Student newspaper adviser who opposed prior review policy will not be rehired

ARKANSAS — Fordyce High School officials announced at a school board meeting on March 14 that they plan to fire the teacher who advises the student newspaper, Jennifer Baker, who claims a recently instituted policy –requiring principal Bobby Brown to review articles before publication — violates the Arkansas Student Publications Act.

Baker opposes the policy and said it needs to be repealed or rewritten.

The Arkansas Student Publications Act requires school districts to adopt policies allowing students the right to express themselves, including the right of expression in school-sponsored publications. Student expression is permitted whether the publication is created on school grounds, financially supported by the school or operates as part of a course.

Brown introduced his policy on Jan. 27 after objecting to content in two issues of the newspaper, including an article that was critical of the school’s test schedule and a student’s quote regarding her Valentine’s Day plans to, “Cook for [my boyfriend] and watch a few love videos. Maybe a little later on something special will go down.” The administration perceived the quote as sexual and inappropriate.

Brown said Baker had failed to “properly supervise,” which had resulted in “inaccuracies” and “distasteful content” being published in the newspaper.

Brown did not recommend that the district rehire Baker, who has voiced her opposition since the policy was instituted, for the 2005-2006 school year. Because she was the only teacher not recommended for rehire, Baker, a first-year teacher at the school, said she believes the decision was due to her stance against Brown’s policy. Baker said the superintendent, Wayne Freppon, confirmed her suspicion the day after the school board meeting.

“I came right out and asked [Freppon], ‘Is it your opinion that administrators want me gone?'” Baker said. “And he said ‘yes.'”

According to district policy, the school has until May 1 to provide documentation of her teaching error and ways officials attempted to help Baker improve. According to Baker, Freppon told her the administration is “looking” for a reason to fire her.

Freppon declined to comment on the situation.

Baker said she is grateful for the chance to “stand up for what’s right in the face of adversity.”

“[The policy] has made me reevaluate why I became an educator,” Baker said. “I believe educators should embrace diversity — especially the diversity of opinion.”

At the March 14 meeting, the school board temporarily lifted Brown’s prior review policy with a 3-2 vote. The decision is pending until the school board receives an opinion from Arkansas School Boards Association attorney Kristin Gould, who is reviewing the policy to determine if it is legal. In addition to the policy, Gould has been reviewing the 1995 Arkansas Student Publications Act and federal law.

Jayce Ables, co-editor of the Hi-Times, said she and the staff were “glad” the policy had been temporarily lifted, but also anxious because the decision is not final.

Baker said she believes that even though the policy was lifted it may not deter the administration from trying to review the content of the newspaper.

“If [the administration] reads something this month they don’t like, they could enforce [the policy] again,” Baker said.

Baker said if the school board does not rewrite the policy, she and the newspaper editors will seek legal action against the school.

The next school board meeting is on April 11. Tom Wynne, a school board attorney, said he does not know if Gould’s written review of the policy will be available by that date.

–By Britt Hulit

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