Journal, Musings

The Blair Hornstine Project

For those of you who are not familiar with Blair Hornstine, here is a quick summary. For additional information on the subject, please visit the links section at the end of this entry. Skip to here you want to see the Blair H. Project trailer.

Blair Hornstine, 18, is a senior at Moorestown High School (MHS) in New Jersey. In May, 2003, she sued her school district to be named the sole valedictorian of her graduating class. Blair has been diagnosed with a condition similar to chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). She is thus classified as a disabled student, which by law, affords her certain accomodations from her school district. For instance, she is able to go to school for a few hours a day, has private, at-home tutors, and does not have to take the state-required gym class. In place of gym class, she can take additional Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Furthermore, her classes are not graded by the normal curriculum teachers, but by her private tutors, who were chosen for and approved by the school district.

The Valedictorian Issue

On paper, Blair has excelled in the academic sense, garnering “23 A+’s, 9 A’s, and 1 A-” throughout her high school career and scoring a 1570 on the SAT. Blair is also the recipient of a number of awards and scholarships. She carried the Olympic Torch a few years ago and was awarded the Congressional Award Gold Medal, which requires “400 hours of voluntary public service, 200 hours of personal development activities, 200 hours of physical fitness, and four consecutive days and nights of an exploration or expedition.” Her cumulative Grade Point Average (GPA) is percentage points ahead of the second-place student, Kenneth Mirkin, 4.689 to 4.634.

There are contending facts about both students’ GPA. On one hand, the school district says that there was no way that Kenneth could have matched Blair’s GPA, given the fact that she was able to take more weighted classes and skip certain mandatory classes like gym. They also state that having private in-house tutors who graded much of her work gave Blair an advantage over her peers. On the other hand, those in Blair’s camp contend that Kenneth could have had a higher GPA if he had gotten better grades. They point out the fact that Blair’s school curriculum was approved by the school board and that she should win the valedictorian award because she had, at the end of seven semesters the highest culmulative GPA of all her classmates.

Here’s a quick primer on calculating GPA. In most high schools, extra weight is added for AP or Honors classes when computing one’s GPA. For instance, an A in AP History would count as a 5 instead of a 4. An A in Gym class, on the other hand, would count as a 4, because it is not an Honors or AP course. Thus, one can easily see how how Blair can be percentage points ahead of Kenneth in the calcuation for the top GPA if she replaced gym with an AP class. Consider the following sample table comparing Blair and Kenneth’s courseload and GPA.

Sample GPA Calculation
Student AP Math AP English AP History AP Science AP Language Elective #1 Elective #2 Gym/Replacement Total GPA
Blair 5 5 5 5 5 4 4 5 (38 / 8) = 4.75
Kenneth 5 5 5 5 5 4 4 4 (37 / 8) = 4.625

This table is merely an example on how Blair could have received a higher GPA than Kenny while taking the same courses and getting the same grades. The availability of Judge Wolfson’s ruling allows us to look more closely at Kenneth and Blair’s grades. You’ll see evidence that it wasn’t so clear cut that replacing gym class with an extra AP class would have leveled the GPA situatin with the two students. I’ll keep this table here for historical purposes, but be sure to read the ruling for more information!

Some people in the community felt that Blair’s various affordances created an uneven academic playing field (unsubstantiated posts have been made in a number of web forums pointing to Kenneth Mirkin’s mother) They went to School Superintendent Paul Kadri with their grievances, and he — following his own investigation — agreed. He proposed to name Hornstine and Mirkin (and possibly a third student) co-valedictorians at Moorestown’s June 19 graduation. It is important to note that district policy states that the person with the highest GPA is to be named valedictorian. In offering his proposal for the sharing of the title, Kadri was trying to change school policy during the year.

Litigation

Apparently, when Blair heard about the School Board’s planning, she was none too please and decided to take legal action. Please note that it was Blair who decided to file the federal lawsuit, not her Superior Court Judge father, Louis Hornstine. Whether or not it was her decision or the decision of her parents, there is little doubt that Judge Hornstine assisted his daughter with the court case. In suing the school district to be named the sole valedictorian, Hornstine argued that Kadri was discriminating against disabled students. Sharing the valedictorian title, she argued, would have “left unprotected the next disabled student.” The lawsuit was “an act of necessity, aimed at saving others from apathy.” In short, she had the highest GPA, disabled or not, so she does not need to share with the valedictorian title with anyone.

