and teacher.

"When these kids turn 16, these people encourage them to drop out of school or set them up to kick them out," she said.

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Benson spoke to about 20 people who attended a joint meeting of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Brothers United Who Dare to Care.

None of those present voiced opposition to Benson's plan to take legal action.

But school board officials said they have never heard of such incidents, which they said would have been brought to their attention by now if they had occurred.

"We have a very strong commitment to keep our young people in school for successful learning," said school board President B. Marie Byers in a telephone interview.

She called the claims "outlandish."

But some teachers agreed that Benson's claims were accurate.

"They've asked me to participate in railroading students out of the system. I've always refused, but it does exist," said Kurt Britner, a former North Hagerstown High School instructional assistant who was involuntarily transferred to the Alternative School.

"I've seen it happen. I have been asked to lie about a student, so they could send him to Brooklane (Psychiatric Institute.) I have watched them set students up," he said.

Several members of the audience stood up and spoke of school board experiences in which their children were labeled as troublemakers and suspended from class, despite having a learning disability or disorder.

"My son...was labeled as a problem child. He just wasn't getting what he needed," said Mercedes Pantophlet, referring to her 10-year-old son who she said has Attention Deficit Disorder.

"Half of the problems are not his fault. The school said they had to put him on medication or kick him out," she said.

Benson, a Hagerstown native, said she will form a community task force informing parents about their children's educational rights and bring a lawyer to the next community meeting July 31.

Brothers United Who Dare to Care members also plan to attend the next school board meeting to express their concerns.

"If they don't understand that we are serious, they will soon learn that we're not playing with them," said Benson, who said her nephew was moved from school to school when he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder.

"I need to know I have support of the community," she said to the audience of black residents who made up a minute percentage of Hagerstown's black population. "We as a community have become complacent and laid back."

Donald Davis, president of the NAACP's Washington County chapter, offered his support for Benson's plan.

"We have got to fight these things. We got to do what we got to do for ourselves," he said.

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