Homework during summer vacation prompts lawsuit
Pair sue math teacher, Whitnall District
By JAMAAL ABDUL-ALIM
Posted: Jan. 19, 2005
In an effort to teach educators a lesson about the importance of summer vacation, a Whitnall High School student and his father have filed a lawsuit against the boy's math teacher that seeks to bar teachers from requiring homework over the summer.
[font=arial, helvetica] Come summer, they need a break.
[font=arial, helvetica]- Bruce Larson,
[font=arial, helvetica] If I were a judge, I would not only dismiss the lawsuit, I'd levy a fine against the father for misusing the courts.
[font=arial, helvetica]- Philip K. Howard,
Legal reform advocate
[font=arial, helvetica] The second assignment was 16 pages, and that was extremely difficult for me to do. :stone
[font=arial, helvetica]- Peer Larson,
In the lawsuit, 17-year-old Peer Larson and his father, Bruce Larson of Hales Corners, argue that school officials have no legal authority to make students do homework over the summer because the state-required 180-day school year is over.
"It is poor public policy," Bruce Larson argues in the lawsuit. "These students are still children, yet they are subjected to increasing pressure to perform to ever-higher standards in numerous theaters.
"Come summer, they need a break."
But some observers say the schools
and courts need a break from lawsuits such as the one brought by the Larsons.
"If I were a judge, I would not only dismiss the lawsuit, I'd levy a fine against the father for misusing the courts," says Philip K. Howard, a lawyer and legal reform advocate based in New York City and author of the bestseller "The Death of Common Sense."
"Courts are there for serious disputes," Howard says. "If you let everyone who is disgruntled go to court, it just uses up court resources.":hatparty:
The Larsons argue that if teachers want to assign homework during the summer vacation, the homework should be voluntary and not factored into the student's grade without the student's consent.
"There's not supposed to be any work when someone is on vacation," Peer Larson said in an interview. "It should be my time to pursue whatever I like without having the school following me when it's not even the school year."
His summer vacation was stressful, he says, because he had to do math homework in addition to a summer job as a camp counselor that often exceeded 40 hours a week.
Summer assignments are not that unusual these days - especially summer reading. Blane McCann, superintendent of the Shorewood School District, says he has worked in districts that expect students to read over break.
"I think that is appropriate as they prepare for the school year by providing more time for reflection," McCann says.
Shorewood does not have a policy that specifically addresses homework over summer break. Some teachers there give students a list of summer reading or math packets, but the work is not required, officials say.
To Howard, a lawsuit over such assignments is frivolous.
Requiring homework over the summer is a "perfectly reasonable, non-abusive requirement," and if parents don't like it they should take the matter up with the school board, he says.
Bruce Larson says he mentioned his concerns to the school board but did not file a formal complaint.
Whitnall School Board member Mary Ann Lindberg said Larson did bring the matter up but did not file a formal complaint. She said the board left the matter up to administrators and could not say if the board would take up the matter if Larson did file a formal complaint.
"Sometimes those kinds of decisions are best made at the building level with the teachers and the principal and perhaps someone in administration, because they know best what they're trying to achieve," Lindberg said.
She referred a reporter to the district's Web site on homework policy and procedures.
It says students can expect one to three hours per week per course "beyond the regular class period," but does not specify whether that extends into the summer break. It also says the student should "organize his/her out of school time so that adequate time for study is provided."
However, addressing the role of teacher, the policy says "Homework should be given with consideration for the amount of time that the student has available."
The Larsons are representing themselves in the lawsuit, which was filed in Milwaukee County Circuit Court last week. Bruce Larson is president of Larson Chemical Corp. in Greendale.
In addition to Peer Larson's Whitnall High School math teacher, Aaron Bieniek, the lawsuit also names the high school math department chair, Nancy Sarnow; Whitnall High School Principal Joel Eul; the Whitnall School District; and state schools superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster.
Whitnall School District Superintendent Karen Petric says the district tried to resolve the matter but to no avail. She sees no reason for Larson to sue his teacher.
"I strongly believe the district acted appropriately and didn't do anything wrong," Petric said. "Court is not the place to solve it. It doesn't belong there."
Petric said the state Department of Public Instruction reviewed Larson's complaint and dismissed it. She said the district would not have anything else to say on the matter because of concerns over student confidentiality. A call to Bieniek was not returned.
The case has been referred to state Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager, state DPI spokesman Joe Donovan says. A spokesman for the state Department of Justice had no comment.
The lawsuit emanates from a series of assignments that Peer Larson says Bieniek gave him and his classmates at the end of the 2003-'04 school year.
At the time, Peer Larson says, he was a sophomore in Brenda Hojnacki's class. Bieniek gave what Peer Larson described as a "presentation" for what students could expect in his honors pre-calculus class in the fall.
"He handed out the homework then as well," Peer Larson says. "He told us it was available online to download."
Peer Larson says Bieniek told the students he wanted the homework done at certain points during the summer, and that it had to be "postmarked by a certain date."
He said those dates were approximately at the beginning of July, August, and when the school year resumed.
"Not too many people were exactly happy with it," Peer Larson says. "Nobody really likes to do homework, especially during the summer."
Peer Larson said he completed the first and third assignments, but had trouble doing the second one because it was a lengthy assignment and he was working a full-time job as a counselor at the Indian Mound Reservation Boy Scout Camp in Oconomowoc.
"The second assignment was 16 pages, and that was extremely difficult for me to do," Peer Larson says.:uhoh21:
"At camp, there really was never enough time to do it. At the end of the day, I'd be too tired to actually work on any kind of math."
Peer Larson says he could not recall if Bieniek made his phone number available to help the students, but that he thinks Bieniek included his e-mail address and some Web sites that could help guide students through the work.
He says Bieniek agreed to count only the assignments with the two highest scores, but only as long as he did all three assignments, which he says he ultimately did.
He says the whole experience ruined what was supposed to be an enjoyable summer break.
"It provided quite an amount of stress," Larson says. "I barely made the first assignment in on time."