Illinois Public Media News
A Douglas County Judge has ruled that an autistic 1st grader can continue bringing his service dog to school. Judge Michael Freese sided Tuesday with the family of 6-year old Kaleb Drew, saying 'Chewey' clearly functions as a service animal, keeping him calm and focused in class. Kaleb's mother, Nichelle Drew, says before the family got the Labrador retriever, her son often slept 2 to 3 hours at night, ran away from home, and they weren't able to take him to places like grocery stores and restaurants.
"We were seeing such improvement with Kaleb and such growth with Kaleb and Chewey as a team that we didn't want anything to hinder that," says Drew. "We wanted it to be able to continue and for Kaleb just to be able to continue to experience life to the fullest. And I think that's what every parent wants for their child. As parent of a child with autism, it's something that I don't get to experience very often."
Attorneys for the Villa Grove school district argued the dog wasn't helping the child's development, and can be disruptive to other students and staff. Based on the testimony from school staff, Judge Freese noted problems in dealing with the dog at times. But he says the real problems were with a state statute that doesn't clearly define Chewey's role while accompanying Kaleb at school. Villa Grove schools attorney Brandon Wright says its legal team is still weighing its options, and could appeal the district's decision. He says a big problem lies with a state law that allows service animals in schools, but doesn't provide much guidance.
"When you have a student who is young and incapable of being the handler of a dog, what does that mean for the school in terms of its responsibility?," says Wright. "And this statute is silent on that and the judge recognized that conundrum for the school district." This case and a separate lawsuit involving an autistic boy in southwestern Illinois are the first challenges to the state's law allowing service animals in schools. Authorities in both school districts have said that the boys' needs must be balanced against those of other children who have allergies or fear the animals.
As the union that represents graduate student employees threatens a strike, University of Illinois administrators are laying out some ground rules for all employees.
Members of the Graduate Employees Organization say they could call a walkout within the next week if it doesn't see progress in contract talks with Urbana campus negotiators.
U of I Spokeswoman Robin Kaler says the union has a right to strike, but grad students who teach classes for undergraduates have an obligation to make appropriate plans.
"If an instructor is planning to change a course time or course location or something like that, that instructor is expected to let students know in advance about any of those changes or any arrangements that might be made," Kaler said.
Kaler also says U of I employees who aren't part of the GEO but don't want to cross picket lines to work will have to use vacation days to do so. Both sides in the contract dispute expect to begin another negotiating session next week, but GEO spokesman Peter Campbell warned that a strike could be called before then.
New boundary lines to relieve overcrowding at Champaign Centennial High School won approval from the Unit Four School Board Monday night. The change will move some households from one high school to another starting next fall --- but current high school students don't have to move if they want to.
Some Champaign Central territory will go to Centennial and vice versa in the plan, which aims to make enrollment at the two high schools nearly equal, while also maintaining racial, ethnic and socio-economic balance. But Unit Four school board president Dave Tomlinson says current high school students can arrange to stay in their current school if they want to.
"And I'll make it clear", says Tomlinson, "because there was a faulty report in the media a few weeks ago, no current students --- unless they want to move --- are going to be moved. If you're in high school, you can stay in your high school".
In addition, those students' younger brothers and sisters will also be admitted to the same high school, if their high school years would overlap with their older siblings'.
Tomlinson actually voted against the new redistricting plan. He disagrees with the plan's assumption on where and when a new Champaign Central High School building will eventually go up. But he says plan that passed on a 6 to 1 vote last night is adequate to rebalance high school enrollment.
In other action, the Unit Four school board approved the initial layout plans for a new Booker T. Washington Elementary School. The north side school will be rebuilt as a science and technology magnet school. Plans to expand Garden Hills School to become an arts and performance magnet school will be voted on later this month.
The interim president designate of the University of Illinois wants to see changes to how trustees are chosen.
Stanley Ikenberry says he's confident the current U of I board will restore integrity to the system after an admissions scandal. An investigation found political influence helped some less qualified applicants gain admission.
