INDIANA — English class assignments, not journalistic pieces, will fill the pages of Woodlan Junior-Senior High School’s newspaperthis year, ending a battle between administrators and the student staff that started over an editorial advocating tolerance for gay people.
In the past, students in the journalism class produced The Tomahawk under the guidance of their adviser, Amy Sorrell.
Then in January, a student wrote an editorial expressing empathy for gay students because “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.” The article continued by discussing suicide rates for gay youth and questioning why religions condemn homosexuality.
The school’s principal, Dr. Edwin Yoder, said he thought the article was “inappropriate” for younger students. He sent Sorrell a letter explaining that in the future, he would review all materials before they were printed in the paper. Before, only articles Sorrell believed might be controversial required review.
After a failed attempt by Sorrell to reach out to the school board in late February, the superintendent’s office stepped in to revise the district’s policy, naming the principal as “publisher” and giving him full authority over student publications.
The controversy escalated in March when the students, protesting the new policy, refused to print the newspaper.
The school placed Sorrell on administrative leave, finally reaching an agreement with her in late April. Under that agreement, Sorrell agreed to issue an apology and transfer to another district school, where she would be unable to teach journalism for at least three years. Instead, Sorrell left to teach journalism at a private school.
Now, with a fresh school year underway, Woodlan has a new system for student participation on its newspaper and yearbook staffs, both formerly advised by Sorrell. The yearbook will operate as an extracurricular activity meeting before or after school, and the newspaper will rely on submissions from English classes.
English teachers will have students respond to a given topic using various styles of writing, including persuasion, opinion and perspective pieces, said Jan MacLean, deputy superintendent at East Allen Country Schools. The teachers will select the best articles and ask their authors for permission to publish the pieces.
“I’m really not sure exactly what the kids will be writing about or what the English teachers have in mind,” MacLean said. “There will be some department discussions about what kinds of pieces would be appropriate. My guess is that students will be including pieces that are newsworthy.”
Cortney Carpenter, The Tomahawk’s editor last year, said she does not want anything she writes for English class printed in the newspaper.
“It really wouldn’t be a paper anymore,” she said.
The changes to the newspaper were necessary because only four students signed up for the journalism class, MacLean said. If more students sign up for the class next year, she said the school would find an instructor.
“Now all students will have a chance to contribute,” she said. “We are not doing anything to discourage the students.”
MacLean said the school gave students an option to take journalism at another school in the district.
Sara Randall, a senior and last year’s assistant editor, was the only student to pursue that option.
“During my lunch I drive to New Haven,” she said. “I write for the paper for a period and then I drive back to Woodlan. It’s time consuming and inconvenient.”
Randall said it is disappointing to hear about the change to Woodlan’s newspaper. After Sorrell’s departure, she said the students lost interest in writing for the newspaper.
Sorrell, two weeks into her new job, said it sounded like the newspaper would become more literary with “random ranting.”
Witnessing the paper’s change has been discouraging for last year’s editor.
“I’m done with newspapers,” Carpenter said. “This experience has ruined journalism for me.”
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