Minnesota Considers Changes

In 'Timeout Rooms' for Students

They have such names as the stop-and-think room, but the "timeout rooms" used by Minnesota school districts to control special education students are considered anything but benign by critics. Students have been locked away for hours, prompting complaints from parents who contend their children repeatedly banged their heads against the walls to get out.

State special education officials have proposed new rules that would ban locked timeout rooms and limit the time children can spend in unlocked timeout to 15 minutes for each episode of acting up.

"It's inhumane," Sharon Nygren told the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Nygren has sued the Minneapolis school system. She said her son, who has brain damage as a result of encephalitis and a stroke, was placed in a locked room for tapping his pencil on a desk and not completing his homework.

"We don't allow society to treat the elderly that way or even animals," Nygren told the newspaper. "I couldn't believe our schools did anything like that to our children."

But special education administrators don't like the proposed rule changes. They say timeouts, rather than being punitive, ensure that no one gets hurt.

"If they're just right there in the classroom they could potentially hurt themselves, other students or the staff. It's more to help the child have a quiet, safe place to get themselves under control," said Lorie Schulstad-Werk, president of Minnesota Administrators for Special Education, who noted teachers have sometimes been injured by students.

-- Robert E. Pierre

In Pennsylvania, Wal-Mart

Is a Working Proposition

Everyday low prices seem to have won over the Keystone State.

Newly released statistics from Pennsylvania's Department of Labor and Industry show that Wal-Mart has become the state's largest private employer, with 39,181 workers greeting, price-checking and ringing up customers in 93 stores and 20 Sam's Clubs.

The former top private employer in the state was the University of Pennsylvania. In recent quarters, Wal-Mart has had more workers than either the Philadelphia city government or the Philadelphia School District.

"A lot of Pennsylvania is ripe for the basic Wal-Mart strategy: picking fairly rural areas and bringing a combination of everyday prices and everyday low wages," said Stephen Herzenberg, executive director of the Harrisburg-based Keystone Research Center.

As an employer, Wal-Mart usually isn't this prominent in the East. Wal-Mart's top 10 states with the largest number of employees leads with Texas, Florida and California. New England states such as Vermont and Rhode Island rank last in the nation.

A decline in manufacturing jobs -- Herzenberg says the state has lost 100,000 in the past eight years -- coupled with a transition to dual-income households may have helped expand Wal-Mart's labor force, said Herzenberg. He warns that $7 hourly wages don't match the $42,000 average annual salary of Pennsylvania's manufacturing jobs.

"It has meant stagnant wages and downward mobility," he said.

-- Christine Haughney

This Halloween, a Church Is Scaring the Hell Out of the Young

With the help of some horror-flick scenery, high-tech machinery and willing young actors, an Austin church has joined a tide of Christian ministries aiming to save their youth this Halloween -- by scaring them.

Hundreds of teenagers are flocking to Virtual Hell, an extravagant haunted house with scripted scenes that the church says graphically depicts the evils and consequences of abortion, homosexuality, suicide, domestic abuse and drugs. For $10, a teenager can spend Saturday night with the devil himself.

PromiseLand Church's youth pastor, Ricky Poe, started Austin's version of Hell House last year with $10,000 and some scenery left over from the set of the movie "Texas Chainsaw Massacre 4." Hell House has gained popularity and attracted criticism across the country in recent years, and was the subject of a recent documentary by the same name. Critics say the house is too graphic and gory.

It is uncertain when and where the first Hell House was conceived, but the Abundant Life Christian Center of Arvada, Colo., is considered to have one of the most popular versions of the morality play.

The Rev. Keenan Roberts, the pastor who created that Hell House, said he has sold more than 500 Hell House kits, at $200 a pop, to churches in 46 states since 1995. He postponed this year's while he works to establish a new church.

Poe has heard about Arvada's Hell House and others like it, and chose to tone down parts of his haunted house to avoid controversy. While he says he has received some complaints, interest is growing and feedback is positive.

"Sensational? Over the top? No, I'm convinced that it works because of testimony from those who've left here and said, 'My life will never be the same,' " Poe said. "It is true to what it's supposed to do, and that's scare you."

-- Amanda Zamora

Controversy Makes N.C. Festival

Of Reading One for the Books

Organizers for Carolina Writers Night started with the best intentions.

As part of the popular annual Novello Festival of Reading, Charlotte area booklovers gathered at a local theater to listen to authors read excerpts from their work. One was Lauren Faulkenberry, whose children's book is "What Do Animals Do on the Weekend?"

But then Jim Grimsley took the stage to read 15 pages of his novel "Boulevard," which chronicles the life of a young gay man working in a New Orleans adult bookstore. The salacious prose made some parents hustle their children from the theater and drew the ire of the local Christian right.

The Christian newspaper Charlotte World criticized festival organizers for promoting the events as "family friendly" and local politicians fired off letters of complaint to the library's head.

Last week, Robert Cannon, executive director of the Charlotte and Mecklenburg Public Library, apologized.

"We made a mistake," he said. "We did not know this particular author was going to read what he did."

The apology satisfied some critics, including county commissioner Bill James, who voted to cut arts funding in 1997.

"The library director agrees that reading smut is inappropriate," he said. "As long as he doesn't come back and read the rest of that filth, leave it at that."

Charlotte Observer columnist Tommy Tomlinson dismissed the squabble as standard local banter.

"If you've lived here in Charlotte long, you know that we have this argument every year or two," he wrote. "It's sort of like civic aerobics -- a way to get our blood flowing."

-- Christine Haughney

In California Waters, the Catch Is That There Soon Won't Be Any

Fish will soon be breathing easier in waters off the California coast.

This past week, state officials decided to create one of the largest marine reserves in the nation. They banned commercial and sport fishing in 175 square miles of ocean around the Channel Islands near Santa Barbara.

The measure represents a landmark change in marine conservation along the West Coast.

Instead of trying to protect and restore a marine ecosystem just by setting catch limits or seasons for fishing of some species, it imposes a permanent ban on all such activity around the five uninhabited islands.

Only two other marine reserves in the country are larger than the one that California just created. One is in Hawaii, the other in the Florida Keys.

California's Fish and Game Commission approved the move after four years of study, and over the objections of many fishermen who said the ban will ruin their livelihoods or pastimes.

But environmental groups called the step essential to revitalizing marine life in an important ecological region off the California coast after decades of overfishing.

"Some of you will call me wrong," Bob Hattoy, a member of the fish and game commission, told a crowd of angry fishermen protesting the vote on the marine reserve. "But I think your grandchildren will call me right."

-- Rene Sanchez

Above, Ryan Shahan of Lomala, Tex., meets the devil -- for a price of $10 -- at the Halloween haunted house operated by the PromiseLand Church of Austin. The house depicts the church's view of the evils and results of abortion, homosexuality, suicide, domestic abuse and drugs. Right, Melissa Pingree leads a prayer session.