Judge Wolfson’s Ruling

The ruling judge in the case, Freda Wolfson, agreed with Blair and her attorney, Edwin A. Jacobs, Jr. Wolfson’s 43-page opinion was scathing to those school officials and those among the community who supported Kadri, saying:

“They have lost sight of the fact that [Hornstine], unlike her peers, suffers from a debilitating medical condition, which has never been disputed by the [school] board, and that her accommodations were aimed at putting her on a level playing field with her healthy classmates. The defendants should revel in the success of their [special-education] program and the academic star it has produced; instead, they seek to diminish the honor that she has rightly earned.”

We now have a copy of Judge Wolfson’s 43-page ruling in the court case! The document was found on the Rutger’s Law web site, and I have taken the liberty to copy it to my web site [in the event that the original document is lost]. There are a number of interesting facts related to the case, and I encourage everyone who is interested to read it. From a legal standpoint, Ms. Hornstine does have a valid point. Given the evidence provided in the ruling, even I might have ruled in favor of Hornstine to be named the sole valedictorian of her graduating class.

Wolfson argues that the “uneven playing field” was in fact even, because Hornstine’s curriculum was approved by the school board. Hornstine and her laywer are now seeking $2.5 to $2.7 million dollars in compensatory and punitive damages. Note that next year’s school budget for Moorestown will be $50.2 million dollars. If successful, her lawsuit will represent nearly 5% of next year’s school budget.

Some readers have written in that Kadri was not planning on having Hornstine sharing the award and that he was only considering Mirkin as the sole valedictorian. This is alluded to in Judge Wolfson’s ruling, copied below:

“Board and Superintendent Kadri have made clear that they have no intention of allowing plaintiff to be the sole valedictorian, even though she has earned the highest weighted G.P.A. after seven semesters. Worse yet, the fact that Kadri informed K.M. and not plaintiff that he was being considered for the award raises the possibility that the Board may not select plaintiff for the honor at all. Indeed, the proposed policy amendment is vague enough to allow the Board to avoid naming the student with the highest seventh semester weighted G.P.A. as one of the valedictorians. Perhaps with this possibility in mind, defense counsel at oral argument did not state on the record that the Board definitely would name plaintiff one of the valedictorians.”

It is a possibility that the School Board would not have named Hornstine the valedictorian, not a certainty. If Kadri was going to give Mirkin the valedictorian award outright, then of course, he was in the wrong. Throughout the ruling, Wolfson continually states the case that there would be an imbalance if the school were to award two valedictorian spots, one for the non-disabled student and one for the disabled student:

“If the Board were to name another valedictorian along with plaintiff, it would be sending the message loud and clear: ‘we have two valedictorians this year a disabled one, and a non-disabled one.'”

There is outrage on both sides of the Hornstine issue around the world. Some agree firmly on the side of Hornstine and the judge. This was a clear case of discrimination. Blair deserved the award fair and square, and it was stupid for the School Board to try to meddle with the situation. Others have mixed opinions. Some agree on a legal standpoint that Hornstine should be named valedictorian, but disagree on the desire to seek damages from the lawsuit. Others are decidely against Hornstine, calling her a whiny, greedy little brat. They have left scathing comments on various newsgroups, forums, and websites. There’s even an online petition asking Harvard University to rescind her admission. It is an interesting fact that Kenneth Mirkin, the second-placed student, will also be attending Harvard in the Fall with Blair.

Plagiarism

But wait, there’s more! In the beginning of June, it was discovered that Blair had failed to attribute and cite her sources in five articles that she had written for the Courier Post, a local newspaper in her county. She lifted near complete paragraphs from speaches by former President Clinton, Supreme Court Justices, and global analysts.

Here are samples of her writing and the original sources:

Blair Hornstine Thanksgiving November 26, 2002 column President Clinton’s Thanksgiving 2000 Proclamation

At Thanksgiving this year, Americans must carry on that tradition of sharing not only with family and friends but also with those in need throughout their communities.
Every generation of Americans has benefited from the generosity, talents, efforts and contributions of their fellow citizens. All of us have been enriched by the diverse
cultures, traditions and beliefs of the millions of people who, by birth or by choice, have come to call American their home.

All of us are beneficiaries of our founders’ wisdom and of the service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform. While Americans are an independent people, we are
interdependent as well, and our greatest achievements are those that we have accomplished together. As we celebrate Thanksgiving, let us remember with gratitude that,
despite our differences, each of us is a member of a larger American family and that, working together, there is nothing we cannot accomplish.

At Thanksgiving this year and every year, in worship services and family celebrations across our country, Americans carry on that tradition of giving, sharing not only
with family and friends, but also with those in need throughout their communities.

