Suspended adviser settles with school district, will move to another school

INDIANA — A newspaper adviser who was suspended by her school district after her student newspaper published a column on tolerance for homosexuality has reached a settlement that removes her from advising, but saves her job and brings some closure to a conflict that began last January.

Amy Sorrell, English teacher and adviser of The Tomahawk, a student newspaper at Woodlan Junior-Senior High School, said an agreement has been made between her attorneys, who are working for free, and the district’s attorney, Tim McCawley, that will guarantee her an English teaching position in the district, but at a different school. She will not be allowed to teach journalism or advise a student publication for three years.

Sorrell was placed on administrative leave March 19, just two weeks after the Tomahawk staff refused to continue publishing the newspaper in protest of Principal Edwin Yoder’s demand to review all content prior to publication. The new review policy was a result of a Jan. 19 opinion article published encouraging tolerance of homosexuality.

Sorrell’s alleged contract violations were to be discussed at a public hearing April 28 and her employment status to be determined May 1, but both were cancelled in light of the settlement.

Attorney Jim Fenton, a lawyer representing Sorrell, said that evidence of opposition among school board members surfaced in an e-mail by one member to the board, which he said demonstrated that a potentially unfair hearing and decision would be made. The e-mail referred to Sorrell’s brief communication with gay and lesbian groups, who had praised her for her efforts, and suggested that the board may need to “address that matter,” according to Fenton.

Sorrell also said in a statement Thursday that while she does not agree with the accusations, she is financially unable to risk pursuing the matter: “Due to my personal financial circumstance, I am no in a position to contest the disciplinary action contained in the written agreement between myself and the school administration.”

“We thought she had a pretty good chance of overturning the [school board]’s decision in arbitration, which would have taken about a year in which she wouldn’t have been paid,” Fenton said. “A combination of that plus we lost all hope that we could convince the board that we could do anything because there’s a level of animosity.”

McCawley and Assistant Superintendent Andy Melin did not return a phone call for comment before press time.

Fenton also said that Sorrell’s settlement was also a career decision.

“They were threatening to take her job,” Fenton said. “That’s a death sentence. As a teacher with a record of alleged misconduct — what would you do? It would have probably been the end of her career.” Fenton also said that part of the settlement requires Sorrell to apologize for her “insubordinate” actions over the past few months.

Sorrell said she hopes to teach journalism again in the future, but she initially will only teach English at her new school.

Sorrell’s attorneys said she has had a “tremendous” amount of support, which would have been demonstrated at the hearing that was cancelled.

“It’s just another example of a school district abusing their power over restricting freedom of speech,” Fenton said.

By Erica Hudock, SPLC staff writer

  • Ousted adviser requests hearing after student’s gay tolerance article angered school officials News Flash, 4/6/2007
  • High school journalism adviser placed on leave after officials decry homosexuality article News Flash, 3/21/2007
  • Indiana high school students stop publishing paper in protest of prior review policy News Flash, 3/14/2007
  • Indiana high school students now subject to prior review News Flash, 2/28/2007