Friday, December 03, 1999

Jury backs school officials in pot case




BY BEN L. KAUFMAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A federal jury in Cincinnati on Thursday said former Talawanda schools Superintendent Dennis Leone's aggressive responses did not violate a couple's freedom to criticize him.

        It was a heartbreaking verdict for Diana and Martin Stamler, the Somerville couple who sued Mr. Leone. He had threatened their son with expulsion in his senior year after he was caught smoking a marijuana cigarette.

        “We've risked everything and we've lost everything,” Mrs. Stamler said. “We've lost our retirement. We'll have to file for bankruptcy.”

        The Stamlers said they hadn't expected to land in court with crushing legal bills when they raised their voices in 1995 about Mr. Leone's handling of the discipline of their son David.

        Their attorney, Scott Greenwood, said the Stamlers would consider appealing, in part because educators might draw the wrong lesson.

        “A verdict like this can only encourage retaliatory activity,” Mr. Greenwood said.

        R. Gary Winters, attorney for Mr. Leone and co-defendant Edward Derickson, a school board member, called it “a good verdict.” His clients faced the possibility of compensatory and punitive damages had the jury sided with the Stamlers.

        “I feel vindicated,” Mr. Derickson said, “and this is very important to the district” he has served for 10 years.

        Mr. Leone, now superintendent in Chillicothe, could not be reached for comment.

        Mr. Greenwood speculated that the jury thought the Stamlers were not silenced, because they continued to write letters requesting information from the school board.

        The Stamlers had maintained that Mr. Leone manipulated his counseling staff, and used them and board meetings and letters to local newspapers to silence them.

        “It's all the letters,” Mr. Greenwood said, assuming that he had failed to show that the letters were not the same as confronting Mr. Leone in the public forum of school board meetings.

        “They could attend, but they won't, because of what Dr. Leone did to them,” Mr. Greenwood told jurors in closing arguments on Wednesday.

        The defendants denied that their responses were so intimidating that they violated the couple's rights.

        Instead, Mr. Leone and Mr. Derickson said they exercised only their First Amendment rights to respond to criticism.

        Or, as Mr. Winters said in his closing argument, the Stamlers “can say whatever they want. They can't, however, deny other people the opportunity to respond.”

        Mr. Stamler, in his 70s, is retired. Mrs. Stamler, a nurse, wondered bitterly if she could work enough overtime to pay Mr. Greenwood and avoid bankruptcy.

        Mrs. Stamler said a more urgent concern was son David's unwelcome offer to help restore their solvency by going to work and dropping out of pre-med at Miami University, where he is a junior.

       



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