Every generation of Americans has benefited from the generosity, talents, efforts and contributions of their fellow citizens. All of us have been enriched by the diverse
cultures, traditions and beliefs of the millions of people who, by birth or choice, have come to call America their home. All of us are beneficiaries of our founders’
Wisdom and of the service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform. While Americans are an independent people, we are interdependent as well, and our greatest
achievements are those we have accomplished together.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving, let us remember with gratitude that despite our differences in background, age, politics or race, each of us is a member of our larger
American family and that, working together, there is nothing we cannot accomplish in this promising new century.

Blair Hornstine November 12 article on censorship U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan’s 1989 decision in Texas v. Johnson

If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that public entities may not prohibit expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.

If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.

In a letter written to the Courier Post, Blair admits her guilt, but chalks it up to an ignorance of the rules of journalism.

“If I see further,” wrote scientist Isaac Newton to his colleague Robert Hooke, “it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants.”

This statement, meant to suggest that Newton’s achievement had been predicated upon the discoveries and findings of his predecessors, underscores a fundamental academic truism that remains true even in our time. All knowledge is constructed upon scholarship bequeathed to us by past generations. Newton’s statement, therefore, captures the very essence of academia, and it simultaneously highlights an often-overlooked, sometimes invisible, but tremendously significant part of scholarly research: the footnote.

The importance of properly citing works that have been relied upon to make new conclusions cannot be understated. Proper citations are important. Itis essential to give proper credit to those whose findings serve as the foundations for new arguments and achievements. Just as movie credits thank the actors and production crew that make the creation of the latest Hollywood blockbuster possible, footnotes are a means of recognizing the importance of others in making academic advances.

Recently, I was advised by the editors of the Courier-Post that I had not properly cited work for articles that I submitted. These voluntary articles were not written for class assignments. I kept notes on what I had read. When finalizing my thoughts, I, like most every teenager who has use of a computer, cut and pasted my ideas together. I erroneously thought the way I had submitted the articles was appropriate. I now realize that I was mistaken. I was incorrect in also thinking that news articles didn’t require as strict citation scrutiny as most school assignments because there was no place for footnotes or end notes.

I am not a professional journalist. I was a 17-year-old with no experience in writing newspaper articles. Upon reflection, I am now cognizant that proper citation allows scholars of the future to constantly reevaluate and reexamine academic works.

Footnotes provide not only an outline of the logic of the author, but also a detailed road map to the past. Like bread crumbs dropped along a path, footnotes and citations allow aspiring academics to follow previous scholarship to better enhance our general knowledge.

If Newton’s pronouncement is to remain true, proper citations are essential. If we are to truly augment our general knowledge in any field … science, history or literature, to name a few … footnoting is necessary. Footnotes are the glue that holds our knowledge together; without them, academic progress would surely be stunted. I hope that others learn from my unfortunate, unintentional omissions.

The revelation of this fact caused some people to jump from viewing Blair as a victim to seeing her as a perpetrator. People began wondering if Blair had plagiarized on school papers or scholarship applications. Of course, this is a possibility, not a certainty. What is certain is that within days, the online petition, which was stalled at 1400 votes, surged to over 2000 votes. Messages boards and forums were reflooded with articles and comments about Blair. Even Harvard has been notified of the plagiarism issue, by none other than Blair herself!

Blair’s supporters state that the plagiarism issue is much ado about nothing. One of her lawyers, Edwin J. Jacobs, Jr., states that “It was a whole lot of nothing. She wrote some fluff pieces for a kid-chat column…. We have more important things to deal with.”

As we will soon see, while the plagiarism issue might not have have anything to do with her being named the valedictorian, it does have a lot to do with the admissions process at a major university such as Harvard. Plagiarism is not a trivial issue, and students caught plagiarizing have been known to have been expelled from and/or denied admission into Universities.

Graduation

In an article on the Philly Inquirer, it appears that Ms. Hornstine will not be attending graduation on June 19. Her lawyer, Edwin Jacobs, writes:

“… The hostile environment at the school has traumatized Blair both physically and emotionally, to the point that she cannot and will not attend the graduation ceremonies.”

On papers, students appear eager to put this story behind them and focus on their other accomplishments. Without Hornstine at graduation, the ceremonies went off without much incident. Her named was not mentioned during the proceedings and Salutorian, Kenneth Mirkin, gave a speech noting the accomplishments of the class as a whole.

Harvard Rescinds Admission

On July 11th, the newswaves were hit again with an update on the Blair Hornstine saga. According to the Harvard Crimson, Harvard has rescinded its offer of admission to Blair Hornstine! Though Harvard officials would not comment on the decision, it appears it was made after news of Blair’s plagiarism surfaced.