All but two trustees have been replaced in the past few months. While the Governor has authority to make appointments... Ikenberry says some of the power should be shared.
"There are a number of good models out there", says Ikenberry, "but we need to put this on our agenda to make sure we have the appropriate process that will give us the very best board of trustees."
Ikenberry says he favors letting Governors select 3 trustees... with the University's Alumni Association selecting the remainder.
"Fortunately we have a superb board, perhaps the strongest board in our history", say Ikenberry. "But we need to make sure that continues in the long term future for the unversity. it's very important."
Others want the public to elect U of I board members. That's how the process worked until 1996, when all state university boards were revamped under then-Governor Jim Edgar.
Members of the union representing graduate employees at the University of Illinois Urbana campus have overwhelmingly approved a strike authorization vote. The Graduate Employees Organization says 92 percent of members voting last week approved the question.
Graduate Employees Organization spokesman Peter Campbell says a strike committee held its first meeting Sunday, and is making plans for a potential walkout by graduate and teaching assistants. However, Campbell says they want to get back to the bargaining table quickly. While the next tentative date for a meeting between GEO and university negotiators is November 17th. Campbell says the union is asking the administration to meet with them as often as possible before then, in the hopes of making progress towards a new contract before any walkout is held.
"The GEO continues to remain committed to negotiating in good faith in the bargaining room", says Campbell. "But GEO members have authorized and are ready to call a strike at any moment.
Grad student employees have been working at the U of I Urbana campus without a contract all this semester. Campbell says their two top concerns in current contract talks are a living wage for all union members and protection for tuition waivers.
University spokesperson Robin Kaler said Sunday night that while the administration recognizes the union's right to strike, it does not feel a strike would be in the union's or the university's best interests.
Negotiators for the University of Illinois and the union for Urbana campus graduate student workers have met three times this week. Now, the Graduate Employees Organization, or GEO, is holding a strike authorization vote.
The vote began at a membership meeting Wednesday night, and continues through Friday. GEO spokesman Peter Campbell says even if their members vote to authorize a strike, they'd like to avoid a walkout. He says the potential for a strike is having an effect on its own.
"It seems apparent that the pressure being exerted by moving up toward a strike and increasing the possibility of a strike, that that is having a positive effect on negotiations", says Campbell. "So I would say they're going better, but there's still a very long way to go."
Campbell says the U of I administration made a new comprehensive contract offer at yesterday's federally mediated bargaining session --- but he says GEO members overwhelmingly rejected it at last night's meeting. The union is seeking better wages, health care and child care, while the administration has cited tight finances.
Campbell says results of the strike authorization vote should be ready by Monday, or perhaps over the weekend. If the strike authorization is approved, a GEO strike committee would decide whether to call a strike. Campbell says a strike would NOT interfere with contract talks.
The Champaign school Consent Decree is now history. A federal judge in Peoria Wednesday accepted a settlement agreement between the Unit Four school district and the plaintiffs in the racial equity case, and formally terminated the decree --- ending seven years of court supervision.
In his Opinion and Order, Judge Joe Billy McDade wrote that the Unit Four school district and the plaintiffs had worked to produce "seven years of transformative progress toward a race-neutral educational environment that is most likely to continue after the Consent Decree ends". Unit Four spokeswoman Beth Shepperd says they look forward to more progress toward racial equity.
Yes, the Consent Decree is over", says Shepperd. "But we have learned so much and gained so many tools to make student successful, that we feel that we are at the beginning of just incredibly great things for our schools."
The attorney for the plaintiffs in the case, Carol Ashley, says while they wish more progress had been made already, the Champaign school district has come a long way in its understanding of the needs of African-American students.
"The settlement and the lawsuit came because the (school) board had turned a deaf ear for many years about minority complaints", says Ashley. "So, when you look at the state of affairs, you can say, at least there's progress in the administration's understanding of issues."
