Kan. adviser may sue school for removing her from paper

KANSAS — Mary Ann Niemann has been an educator atOskaloosa High School for more than 20 years. Now she says school officials havetaken away her longtime duties as newspaper and yearbook adviser for simplydoing her job.Niemann, who will solely teach computer classes in thefall, said she is considering filing a lawsuit against Oskaloosa Public Schoolsto stop her job reassignment.Niemann said administrators decided torelieve her from her adviser position of the OHS Insider in early Aprilbecause of budget cuts. However, after a subsequent controversy involving astudent newspaper article critical of the school principal, Niemann said she nowbelieves the administration may have had ulterior motives.In mid-April,Oskaloosa senior Lacey Hanson, the OHS Insider assistant editor, beganwork on an article about several teachers’ work reassignments at Oskaloosa,including Neimanns’. Upon completion of the article, Principal Brad Reedinstituted prior review of the paper and halted publication, citing inaccuraciesin the reporting. Reed deleted entire paragraphs and rephrased direct quotes,which cut out three-fourths of the 2,000-word article, according to Hanson. Niemann said that Reed called her into his office in April when hediscovered that Hanson was working on the story for the paper. Reed presentedNiemann with a letter listing four things that must be done in order for thestory to run: He would review the issue of the paper before it went to press; ifthere were concerns with the story, they would be discussed; future editions ofthe paper would not go to press until approved by him; and, the letter shouldnot be shared with any staff member, student, parent or community member of theschool district. Failure to comply with the directions would beconsidered professional insubordination, the letter said.Niemann saidshe considered the letter a reprimand, and went to speak to Superintendent LorenLutes about it. However, she said Lutes told her the letter was merely anattempt to guide her.On May 12, editors Hanson and Jaymie Paavolaappealed Reed’s actions at the school board meeting, claiming it amountedto censorship in violation of the Kansas Student Publications Act, which states,“material shall not be suppressed solely because it involves political orcontroversial subject matter.”Lutes reversed the principal’sdecision and agreed that the article could be published with a few suggestedalterations, Hanson said. After changes were made, the paper was distributed onMay 13, five days after its planned publication date. Hanson’sarticle was not the first time the administration had problems with the contentOHS Insider, but it was the first time the administration insisted onprior review, Niemann said. The administration has objected to topics, includingabortion, eating disorders and suicide, that the paper has written in the past,according to Niemann. Reed told Niemann the subject matter was depressing andthat the paper should spend more time emphasizing what the students had donewell at school, she said.Niemann said that the main discrepancy betweenher and Reed is their definition of what is newsworthy.“He thinksof the newspaper as a public relations tool rather than a news item,” shesaid. But district officials attributes budget cuts as the reason whyNiemann, who has dual certification in English and business, was reassigned.Lutes said that her involvement in Hanson’s article was “unrelated”to the administration’s decision to reassign her because it occurred before thearticle’s publication.The school officials have already hired ateacher new to the district to take over the yearbook and newspaperduties.Niemann, an advocate of First Amendment rights for students,fears eliminating her from the position opens the door to a more malleableadviser, and in doing so, will stifle student voices.“I think[Reed] would rather have somebody there that he could control,” shesaid.Meanwhile, Lutes said in a letter that Niemann manipulated studentwriters to trumpet her personal dissatisfaction with her removal. A claimNiemann calls outlandish.“I have taught school for a long time andhave always maintained a good rapport with students and usually with theadministration,” she said. “But this situation has made me realizethat this administration is not to be trusted.”Lily Kober, UniServdirector for the Kansas National Education Association, who has been advisingNiemann, said the administrations decision to reassign her has more to do withtheir own egos and less to do with Niemann’s performance as anadviser.“It’s hard to see yourself criticized in your high schoolpaper, but the truth of the matter is it isn’t his high school paper, it’s [thestudents], and that’s hard for some administrators to accept,” shesaid.Kober said that she remains optimistic that Niemann’s rights as anadviser were violated under the Kansas student free-expression law. The statutestates that journalism advisers are not to be terminated from employmenttransferred or relieved of duties for refusing to abridge their students’rights under the state law.Hanson, who avoided censorship becauseNiemann encouraged her to stand up for her rights, cannot imagine the journalismprogram without “student press laws’ biggest advocate,” shesaid. “A lot of teachers would have just given in because theywouldn’t want to upset the principal or risk their jobs,” Hansonsaid. “But she stood behind me and the First Amendment 100 percent, andnow she’s not teaching journalism because ofthat.”