The issue of plagiarism, though separate from the valedictorian suit, arose because of the media scrutiny on Blair Hornstine. Had she not pushed so hard to be named valedictorian, it is highly unlikely that her acts of plagiarism would have been uncovered. In the end, Harvard had no choice; they had to rescind her admission. Plagiarism is a serious academic issue. Letting her in would have said to the world that Harvard is willing to dismiss past transgressions if the student is otherwise worthy. They didn’t do it for Gina Grant, and they didn’t do it for Blair.

The Blair camp has attempted to put a spin on this latest update. In a Newsweek article Blair’s lawyer, Edwin Jabobs, states that “Blair had decided to tender a withdrawal of her application simply because of the rabid, negative publicity on that campus,” and that “Blair has been exploring other alternatives, namely campuses less hostile than Harvard.” The article also mentions that Hornstine is already taking college-level courses at an undisclosed campus.

Settlement

August 19, 2003: The news reports that the two parties have agreed to a settlement. Originally seeking 2.7 million dollars in damages, Blair Hornstine will get $60,000. Take $45,000 in lawyer’s fees, and Blair Hornstine is looking at $15,000 for herself. According to the article, in “agreeing to the out-of-court settlement, the Moorestown Board of Education admitted no wrongdoing and said it accepted the agreement in part to limit its legal costs.”

My Thoughts

Before I go on with my thoughts, I’m going to make one assumptions: the School Board was considering co-valedictorians: Kenneth Mirkin and Blair Hornstine. Some readers have been insistent that because Kenneth was the only student who received a letter saying that he would be “considered” as valedictorian that he would have been the sole recipient of that honor. I acknowledge that possibility, but I believe that the Board was going to honor both Kenneth and Blair.

Hornstine should be aware of the difference between spirit of the law and letter of the law. I was speaking with a police officer the day after my friend’s car was vandalized and violated by a 5-pound rock. I noticed that he had a telescoping baton attached to his belt. As a police officer, of course, he’s allowed to carry one, but telescoping batons are illegal in California. It is a misdemeanor offence for first-times to carry such a weapon. Depending on the severity of your offence (i.e. number of weapons you might be carrying), however, the charge could be changed to a felony offence, which is no laughing matter in California. The policeman described the difference between officers who follow the spirit of the law versus those who follow the letter of the law. The former might inform a person in possession of a wooden baton that such items are illegal in the State of California and gently “ask” them to get rid of it. The officer who follows the letter of the law would impound the weapon and arrest the guy for being in possession of a banned weapon. A misdemeanor or felony charge later, that person’s life has changed irrevocably.

How does this relate to the Hornstine case? Those in the community that complained to the school, Superintendent Kadri, Hornstine and her lawyers all share part of the blame for creating this situation. Though it might have started with the community and Kadri, it was Blair Hornstine who escalated the issue to national awareness. Yes, she might have rightfully been the valedictorian of Mooretown High School, or she might simply have been the valedictorian of her school of one, Blair Hornstine High School. She still had to make the decision on how to deal with the situation, and the path she took was through litigation. By appealing to the letter of the law, Hornstine uncorked a series of events that put her and the Moorestown community into the national spotlight. Her life has now changed irrevocably, for better or worse, now that she has been indexed by Google and the subject of countless emails, lettes, articles, and web forum comments. All of her previous accomplishments will now be tainted with questions of, “Was she really disabled?” or “Did she plagiarize anything else on her papers or applications?” or “Now what is this whiny little brat complaining about?”

This is no longer a case of who is the valedictorian of Moorestown High School, but a case of who can best use and manipulate the system. The community and Kadri tried [and failed] to alter the system to accomodate multiple valedictorians, and Hornstine successfully worked the system to have her named the sole valedictorian. Whether or not she fought for her right as a disabled student or simply as an overachiever who wanted to be named number one is irrelevant. She and her lawyers did whatever it took within the letter of the law to remain number one. As many people have stated, there was another choice for her to take — sharing the award. Given our society’s thirst to have a winner and a loser, one might think that there is shame in sharing, but there is and should be none in this case. Both Kenneth and Blair could have easily shared the same stage as co-valedictorians. Yes, there might have been mutterings of disapproval from some members of the community that Hornstine didn’t deserve it due to her accomodations, but those thoughts and utterances would have been kept private. Similarly, Hornstine might have told to her family that she really was number one. She might have indeed gone to Harvard still thinking that. Upon her first semester, of course, she would have quickly realized how useless — shared or not — the title of valedictorian is. There’s always going to be someone smarter and more accomplished than you, Blair. The important point to take from this is that everything would have remained private… no national spotlight, no revealing of plagiarism, no backlash from the media, no Harvard rescinding your admission. Nothing would have happened had she decided to share the valedictorian award.

