INDIANA — Hours after a high school student newspaper staff distributed its Nov. 12 issue with a story about a student arrested in connection with a murder, the paper’s adviser received a letter of suspension from the school district.
Franklin Central High School English teacher and newspaper adviser Chad Tuley said the paid suspension notification cited claims of insubordination — charges he said are an overreaction by school officials to the story in the Pilot Flashes.
Seventeen-year-old Christopher Pitcock was arrested Oct. 26 and charged with murder in connection with the stabbing and beating of a 67-year-old man.
In the story’s early stages, Tuley said Principal Kevin Koers expressed concern to him via e-mail that it could violate privacy rights if the reporter tried to get comment from teachers. In the e-mail, Koers also said he worried the article could be insensitive to the suspect’s sister, who attends the high school.
Koers ended the e-mail by suggesting a bit more research be done into the writing of the story, and Tuley said the students would do just that. Tuley said he agreed with Koers that interviewing teachers could hinge on privacy violations, so he instructed news editor Jennifer Searcy to gather information solely from the police.
Searcy, a senior, said she spoke with the arresting officer and attempted to talk to school deans, who declined to comment. In the end, she said the story was a cut-and-dry write up of the arrest and charges.
“I think it was really informative,” Searcy said of the story.”It distilled a lot of rumors, which was my intent.”
However, after Pilot Flashes staff members distributed most of the 2,000 papers to classrooms on campus at the end of the day on Nov. 12, Koers pulled the remaining newspapers — which were to be sent to advertisers, potential advertisers and other high schools — from Tuley’s classroom, Tuley said.
“He said he didn’t think the high school paper should focus on things of that nature, serious news,” Tuley said about his conversation with Koers that afternoon. “[He said] we ought to focus more on promoting the school.”
Tuley argued that the newspaper’s purpose was to inform students, and stories that were of value to the student body would be considered important enough to run in the paper.
“That’s what I teach my students to focus on,” he said. After the confrontation with Koers, Tuley went home for the weekend.
Close to 5 p.m., a Franklin Township police officer knocked on the door and presented Tuley with the suspension letter.
“I just felt like it was pretty far overboard for one thing [administrators] didn’t like,” he said.
Koers did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Since then, Tuley has been in contact with the Student Press Law Center and the Indiana High School Press Association, garnering information about his rights as an adviser. The letter stipulates that Tuley have no contact with students, staff or newspaper members and that he remain off school grounds until the investigation, which could lead to his firing, is complete.
“I just want my position back,” he said. He also wants to hold a discussion with school officials to tell them why he leaves content decisions to his staff.
“As an adviser I am very careful not to be so directive with them,” he said.”I’m not sure the principal understands that philosophy.”
For now, Searcy said she and other staff members are working to put out their next issue. A substitute teacher is supervising the students’ work, but Searcy said the student editors are primarily running the show.
“We’re getting through it step by step,” Searcy said. “We don’t want the paper to die.”