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Girl Challenges School’s Ban on Backpacks

March 14, 1996

HAMILTON TOWNSHIP, N.J. (AP) _ Citing Martin Luther King Jr. and Henry David Thoreau as her inspiration, a 14-year-old honors student went to court Wednesday to challenge a school’s authority to outlaw student backpacks.

Elyse Meredith took the stand for the second and final day of testimony here before Administrative Law Judge Solomon A. Metzger, who will decide whether William Annin Middle School can legally ban backpacks from its hallways, classrooms and cafeteria. A decision is expected in about two weeks.

The eighth-grader has logged 10 days of in-school suspensions for defying the ban instituted Jan. 2 by school officials out of concern that the packs are a safety and fire hazard.

Under the policy, students are allowed to carry the packs to their lockers, but not to class. Several teachers testified that the overstuffed packs are dangerous because they could whack someone if a student turned suddenly or cause a teacher to trip if left carelessly beneath a desk.

Elyse told the judge she has the right to carry the pack, and that her inspiration for fighting the ban was King and Thoreau.

``I believe it’s a constitutional right when it does not materially and substantially interfere with the educational process,″ she testified.

Elyse is represented by her father, Charles Meredith, a food product salesman with a master’s degree in educational administration.

Meredith was repeatedly asked by Les Aron, the lawyer for the Bernards Township’s school board, to question witnesses, not make statements.

``I know he’s struggling a little bit in there,″ his wife, Lynda Meredith, a high school math teacher, admitted during a break.

``But it costs so much money for a lawyer. Yet it’s a real issue of civil liberties, and we believe in it, otherwise we wouldn’t let her fight it.″

Metzger’s ruling amounts to a recommendation only, which can be accepted or rejected by the state education commissioner. The commissioner’s decision can be appealed to the state appellate courts, and the family has vowed to appeal if Metzger upholds the ban.

In a brief but heated cross-examination of Elyse, Aron pointed to an incident in which a guidance counselor tripped on the girl’s backpack.

``But she didn’t fall, she stumbled,″ protested Elyse, who now carries a black imitation leather attache case, a gift from her father.

Wearing a navy-and-green kilt and Birkenstock sandals, the teen-ager clenched her jaw and rolled her eyes at her mother as she left the witness stand.

``I think it went well,″ she said. ``Whenever I want to give up, I just think of `The Night That Thoreau Spent In Jail.′ It’s a play my father gave me to read.″

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