She had the choice to follow the spirit of the law, but chose the other path. For this, she must be held responsible and accountable for the life that follows. In my opinion, there is no community to blame, Mrs. Mirkin to blame, no Paul Kadri to blame, no disability to blame — there is no one to blame but yourself. Face up to it and move on with your life, Blair.


The Blair H. Project

Now, let’s get to something funny out of this ludicrous lawsuit. Inspired by true events, The Blair Hornstine Project trailer is a tongue-in-cheek look at the whole situation. Last night, Rae and I had just finished updating her documentary project on Qiu Jin and were talking about Blair’s predicament. Rae and Randy have had to deal with my ranting and raving about Blair for the past month. Rae suggested that instead of ranting and raving, I should channel my energies towards something creative. A few hours later, we produced an exclusive trailer for the Internet audience! Click on the link below to view the trailer!

If you don’t get the trailer, you might want to look at this page.


Links

For additional information and background on the Blair Hornstine case, please visit the following links.

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3 thoughts on “The Blair Hornstine Project

  1. LM says:

    I read recently that Blair has become a lawyer. It’s quite bizarre to me that she would chose a career in which her ethics would ever be under scrutiny.

    With regard to the valedictorianship, no matter how you cut it, two people taking classes with any differences whatsoever will never be a “scientific” assessment for who is top. Unless they were idiots, both she and her father knew this. The idea of valedictorian is a cute tradition, with a little, but not a lot of meaning. This was really one of the weirdest cases ever…and with her current career in law, far weirder.

    Thank you for reprinting the original and plagiarized versions of Blair’s work. When you look at that you have to wonder if maybe she was, in fact, a bit of an idiot. You have to wonder, too, if someone caught plagiarizing so blatantly should perhaps have had her test scores and other grades investigated.

    • Anon says:

      I myself am a lawyer, so I know how to do some research. Okay, I’m not a stalker, but I just was intrigued what happened to Blair later in her life. After her admission to Harvard was revoked, she ending up attending a school in University of St. Andrews, Scotland, where she studied classics. She then attendended Julliard, in New York, where she apparently concentrated on voice. Then, on to law school at William and Mary School of Law (a top 40 law school– not awesome, but good.) Blair volunteered for a special education law clinic. Summer internships in civil rights posts within the federal government– focus on disability rights, hate crimes, First Amendment, sex trafficking.

      Since graduation in 2010, Blair has been a managing member of the Hornstine Wertheimer & Pelloni law firm, in PA/NJ. The firm was founded by her father, Judge Hornstine, before he became a judge. He is still part of the firm. The other lawyers are also fresh-out-of-lawschool lawyers, just like Blair. Practice areas in the firm include special education law, and there is a blog on special education issues. Looks like Blair is on track to be a plaintiff-side, civil rights/special education lawyer.

  2. Queen says:

    Thanks for the info Anon. I was recently reading an article by Nel Nodding that mentioned Ms. Hornstine and, like you, was curious. Personally, I disagree with the author’s placement of blame, if there needs to be any at all. There were a number of points that he glossed over, chief among them being that even though she had the opportunity to take more AP classes than the salutatorian, he actually took more than her and, as is to be expected, things were still stacked to his advantage. The former point was laid out at length with a diagram even while the latter point was merely alluded to.

    Still, if anything is silly, it is the insistence that the disabled be “separate but equal” and that Blair shut up and take one up the arse or be prepared to face the wrath of society for failing to “stay in her place,” after striving so hard to show people that even disabled people can be valedictorian. I find that Blair’s case did indeed follow, not just the letter, but the spirit of the law, the law that supposedly keeps the strong from trampling all over the weak.

    As for plagiarism and errors in newspaper articles, as both a K12 and undergraduate instructor myself, I have personally witnessed how little students truly understand regarding plagiarism. In fact, in a graduate class I’m currently taking, my own work was taken verbatim and used without any reference in the title or citation pages. Faced with instructors who barely know how cite, among a host of other syntax issues, it is not surprising to me at all that a high school student could unknowingly plagiarize. Still, many teachers are actually uncomfortable broaching the subject when if they did, it would save well intentioned students some heart ache and scare those without good intentions into thinking twice. This is something that we, as teachers, must rectify.

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