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For two high school seniors, a slim gap of 0.055 in grade point average (GPA) has set off a multi-million-dollar lawsuit, an act of vandalism and a petition to rescind Harvard’s offer of admission to one of the students.
High school senior Blair Hornstine bagged a 4.689 GPA while classmate Kenneth Mirkin clocked in right behind with 4.634. But their school’s attempt to give both students—who will be entering Harvard as members of the Class of 2007 this fall—the title of valedictorian has prompted Hornstine to sue, claiming the school was discriminating against her as a disabled person.
In a preliminary hearing last Thursday, a U.S. District Court judge ruled in Hornstine’s favor, likely leaving her the sole valedictorian. Any damage awards will be determined in future hearings.
The legal spat took off when Hornstine sued the Moorestown, New Jersey, public school system for $2.5 million in punitive damages and $200,000 in compensatory damages to preserve her top-dog honor.
Hornstine filed her suit after learning that her high school was considering naming co-valedictorians since Hornstine’s status as a disabled student might have given her an unfair advantage over her peers.
She was exempted from physical education classes due to an immune deficiency that left her chronically fatigued, and she was therefore able to rack up classes that counted more toward her GPA.
The school district contended that this exemption was an unfair advantage in the competition for valedictorian.
Mirkin entered the legal fray last Thursday as an “intervener” on the side of the school system. Mirkin said yesterday he acted in defense of the targets of Hornstine’s suit.
“The superintendent [of the Moorestown school system] has taken a courageous stand to support our class. I’m rising in defense of that,” Mirkin said.
In Moorestown and in Cambridge, Hornstine’s suit has met with popular vitriol.
“People are disgusted by her,” the mother of a Moorestown senior said last night. “People don’t even want to have anything to do with the parents because they see it as being manipulative.”
Hornstine’s house was battered with eggs last week.
Her picture has appeared on students’ instant-message buddy icons, digitally altered to add tears to her eyes and an “X” over her name, according to Moorestown High junior Robert T. Ellison.
Back in Cambridge, several widely forwarded e-mails directed students to an online petition to rescind Hornstine’s admission to the College. The petition had attracted more than 550 signatures at 2 a.m. this morning.
But Mirkin said Harvard students should not judge Hornstine.
“I don’t want there to be any hatred towards her before she even comes in,” he said. “I think that’s just an unfair position to be put in.”
In a written statement, Hornstine said that being named a co-valedictorian would have “left unprotected the next disabled student.”
She wrote that the suit is “an act of necessity, aimed at saving others from apathy,” according to the Associated Press.
Hornstine could not be reached for comment last night.
D. Alexander Ewing ’03 called the petition to take back Hornstine’s acceptance to Harvard “a shame,” adding that it is particularly objectionable because Hornstine’s older brother Adam J. Hornstine ’03 is a senior in Pforzheimer House.
Adam Hornstine, who was the valedictorian at Moorestown High School as a senior there, also declined comment, noting he did so “out of respect for my family.” Hornstine will attend Harvard Law School next year, Ewing said.
Other Moorestown residents expressed skepticism with Hornstine’s discrimination claim.
“Nobody really knows what an ‘immune deficiency’ is,” said Ellison. “I guess she has a problem, but I still think you need to go to school to be valedictorian. And she’s saying that she’s tired all the time. But the student population is. We’re all tired because we’re working just as hard as she is.”
Hornstine’s lawyers last week defended their client’s case as a legitimate effort to protect the rights of disabled students.
Hornstine’s immune deficiency causes her to be chronically fatigued. She did most of her schoolwork at home with private tutors.
Jonah M. Knobler ’03, who began a lively discussion on the Winthrop House open e-mail list after forwarding a news story about Hornstine to the list, said he signed the petition to voice his “disapproval” of Hornstine’s lawsuit.
“Her actions are unbecoming of a Harvard student, and they make the rest of us look bad in association,” Knobler said. “Some of the comments on the petition have been, ‘This is typically what I expect of a Harvard student.’ It just fits in exactly with what we don’t want to look like in the media.”
According to Cyndy Wulfsberg, Moorestown’s school board president, the lawsuit poses a “real challenge” to Moorestown.
“It would be impossible for us to pay that kind of money and not have it affect the school district,” she said. “We’re trying to prepare for next year, and we’re preparing for legal issues instead.”
In what one online message-board poster sarcastically dubbed the “Blair Witch Project,” students of Moorestown High School and other web surfers have posted angry reactions to the case ranging from vulgar to violent to disgusted.
Moorestown junior Brian S. Maley said yesterday that his high school’s atmosphere of cutthroat competition likely aggravated the situation.
“I can see where it’s coming from: this competitive nature, like, ‘Oh, I want to be the best,’” he said. “At our school, everyone’s trying to be the best.”
Moorestown School Superintendent Paul A. Kadri claimed that Hornstine’s father, a New Jersey Superior Court judge, threatened to “use any advantage of the laws and regulations” to provide his daughter “the best opportunity to be valedictorian,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
But amid the harsh words for Hornstine and her family, some defend her academic merit. Ewing, the senior who criticized the petition against Hornstine as insensitive, said he once judged the high school senior in a mock trial competition.
“She was the best attorney,” he said.
Hornstine also has a hefty resume to speak for her talents. She and her brother co-founded a service club. She also founded a prom dress drive for local high school students, co-founded a food drive for the local poor and chaired a campaign to raise money for cleft-lip and -palate surgeries for Chinese orphans.
Hornstine has said that she hopes to become a lawyer.
—Staff writer Elizabeth W. Green can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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