Veteran adviser removed from job at Calif. high school

CALIFORNIA — Janet Ewell started the newspaper at RanchoAlamitos High School with "a ream of paper, a pencil, anda bunch of students who couldn’t get into the classroom." Now she says she’s being removed from her adviser position forsimply doing a good job.

The veteran adviser of La Nuestra Voz is lobbying theschool board to reinstate her after principal Gene Campbell toldEwell that she would be removed from the adviser position nextyear. Ewell said the decision came after several editorials criticalof the school were published in the award-winning newspaper.

Ewell, an 11-year newspaper adviser, was transferred in 1995to Rancho Alamitos High School in Garden Grove after an accreditationreport recommended reinstatement of the school’s paper. The publicationhad been abandoned following a precedent-setting 1988 court case,Leeb v. Delong, which upheld the school’s right to censormaterial that it reasonably believed was libelous from an AprilFool’s Day issue.

Despite the legacy she inherited, Ewell said that problemsdid not arise until Campbell came to the school in 2000. On Nov.7 of that year, the students published a staff editorial aboutthe number and condition of the school bathrooms, urging studentsto write to the school board. The paper also published the homeaddresses of the school board members.

The adviser said she was called into Campbell’s office andreprimanded but the principal promised improvements in the restrooms.Over the next year, the paper published an article documentinga lack of change in the situation and an editorial called "DearSanta, Fix Lunch" about unhealthy conditions in the cafeteria.

The final straw came earlier this year when the staff publisheda Jan. 29 signed editorial about the lack of outside help offeredby Rancho Alamitos teachers. Ewell said Campbell called on her,not the students, each time to defend their work.

So when Campbell notified Ewell that she would not be advisernext year, Ewell inferred that the decision was based on the contentof the paper. But when she asked Campbell for the reason behindher reassignment, she said all Campbell would tell her was thathe desired a new direction for the paper.

Campbell declined to discuss the personnel issue, but disputedEwell’s claim. "Ms. Ewell’s characterization is not my characterizationof the change," Campbell said.

The staff of La Nueva Voz was shocked when a cryingEwell broke the news to the paper’s staff.

"We were just trying to take in what was going on,"said news editor James Le, who wrote the cafeteria editorial."There was no pretext for why she was leaving."

Ewell has appealed to Campbell and Superintendent Laura Schwalm,but has received no additional response.

"I’ve been stonewalled," Ewell said. "The silencehas been deafening."

Unable to get on the agenda, Ewell will go before the GardenGrove Unified School Board on June 18 to present her case duringa five-minute open forum. If her efforts are ineffective, Ewellis willing to file a lawsuit.

"It’s a tough case, and Jan knows it," said WayneOverbeck, a professor of media law at California State Universityat Fullerton who has been advising Ewell. "We really don’thave a lot of case law saying that an adviser who isn’t firedbut is reassigned has any rights."

Ewell said the California Education Code section 48907 protectsher job. The code states that students have the right to exercisefreedom of expression in school-sponsored publications unlessthe material is deemed "obscene, libelous, or slanderous"or creates "a clear and present danger" of a "substantialdisruption" of school activities or commission of a crime.

The code also grants student editors the responsibility ofassigning and editing the content of their publications. The adviser’sduty, the law says, is to "supervise the production of thestudent staff, to maintain professional standards of English andjournalism, and to maintain the provisions of this section."

Ewell insists she did not violate any part of the code, butOverbeck said it is not clear whether the code necessarily protectsher.

"It does protect students to a great extent, but it leavessomebody like Jan hanging out there," Overbeck said. "Itputs the adviser as the censor, but then offers no protectionfor the adviser who lets the student put out the paper."

Some courts have allowed advisers to sue claiming violationsof their students’ rights.

"It’s the darndest irony," he continued. "Oneof the major precedents on student press law came out of thatschool and now there’s this. Jan Ewell came in to restore thepaper, and in my opinion she did too good a job of it, and nowshe’s being reassigned."

Ewell intends to pursue the matter, and will look for counseland funding once she exhausts all other possibilities within thedistrict. Her students say they will support her all the way.

"We’re going to be there to speak up," said CindyTran, La Nueva Voz‘s business manager. "There’sstrength in numbers."

Read section 48907 of the California Education Code in our Law Library.