Ousted adviser of high school paper finds new home at private school

INDIANA — In a new school where she will launch a fledgling newspaper, Amy Sorrell can finally put behind her a battle against school officials sparked by an editorial suggesting tolerance for gay people.

Just months after reaching an agreement with East Allen County Schools that would have prevented her from teaching journalism, Sorrell instead joined the faculty at Keystone Schools, a private, Christian K-12 school in Fort Wayne, Ind. She teaches English and yearbook, and she is on track to have her own journalism class and create a newspaper next semester.

“Things are going great so far,” she said. “But I do miss the Woodlan kids.”

In January, Sorrell found herself at odds with Woodlan Junior-Senior High School’s principal, Dr. Edwin Yoder, over an editorial in The Tomahawk student newspaper, which Sorrell had advised since 2003. The article discussed the high suicide rate among homosexual youth and questioned the religious viewpoint against the sexual orientation.

Yoder called the article “inappropriate” for younger students. He sent Sorrell a letter telling her that in the future he would review all materials prior to printing. Previously, Sorrell had only needed to allow Yoder to review materials that Sorrell thought would be controversial.

Sorrell and the students took their case to the school board, which declined to get involved. Instead, 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 policy also forbade the newspaper from seeking legal advice from anyone other than the district’s own attorney.

The controversy escalated when the students, protesting the new policy, refused to print the newspaper. Yoder sent Sorrell another letter, this time calling her actions insubordinate and threatening her with termination.

The school placed Sorrell on administrative leave. The two sides reached a settlement in late April, in which Sorrell agreed to transfer to another school in the district. The agreement prevented her from teaching journalism for three years and required her to write a formal apology. She was placed on paid leave for the remainder of the school year.

Keystone quickly stepped in to grab her, issuing a press release praising Sorrell’s history of free speech advocacy.

Don Willis, the school’s founder, said in the release that Sorrell “will bring unparalleled life experiences related to our freedoms and responsibilities as citizens.”

School officials say they are pleased with Sorrell’s addition to the staff.

“It’s working out very well,” said Dacia Michael, executive director of The 4D Education Foundation, an organization that supports educational efforts in northeast Indiana such as Keystone Schools. “She is wildly enthusiastic.”

Since taking on her new role Aug. 20, Sorrell already has made progress on the yearbook and collaborated with other teachers and administrators to create a multi-grade constitutional law program.

But her big project, forming a newspaper for Keystone, won’t start until next semester. She already has her “eye on a couple of students” for staff positions and is recruiting writers from her English classes.

Sorrell said she wasn’t worried about a conflict arising between Keystone’s Christian education values and their stance on the First Amendment.

“They were very upfront in the interview at Keystone that they value the First Amendment,” she said. “I am just appalled that a public school didn’t, you would think that would be a given.”

So what would happen if a Keystone student decided to write an editorial similar to the one at Woodlan, which said condemning homosexuality from a Christian stance “seems extremely unfair”?

“They are open to controversial articles,” she said. “But you also have to know your audience. This is a K-12 school. I think they’ll be okay, but we haven’t gotten there yet,” Sorrell said.

Michael said Keystone would address those issues as they come up.

“Since the day we began as a school five years ago, it’s been a core value of ours to give students a firm understanding of the freedoms and responsibilities of citizenship,” she said. “We support that students need to be involved in the decision-making process.”

For More Information:

  • Suspended adviser settles with school district, will move to another school News Flash, 4/27/2007
  • 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