Fla. district pays $20,000 to settle adviser's lawsuit

FLORIDA — Ending a five-year dispute, a former high schoolnewspaper adviser has settled a lawsuit with a school district that refused torenew his teaching contract after a year of disputes over controversial contentin the student paper.

In May, the Palm Beach County School Districtagreed to pay Toby Eichas $20,000 in a settlement, but the district did notadmit any guilt in the conflict. The dispute began during the 1998-1999 schoolyear when the student newspaper published columns that school officials calledinsensitive. 

Eichas insisted the columns were “mildlycontroversial.” One column contained what administrators described asJewish stereotypes and another sexual innuendoes. 

In October 1999,Eichas sued the district, claiming his contract was not renewed as retaliationfor his stance on the students’ First Amendment rights. When Boca RatonHigh School Principal Diana Harris demanded prior review of The Predatorduring the previous school year, Eichas resigned from his adviser position,and the student editor quit. 

The district, however, contended thatEichas’ contract was not renewed because of his poor planning, failure towork well with others and failures to attend mandatory training sessions. 

Thedistrict had requested the suit be dropped because Eichas’ First Amendmentrights were not violated.

The dispute at Boca Raton High School iscommon, say those who work with student publications around the state.

Toavoid potential conflicts when tackling controversial issues, it is importantfor advisers to outline their responsibilities and policies with administratorsbefore the school year begins, said Florida Scholastic Press AssociationPresident Terry Sollazzo. 

“At the moment you agree to teach, makeit very clear what your standards are, and then get a clear ruling from theschool on what they expect of you,” she said. 

In most Floridaschool districts, teachers who agree to advise student activities, such as anewspaper or chorus, are paid a supplement that is not protected in contractsrelating to job security, she said. The school has the right to decidewho advises student activities, she said, however when policies change in themiddle of the year, such as implementing a prior review policy when there hadbeen none before, chances for conflict are greatest. 

Eichas, who nowteaches English at a public school in Broward County, said he was satisfied theordeal was over though he had requested an admission of guilt and a highersettlement fee.

“He was in this for the vindication, and he feltvindicated,” said Charles Wender, Eichas’ attorney. “He isvery proud of what he did.”