Schools target advisers as scapegoats

Inspiring young writers to cover important and controversial issues can be a rewarding experience, but it can also cost advisers their jobs.  

This fall, while students reported the hard facts about underage drinking and anti-war sentiments, advisers at three high schools found themselves being used by administrators as scapegoats and excuses to censor the student press.

As the Write Club and Slam Poetry Team coach at Rio Rancho High School in New Mexico, Bill Nevins encouraged his students to share their work both in the classroom and with community by performing it publicly.

But school administrators did not support Nevins’ students addressing controversial topics in their poetry and, as a result, dismissed Nevins for not properly filling out field trip forms, alleges Nevins’ lawsuit, which was filed in September.   

According to the lawsuit, a student read a poem critical of American policies on the war in Iraq over the school’s closed-circuit television system.  When a school military liaison complained to the principal about the poem’s “disrespectful speech,” administrators demanded a copy of the poem to look for obscenities and inferences of inciting violence.

Several weeks later, Nevins was put on paid leave without an explanation and notified that administrators were investigating incomplete field trip forms from a Slam Poetry Team public reading. 

While on paid leave, administrators asked Nevins to provide copies of poetry to be read at an upcoming event and also banned students and teachers from reading poems over the school intercom.

In April, Nevins was notified that the high school would not renew his contract. 

The Rio Rancho Public Schools declined to discuss the lawsuit filed by Nevins.

Nevins is seeking reinstatement as a teacher and as the Slam Poetry and Write Club coach.  He also wants the school district to adopt a policy protecting students’ and teachers’ First Amendment rights.

In California, after finally winning the fight to keep San Marin High School’s journalism program, adviser Ronnie Campagna was informed that she would not be the one teaching the class this fall.

Campagna, who taught the journalism class for 18 years, was told just days before the start of the school year that a new teacher with no journalism experience would be taking over the elective at the California school. The journalism program nearly fell victim to budget cuts earlier in the year until summer fund-raising efforts saved the class.

Neither Campagna nor a California teachers’ union representing her received an explanation from the principal, said Joe Morgan, president of the Novato Federation of Teachers. Morgan said he felt the principal’s decision might be personal because, in the past, Campagna supported student journalists covering controversial subjects including drugs, sex and school policy for the student newspaper, the Pony Express.

Earlier in 2003, school officials proposed discontinuing the journalism program and other electives, claiming the decision was necessitated by the district’s $3 million budget deficit.  However, school officials ultimately reinstated all of the electives with the exception of journalism and one other.  After parents raised $24,000 to fund the class and the Pony Express, administrators reinstated the program but during a class period that conflicted with Campagna’s schedule, Morgan said.  

School officials did not return phone calls seeking comment.  

The teachers’ union filed a complaint against the district with the Public Employee Relations Board this fall. If mediation between the parties fails, the case could go to trial within the next year.

Four Simi Valley High School students in California found themselves spearheading a campaign to find an adviser for their on-campus club after the school’s newspaper class was dropped — a decision they say was made by the principal because of a controversial article she attempted to censor.

In June, the principal informed the students that the newspaper class, which produces The Voice, would not be offered because of low enrollment.  When the students approached her about turning the newspaper into an on-campus club, they were told they needed an adviser, said William Hillstrom, one of the students who campaigned to get the newspaper back.

Andrew Wolverton, the newspaper’s former adviser who left the school for a position at a local college, said he offered to take over but the administration declined.

Hillstrom said The Voice had gained a reputation for covering issues that were unpopular with the administration such as the student dress code and the war in Iraq.

But it was an article published last spring that the students said resulted in the cancellation of the journalism class.  The article reported that Simi Valley cheerleaders were disqualified from a national competition at Disneyland after they were caught drinking alcohol in a hotel room. 

School administrators denied the allegations.

The students were unable to recruit an adviser until late September when two Simi Valley High School teachers stepped forward to lead the newly formed club.