Blair Hornstine has near perfect SATs, an A++ average, an impressive list of community-service activities and an acceptance letter from Harvard. But on Thursday, when her classmates at New Jersey's Moorestown High School celebrate graduation, Hornstine will be in self-imposed exile, traumatized, her lawyers say, by widespread hostility that has made her a social pariah. And all this future lawyer wanted was a little justice.
Hornstine's troubles began in May, when she sued her school district because officials wanted her to share the valedictorian spot with another student. She has the highest GPA in the class, but a school official decided she had an unfair advantage over her classmate Kenny Mirkin, one of two other Moorestown seniors headed for Harvard. Hornstine is disabled by an autoimmune disorder that causes chronic fatigue, so she spends half her school day being tutored at home. Hornstine and her parents have refused to disclose the details of her illness, but a federal judge unequivocally sided with her. It turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory. After the lawsuit, her house was vandalized and her family received death threats. Even worse, the case was the talk of Harvard, with many students decrying her as a whiny brat. Elizabeth Green, a staff writer for The Harvard Crimson, reported that students were circulating e-mails about an online petition to rescind her acceptance. "I think a lot of people didn't like the image she might have given to Harvard by filing the suit," says Green.
Still, Hornstine held the moral high ground until June 3, when her local newspaper, the Courier-Post, reported that language in five articles she had written for a teen section should have been attributed to the original writers: former president Bill Clinton and Supreme Court Justices Potter Stewart and William Brennan. It's not clear yet whether this will jeopardize her Harvard acceptance; Harvard officials say they won't comment on a student's status. In print, Hornstine acknowledged that she was "incorrect in... thinking that news articles didn't require as strict citation scrutiny as most school assignments because there was no place for footnotes or endnotes." Many of her peers found that hard to believe; her lawyers would say only that it's a "nonissue." But the damage was done. Last week her lawyers said she won't attend graduation because of rumors that students would boo or turn their backs when she delivered the valedictory address.
While Hornstine's zealousness may have backfired, she comes from a place where ambition and ambitious parents --seem to be the norm. In Moorestown, as in so many other upper-middle-class neighborhoods, students are groomed to succeed. It's the kind of place where seniors, eager to show the world that the Philadelphia suburb stands for more than the Hornstine case, last week gave a reporter a "class resume," boasting of their collective accomplishments: performing on Broadway, raising money for cancer research and setting up their own companies.
Which probably explains why superintendent Paul Kadri was approached repeatedly throughout the year by parents and students who complained that Hornstine's home tutoring created an uneven playing field in the race for valedictorian. Kadri says he agreed, recommending that the school board amend its policy to allow multiple valedictorians. But Hornstine, whose home instruction was devised and approved by the board, objected to this ex post facto change in the rules and went to court. "She did nothing more than ask the courts to enforce her rights," says her attorney Edwin J. Jacobs Jr. The judge forcefully agreed, writing in her decision that Hornstine earned her distinction "in spite of, not because of, her disability."
A different student might have gained her classmates' sympathy. But Hornstine apparently suffered from a second, more damaging disability: unpopularity. The pretty daughter of a well-to-do judge, Hornstine appeared to like helping inner-city kids more than partying with her classmates. Students saw her as a "goody-goody" and gleefully recalled embarrassing moments. "I used to make her cry in middle school," says senior Chris DiMarco, who drew devil horns and a little beard on Hornstine's picture in his yearbook. Others remember Hornstine being bullied in the lunchroom. After the suit was filed, they gossiped about Hornstine and called her "selfish" for seeking monetary damages. (Although the federal complaint didn't specify a dollar amount, a preliminary document filed with the state sought $2.7 million. Lawyers are now in settlement talks.) Students speculated that Hornstine's father had used his influence as a state judge to win. (Apparently, the difference between state and federal court was never explained in the AP curriculum.) Most of all, they refused to believe her disability was real, citing her enthusiastic participation in the March senior-class trip to Disney World.
In court papers, seven teachers swore that Hornstine had completed all the required work and that she was graded just like other students. One even called her "one of the smartest students that I have ever had." Friends also defend her. "Blair is a really strong person, the type who doesn't want to show her disability," says close pal Jenny Hussong, adding that Hornstine hid her fatigue on the Florida trip. "It took her two or three weeks to recover," Hussong says. A family friend, Bert Lain, says the Hornstines are guarding Blair's privacy; he describes the attacks on her as "irrational and hysterical and not concerned with the facts."
Kadri declines to comment on the judge's decision. He also denies that the school has become hostile to Hornstine: "Having an appropriate climate at the school is absolutely a priority of mine, and the leadership of the senior class has been working quite effectively at maintaining a cooperative environment."
The next act will probably take place at Harvard, where Hornstine is already the most famous member of the class of 2007. Crimson columnist Zachary Podolsky says Hornstine's dilemma may have struck a nerve on a campus filled with ambitious students. "You criticize and detest in others the faults you see in yourself or that you fear others see in you," says Podolsky. It's an observation that might apply equally well to the seniors at Moorestown.