INDIANA — A high school journalism adviser was placed on “administrative leave” Monday after the school newspaper published an opinion article on tolerance for homosexuality and a school official halted printing of the publication.
Amy Sorrell, journalism teacher and adviser to The Tomahawk, said that the Woodlan Junior-Senior High School superintendent issued her an “extremely vague,” hand-delivered letter placing her on paid leave pending “cancellation of [her] teacher’s contract.”
The Jan. 19 opinion piece by sophomore Megan Chase prompted school officials to subject all future publications to prior review. Shortly after, Sorrell also received a warning for her “insubordination” in allowing the article to be published and for not bringing it to the attention of high school Principal Edwin Yoder.
Melin confirmed Sorrell’s status, but said he could not discuss the matter further as it involves personnel information. He did, however, say the matter is being “thoroughly investigated” and it “has been in everyone’s mind for several weeks now.”
Melin recently added revisions to the district-wide student publication policy that was established in 2003 that give the principal ultimate authority as “publisher” of the publication without provisions for appeal. Melin said this was to reiterate that the principal has the authority to determine content and make final editorial changes.
The policy also requires all legal questions to be directed to the district’s legal counsel and prohibits students from seeking outside legal advice. The Tomahawk‘s current editorial policy states that legal assistance should first be sought through the Student Press Law Center.
Sorrell said she attended Tuesday night’s school board meeting to “clarify the allegations,” but Board President Stephen Terry said the personnel issue could not be discussed at the meeting. About 20 students and several parents who attended the meeting to discuss the revised student publications policy were turned away, Sorrell said.
Yoder visited the journalism class Tuesday morning and said that the newspaper will resume printing with Melin’s revised policy, according to Tomahawk Editor Cortney Carpenter. She said Yoder also gave students the option to drop the class if they disagreed with his decision.
Melin said that having the students publish the policy is intended to create a consistent standard throughout the district, not to inhibit student journalists.
In response, Carpenter said she and two student writers left the class and planned to change their schedule today. She said that by not working at the newspaper, she can focus on fighting the policy change. Despite this, Carpenter said she is not optimistic about the newspaper’s future. She also said the staff members that remained with the newspaper have “betrayed what we’ve done.”
“Once they print that policy, they can’t take back what they’ve done,” Carpenter said.
Carpenter said the action by the administration not only “blindsided” Sorrell, but she thinks the journalism class will no longer have a qualified teacher to run it. The chair of the English department will supervise Sorrell’s classes until a final decision is made, Melin said.
Sorrell said she has contacted her teacher’s union and the Indiana High School Press Association and try to build “strength in numbers.”
“I don’t think it’s in my best interest to just sit quiet at this point,” Sorrell said.
By Erica Hudock, SPLC staff writer