N.M. teacher sues school district, claiming he was fired because of student’s poetry

A former Rio Rancho High School teacher filed a lawsuit this monthagainst school administrators who he claims fired him because of his students’controversial poems.

The lawsuit, filed Sept. 15 in state district courtin Albuquerque, asserts that the Rio Rancho Public Schools disregarded BillNevins’ First Amendment right to free speech and association. 

Nevins taught humanities at Rio Rancho High School from September 2001 toMay 2003. In September 2002, Nevins became the coach of the school’s WriteClub, a student creative writing group, and the Slam Poetry Team. According tothe complaint, Nevins encouraged students to share their work with the communityby performing it publicly. Many of the students’ poems addressed controversialsubjects, including the educational system and the military-industrialcomplex.

The lawsuit alleges that the controversy began in December 2002when Assistant Principal Sue Passell attended one of Nevins’ classes during apoetry 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. Nevins was also subsequently notified that Rio Rancho High Schooladministrators were investigating incomplete field trip forms from a Slam PoetryTeam public reading.

In April, Nevins was notified that the high schoolwould not rehire him, and he was later told the district would not renew hiscontract.

The Rio Rancho Public Schools released a statement declining todiscuss the legal action filed by Nevins.

“We have not been able todiscuss this matter because it is a personnel issue, beyond saying that it isnot a free speech or freedom of expression issue. The filing of the suit doesnot change that,” the statement said.

Nevins is seeking both punitivedamages and reinstatement as a teacher within the school district and as thehigh school Slam Poetry Team and Write Club coach. He also seeks to have theschool district adopt a policy that would protect students’ and teachers’ FirstAmendment rights.

“We want the district to pass a policy that recognizesthat students can express freely their opinions on any subject and that teachersare encouraged to teach critical thinking without the fear of reprisal becausethe views may be unpopular with the administration or others,” said EricSirotkin, Nevins’ attorney.

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 the issues,” Nevinssaid.