When Megan Chase wrote her first opinion column, calling for tolerance of homosexuality, she never imagined it would trigger a war that would take the job of her newspaper adviser.
Amy Sorrell, former English teacher and adviser for Woodlan Junior-Senior High School’s student newspaper, The Tomahawk, recently signed a settlement agreement with the school district after being placed on administrative leave. Her punishment followed nearly four months of controversy that began after Chase’s article ran in the Jan. 19 issue of the Tomahawk.
“I can only imagine how hard it would be to come out as homosexual in today’s society,” Chase wrote. “I think it is so wrong to look down on those people, or to make fun of them, just because they have a different sexuality than you. There is nothing wrong with them or their brain; they’re just different than you.”
Chase’s attack on discrimination caught the attention of Principal Edwin Yoder, who called the article “inappropriate” for younger students. One week later, he issued a prior review requirement for the entire newspaper.
On Feb. 12, Sorrell received a letter from Yoder that addressed her “insubordination” and threatened future termination, according to Assistant Superintendent Andy Melin, who said that it was not the content that prompted the letter, but that Sorrell did not advise the principal of the column.
According to the district’s student publications policy, school-sponsored media are not public forums and “socially inappropriate” material can be edited or deleted by school officials. There are no requirements for prior review. Melin and school district Attorney Tim McCaulay contended that it was Sorrell’s duty to note the column’s sensitivity.
“The principal had adopted a strategy for the adviser to bring articles to him that might be controversial,” McCaulay said. “It’s more a personnel issue than a First Amendment issue.”
Sorrell and her students appealed the conflict to the school board on Feb. 20, but the superintendent suggested they resolve the situation with Melin.
Melin met with students and “revised” a district policy that was originally established in 2003. The amendments give the building principal full authority over student publications as “publisher” and required that any legal questions be answered by the district’s attorney.
“That’s the scary part,” Sorrel said. “Students have no power to appeal anything.”
To maintain consistency among the district, Melin said he required all student publications in early March to publish his revised policy, marking the breaking point for the Tomahawk staff.
Tomahawk Editor Cortney Carpenter she and her staff agreed on March 12 to stop publication in protest of Melin’s policy.
Supporting her students’ decision, Sorrell used class time to teach First Amendment court cases that she said would help them offer educated policy suggestions to Melin. Sorrell’s free speech teachings led to her being placed on administrative leave March 19, with a threat of contract termination.
Further explanation came 10 days later from the district, listing seven violations she allegedly committed, such as insubordination, neglect of duty and engaging in “a campaign to cast East Allen County Schools and Dr. Edwin Yoder…in a false light.”
In the shadow of national media reports detailing her situation, Sorrell requested a public hearing of her case by the school board. But the hearing was later cancelled in light of the settlement, which states that Sorrell will continue to teach English at a different school in the district, but will not be permitted to teach journalism for three years.
Attorney Jim Fenton, a lawyer representing Sorrell, said she decided to settle after a board member’s e-mail surfaced, demonstrating the board’s opposition to Sorrell and suggested that an unfair hearing would take place.
The e-mail was in regard to Sorrell’s brief communication with a gay and lesbian group, who had praised her efforts. The board member wrote that he wanted school officials to see “what Amy is sending out to gay/les websites” and suggested that the district “may want to address [the matter].”
Fenton also said that although he believed she could have won the fight eventually, she was concerned about the financial strain of being unemployed.
McCaulay and Melin did not return phone calls for comment on the settlement.
Fenton said that although Sorrell does not agree with the district’s disciplinary actions, she had little choice in signing the settlement.
“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. It’s just another example of a school district abusing their power over restricting freedom of speech,” Fenton said.