About that sad scenario at Woodlan High School in Indiana--concerning a journalism adviser who has taken a lot of heat, and now has been transferred to another school, apparently, because of a student written newspaper column (on tolerance toward gays): Here's what my good friend Terry Nelson wrote and had published (a few days ago) in the Fort Wayne, Indiana, newspaper.
Right on, Terry!
I was a stranger in a strange land.
“You’ll be teaching the students from 9 until 5 each day,” Luba, the Slovak
administrator, whispered to me.
“Will I have an interpreter with me all day?” I whispered back.
“Yes, and he will help translate any handouts you want to use,” Luba said.
As I leaned in to catch the quiet conversation, I looked around the public
restaurant and heard women laughing, dishes clinking, doors opening and
closing. Why were we whispering in a public place?
Luba explained to me this was an old habit from the time her country was
under the Communist regime. She told me that you could not speak freely
during that time; that you could not trust anyone -- not even the person
drinking coffee next to you. It was ironic we were still whispering as I
was there to teach freedom of speech and fact-based journalism to the high
school students now that the country was under a different, political
My Slovak students were so excited that summer. They were empowered to use
their lessons in communications to write stories of consequence and
interest to other teens. They researched their topics tirelessly and ran
down various individual news makers and experts for information and
quotations -- even the president of the Republic, whom they found in the
stands of a tennis match.
They became better informed, more engaged in their education and in their
country, and they realized that they could make a difference in their world
through the study of journalism. They were active, involved citizens of the
Freedoms we treat so casually, the freedoms of speech and press, were
enthusiastically embraced by a group of teenagers halfway across the globe
to whom this freedom had only recently been made available.
Fast forward a half dozen years to Woodlan High School and the conflict
between the Board of Education and the high school’s newspaper staff. I’m
sure the principal meant well when he said he was disturbed after reading
an editorial regarding better treatment of students who believed they were
homosexual. After all, he is the administrator in charge of the high school
nd answerable to the community. I’m sure the adviser was sincere when she
said she never thought the column’s topic would upset the principal or the
school’s leadership. After all, she has been trained in journalism
education and is responsible for the protection of the students’ First
Amendment rights. Most importantly, I’m sure the student writer was earnest
in her positive message of respect for all students at school -- regardless
of their sexual orientation. After all, what other message would anyone in
the Woodlan school district expect?
In most other school districts, this student column would not have caused
the brouhaha and carnival that has erupted as a result of several knee jerk
reactions -- perhaps from fear of a perceived negative public reaction to
the column’s content or the school board’s need to extert control over all
players under their “regime.”
As one school board member remarked recently, “This is a school board
meeting, you can’t talk about free speech here.”
I mean, come on now.
Underneath the hastily-concocted restrictive publication policy, the
punitive administrative leave for the teacher and now a recommendation for
her termination, there is much at stake: a public school system’s
integrity, a young teacher’s livelihood and most importantly, the lesson
being taught to all students of Woodlan High School that you are not
American citizens, your opinions do not matter and you should not expect to
be treated with respect.
The conflict at Woodlan High School has an eerie feel of deja’vu for me.
As a journalism educator myself, I experienced a similar situation nearly
30 years ago when I was fired for supporting the students and their First
Amendment rights. I too was not yet tenured. I too was considered
insubordinate for not following an “order” that I felt would be unethical.
Following 21 hours of an open hearing over a period of four days, my school
board met privately -- in violation of Indiana’s Sunshine Code -- to decide
how they were going to vote in front of the public and media. So they
offered me a deal: Drop the lawsuit I had filed charging the administrator
with censorship of the student publication and I would keep my job. When I
sked if the principal would stop punishing the students who also wrote
letters to the editor or who commented on anything perceived by the
administration to be negative, the response was that the school board
backed the principal in whatever methods he used.
I said, “No deal.”
Enraged that a young teacher would turn down their offer, the board marched
in and voted 4-1 to support the principal and superintendent in their
recommendation of my firing. That summer, the school board reconsidered
after realizing the legal problems ahead, reversed their decision and
publicly reaffirmed freedom of speech and press for all students of
Yorktown High School.
It was a long, difficult year, but the conflict and the overturned
recommendation for my removal was a moral victory for the school system’s
students and an education on the First Amendment for the community members
of the small town.
I returned to teaching journalism and advising publications and am now
concluding my 31st year of teaching students about their rights and the
responsibilities to research, report, problem solve and tell the truth. I
try to impress on them that they must have knowledge and ownership in their
communities and in their world. Students have read the books of what
happens when citizens fall asleep: George Orwell’s 1984; Fahrenheit 451;
The Communist Manifesto.
Former students call to tell me they serve on their city’s councils and on
various committees. They volunteer for not-for profit organizations and
other humanistic causes. They are empowered as a result of their
publications experience in high school, and continue in their civic
undertakings now as adults. Exercising First Amendment rights and
responsibilities through the school’s publications is the best civics
lesson that can ever be offered in a school’s curriculum.
I’ve read that early Christians sacrificed their lives to get the word of
Jesus Christ out to the dismay of King Herod. I’m sure King George wasn’t
happy about the pamphlets advocating the dumping of tea in the Boston
Harbor. And the unpopular notion of freeing the slaves probably distressed
more than one plantation owner prior to the Civil War.
Speaking out about injustices, inadequacies and unpopular ideas is part of
our history. And part of the reason why problems get solved and unfair
The East Allen County school district has an important decision to make
that hangs in a delicate balance. Will they model “bullying” and discharge
a young teacher who supported her student for writing a mature and
responsible column over a controversial subject? Or will they step back and
realize that true education involves an element of risk and trust in their
teachers and students to discuss a variety of subjects in the school
Now that’s something to shout about.
Journalism Teacher and Publication Adviser
Muncie Central High School, Muncie, IN
2001 Dow Jones National Journalism Teacher of the Year