N.M. teacher sues school, claiming he was fired over students’ poems

NEW MEXICO —- A former Rio Rancho HighSchool teacher filed a lawsuit this month alleging that his First Amendmentrights were violated after school administrators fired him because of hisstudents’ controversial poems. The lawsuit, filed Sept. 15 instate district court in Albuquerque asserts that the Rio Rancho Public Schoolsdisregarded Bill Nevins’ constitutional right to free speech andassociation. Nevins is seeking reinstatement as a teacher within the schooldistrict and as the high school Slam Poetry Team and Write Club coach.The lawsuit also seeks to have the school district adopt a policy that wouldprotect students’ and teachers’ First Amendmentrights.”We want the district to pass a policy that recognizes thatstudents can express freely their opinions on any subject and that teachers areencouraged to teach critical thinking without the fear of reprisal because theviews may be unpopular with the administration or others,” said EricSirotkin, Nevins’ attorney. Sirotkin said Nevins is seekingunspecified punitive damages ”to deter this from happeningagain.”Defendants named in the lawsuit are the Rio Rancho PublicSchools, Superintendent Sue Cleveland, Principal Gary Tripp and AssistantPrincipal Sue Passell.The Rio Rancho Public Schools released a statementdeclining to discuss the legal action filed by Nevins.”We have notbeen able to discuss this matter because it is a personnel issue, beyond sayingthat it is not a free speech or freedom of expression issue. The filing of thesuit does not change that,” the statement said.Nevins taughthumanities at Rio Rancho High School from September 2001 to May 2003. InSeptember 2002, Nevins became the coach of the school’s Write Club, astudent creative writing group, and the Slam Poetry Team. According to thecomplaint, Nevins encouraged students to share their work with the community byperforming it publicly. Many of the students’ poems addressedcontroversial subjects, including the educational system and themilitary-industrial complex.The lawsuit alleges that the controversybegan in December 2002 when Passell attended one of Nevins’ classes duringa poetry slam, which featured students performing their work aloud. Two monthslater, in February, Passell told Nevins his classroom activities were notmeeting instructional goals and that his students were showing a lack ofrespect.Shortly thereafter, a Slam Poetry Team and Write Club memberread her poem ”Revolution X” over the school’s closed circuittelevision system. An excerpt from the poem reads: ”You drive by a carwhose bumper screams God bless America. Well, you can scratch out the B andmake it Godless because God left this country a long timeago…”After the reading, the lawsuit alleges, the school militaryliaison complained to Tripp about the poem’s ”disrespectfulspeech,” and school administrators demanded a copy of the poem to look forobscenities and inferences of inciting violence.In the meantime,however, another school approached Nevins to teach and head the writing andpoetry clubs at the school. The lawsuit alleges that Nevins filled out thenecessary paperwork to transfer schools, but Tripp did not send the papers to beprocessed despite Nevins’ repeated inquiries and requests. Several weekslater, Nevins was put on paid leave without an explanation, the lawsuit claims. Nevins was later notified that Rio Rancho High School administratorswere investigating incomplete field trip forms from a Slam Poetry Team publicreading.The lawsuit contends that while Nevins was on paid leave, Trippasked him to provide copies of the poetry to be read at an upcoming event. Theadministration also passed a rule banning student and teachers from readingpoems over the school intercom.In April, Nevins was notified that thehigh school would not rehire him, and he was later told the district would notrenew his contract.The lawsuit also claims that at a school event in Maythe school’s military liaison read a poem written by a solider thatinstructed those expressing their desire for peace to ”shut theirfaces.” At the same event, Tripp hoisted a U.S. battleship flag fromAfghanistan. Nevins contends he suffered embarrassment, public humiliation andstress as a result. Nevins is currently teaching journalism at anAlbuquerque charter school. He said the disbandment of the Rio Rancho HighWrite Club and Slam Poetry Team is a loss for the students, teachers and thecommunity. ”[Poetry] inspires us to speak about theissues,” Nevins said.

Nevins v. Rio Rancho Public Schools, et al., CIV. CV-2003605 (2nd N.M. Dist. Ct. Bernalillo County Sept. 15, 2003)