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BROOKFIELD SCHOOLS Rejected essay topic leads to a lawsuit



Published: Tue, July 2, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



The suit says the boy is 'educationally challenged.'

YOUNGSTOWN -- Peggy E. Koehler is outraged that Brookfield School District wouldn't allow her son to write an essay about Jesus.

She is so disturbed that she and her son have filed a $1.5 million lawsuit against the district, contending school officials violated the boy's First Amendment rights.

According to the suit filed in U.S. District Court here Monday, a teacher asked the 14-year-old middle school pupil's class this spring to write about the most influential people in their lives.

When Phillip M. Vaccaro indicated he planned to write about Jesus, the lawsuit says, "The teacher abruptly cautioned him that Jesus was not a real person. The teacher instructed him to select another topic."

"All they had to do was allow him to write his letter and accept it as his assignment," Koehler said today.

Koehler said school officials told her son to write about another topic -- not Jesus or God.

"That was his first and only choice and he refused," Koehler explained.

Michele Orahood, district treasurer, said this morning no one was available to comment.

The suit says as a result of the denial, the boy, described as "an educationally challenged youth," was spiritually and emotionally devastated, missed days of school and sought continued medical attention for depression and other medical issues.

Letter from lawyer

Koehler, of Hazelton Street, and her attorney sent a letter asking school officials to recant the remark and remedy the situation.

Instead, "policy-makers not only refused to assist the parents and child, or even slightly modify their position, but instead, at a meeting with the school principal to discuss the matter, the principal verbally assaulted the mother ... used profanity and sent her fleeing out the door," the suit says.

Koehler said that since the teacher would not accept his assignment May 1, Phillip has been home-schooled.

She contends the district would not accept her request that the boy be allowed to withdraw from school and he wasn't allowed to return to school because he won't give up his constitutional rights, Koehler said.

She says she is supported by the community and her church, Believer Christian Fellowship of Warren.

Atty. Mark S. Colucci of Youngstown, who represents the boy and his mother, said he is confident of winning the lawsuit, saying America was founded on Judeo-Christian principles.

He said that in his opinion, a recent California court ruling that found as unconstitutional the use of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance in school is flawed.




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