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Controversial N.J. high school valedictorian will sit out ceremony

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) MOORESTOWN, N.J. - Next Thursday was supposed to be her day of triumph.

Wearing a robe and mortarboard, she was supposed to stand before her classmates, reflecting on the last four years and looking forward to future accomplishments.

But in a poignant twist, Blair Hornstine, the disabled academic star who went to federal court to ensure she was named sole valedictorian of Moorestown, N.J.'s Moorestown High School Class of 2003, will give no speeches on graduation day.

She will not show up at all, amid rumors that classmates planned to boo or turn their backs on a girl many say never deserved to represent their class.

In a letter dated Tuesday, Hornstine's attorney, Edwin Jacobs Jr., told school officials that "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."

Saying he had received no response to an earlier letter, Jacobs wrote: "I assume the Board of Education intends to take no action to reduce current tensions at the high school and ensure a civil graduation ceremony."

The family did not return calls seeking comment about Hornstine's plans. Friends said the 18-year-old senior, an aspiring lawyer who plans to follow her older brother to Harvard University in the fall, had not been in school recently.

"The family doesn't want to be contacted, and they don't want her whereabouts publicized," Jacobs said.

Superintendent Paul Kadri said Wednesday evening that no speaker would replace Hornstine, who he said would still be recognized in some manner.

"The overarching issue to focus on is that Moorestown is a quiet, family-oriented community, and they will probably want a quiet, respectful graduation," Kadri said.

It was Kadri, responding to complaints by students and parents, who proposed having multiple valedictorians at a school where the top honor in recent years went to the senior with the highest grade point average.

Hornstine beat out all her peers.

And a federal judge last month agreed she had done it in spite of, not because of, a disability listed in court papers as an immune disorder that causes chronic fatigue.

Kadri, backed by much of the community, has maintained that Hornstine's special-education curriculum, which allowed her to take the bulk of her courses at home with tutors, gave her an unfair academic advantage over her peers. Many parents and students contend that, with the help of her father, Superior Court Judge Louis F. Hornstine, Hornstine built a schedule heavy in advanced placement and honors courses to attain an honor she otherwise could not have secured.

Many have questioned the extent of Hornstine's disability or whether she has one.

In Moorestown, Hornstine is not widely considered a champion of rights for the disabled, but a litigious overachiever with a powerful father willing to do anything to ensure his daughter got the top honor.

Many in the community are particularly upset over Hornstine's pending federal discrimination lawsuit against the school district. Preliminary court papers indicate the suit could seek up to $2.7 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

People speak her name with disgust. She has been threatened, her family home egged and paintballed.

The backlash has traveled as far as Harvard, where Hornstine's brother graduated last weekend. The school's newspaper has been covering the younger Hornstine's case, and the controversy has played out in columns and letters. An online petition with more than 2,200 names demands that the university rescind her offer of admission based on her "petty, childish" actions at home.

Scrutiny of Hornstine's work has added to the fire. Last week, the Camden Courier-Post reported that she had failed to attribute information in five articles and essays she had written for the paper's teen section. In a response that appeared in the paper, Hornstine wrote that she had been ignorant of journalistic standards.

Jenny Hussong, who has known Hornstine since sixth grade and roomed with her on the senior trip to Disney World, said her friend was playing it safe by staying away from graduation in such a heated environment.

"Blair has received numerous death threats," Hussong wrote in an e-mailed response. "Unfortunately, in the age of school shootings, such matters cannot be ignored. . . . During a school assembly, one boy stood up and said, `I'd like to rip out her jugular. . . . ` He may have been kidding, but others may not have."

Kenny Mirkin, who compiled the second-highest GPA in the senior class and filed court papers supporting the district's proposed multivaledictorian policy, said he thought his classmates would have been civil had Hornstine decided to attend graduation.

"I can't speak for 260 kids and guarantee all of them would act with maturity," said the Harvard-bound Mirkin, 18, "but I think the vast majority of the students in our class would have acted respectfully."

Mirkin, who will serve as salutatorian at a graduation without a valedictorian, said he had not written his speech. But he said it would not dwell on the dispute.

"I don't want that controversy to be at the center of graduation," he said. "I want it to be a celebration of what our class has accomplished."

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