Ashley says there have been concrete accomplishments as well. She says Unit Four now has more African-American administrators and teachers than it did when the Consent Decree began. She says its methods of assigning students to schools is more fair and equitable. And she cites plans to expand and rebuild two schools in predominantly black neighborhoods as part of the gains made under the Consent Decree.
With the Consent Decree now lifted, the Unit Four district stands to save somewhere around 2 million dollars as year in legal and consulting fees it had paid to support the court supervision.
And as part of its settlement agreement with the plaintiffs, the Unit Four school district is creating an Education Equity Excellence Committee --- to advise the district on racial equity issues now that the Consent Decree has been lifted. Unit Four's Beth Shepperd says they received 27 applications from community members to serve on the panel, and Superintendent Arthur Culver will make his recommendations from that list later this month.
The outgoing and incoming leaders at the University of Illinois are asking units to set aside six percent of their current budgets.
President Joseph White and his interim successor, Stanley Ikenberry, say the university is dealing with serious cash flow problems because the state isn't keeping up with billings. The state is giving the U of I 719 million dollars this fiscal year, but White and Ikenberry say the U of I has seen little of that so far.
So chief financial officer Walter Knorr says campuses will have to hold back about 45 million dollars in this year's proposed spending, or about 45 million dollars. Knorr says the university has gotten used to holdbacks and recissions, such as last year when ten percent was set aside.
"In 2009 all we ended up with was a 2 1/2% recission. It ended up only being a slow cash payment cycle from the state," Knorr said.
Knorr says the university believes it can hold off any employee furloughs through the end of the calendar year and will try to avoid them next year as well. But the presidents' letter to campus officials still asks that hiring be limited to critical needs.
Protecting gay, lesbian and transgender students at school was the topic of a forum that drew over 300 people to Parkland College in Champaign last night.
A panel of teachers, school administrators, counselors and students discussed the impact of anti-gay bullying, and efforts --- both successful and unsuccessful --- to deal with it.
Panelist and teacher Stacy Gross helped found the Gay-Straight Alliance student group at Champaign's Centennial High School. She says the group struggled to win official school recognition --- and that its first promotional flyers were quickly torn down by opponents.
"Ultimately though, GSA just wove itself into the fabric of our school", said Gross. "And it became a normally accepted club. Now our flyers stay up way too long and we have to really make an effort to take them down."
Gross says she was inspired to act after mentoring a student who faced anti-gay harassment at Centennial. She says she still often hears anti-gay remarks from students, and notices teachers allowing them to go unanswered.
"Kendall J", one of the students on the panel, says he's openly gay at his high school, and also the senior class president. Still, he says he and his boyfriend were physically attacked by other students when they attended prom together. Other students came to their defense. To this day, Kendall says "I still endure ridiculous judgments and hateful glances by those who don't approve of my 'chosen lifestyle'. And I still hear how 'that's gay' and that comment is 'no homo' or how that guy in the tight shirt is a faggot. All these are reasons to make school safer for everyone". (None of the students on the panel gave their full names or identified their schools).
Illinois Superintendent of Education Christopher Koch opened the discussion by calling on the audience of educators, students and parents to check up on what their schools do to keep students safe, whatever their sexual identity.
"Make a point to check whether your anti-bullying policies include protection for youth on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity", said Koch. Make a point to ensure that all faculty and staff are aware of the policies, and are trained on how to enforce them".
Last night's forum was sponsored by the East Central Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, part of a statewide Safe Schools Alliance which has held similar forums in Peoria and Bloomington-Normal.
Researchers at the University of Illinois are part of an international group of scientists that's decoded the DNA of the domestic pig.
Their research may one day prove useful in finding new treatments for both pigs and people, and perhaps aid in efforts for a new swine flu vaccine for pigs.
Larry Schook is the U of I biomedical science professor who led the project. He says the pig is the ideal animal to look at lifestyle and health issues in the United States. That's because pigs and humans are similar in size and makeup, and swine are often used in human research.
Researchers announced the results of their work today at a meeting in the United Kingdom. Schook says they'll spend the meeting discussing ways to use the new information.
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