Wash. adviser fired for helping underground paper regains job

WASHINGTON — The Everett School District reached a settlement Friday with a former Cascade High School teacher fired in November for helping students run an underground newspaper.

Kay Powers, the former newspaper adviser and journalism teacher, said shewill receive full back pay and will resume teaching for the district on April 25at Henry M. Jackson High School. She will teach only English, not journalism,and agreed to resign, effective Aug. 31, 2009.

Everett School District and Powers were involved in a separate student presslawsuit involving student editors of Everett High School’s Kodak,who argued their paper’s forum status protected it from administrativeprior review. Powers wrote an affidavit on behalf of the students. That case wassettled in August 2007.

Powers was told she violated district policies after helping students produce two underground publications on school computers: a newspaper, FreeStehekin, and a literary magazine, Tyro Libre. Students moved the papers underground in 2005 to avoid prior review.

Superintendent Carol Whitehead reminded Powers and the paper’s staff in February 2007 that the papers would have to be produced off school grounds, but Powers was put on administrative leave in May 2007 when officials found she was allowing students to use school computers, driving them home in her car and letting them skip class to work on the paper.

Powers’ attorney Mitch Coghill, also the attorney for the Kodak students, said the district’s case was weak to begin with, but the discovery of a hidden camera in Powers’ classroom — which he said the district denied having placed there — played a part in thedistrict’s willingness to settle. Coghill said a former National SecurityAgency employee confirmed that the type of camera found is used forsurveillance.

“[The district] approached us many times for a settlement,”Coghill said. “It was a resolution made in heaven for Kay.”

A call to Whitehead was referred to district Communications Director MaryWaggoner. Waggoner referred comments to Hughes, who did not return the StudentPress Law Center’s call by Monday afternoon.

Powers said the Free Stehekin printed five issues last year before she was placed on leave for 10 months, and the paper’s managing editor, David Whittemore, was suspended for 10 days. According to an April 12 Everett Daily Herald article, a reportfiled by the district after Powers’ firing could have led to a revocationof her teaching credentials.

The settlement was reached just days before a public hearing was to begin.Powers said her attorneys asked her what she wanted if an agreement was sought, and she told them she wanted her job back for one more year and then she would resign. She said she asked not to teach journalism because her new school already has a “very good” journalism teacher.

Powers, who said now there are no underground papers at Cascade HighSchool, said she does not regret her decision to help the students.

“The cause was right — the students struggled against prior review. They were encouraged to take the words ‘public forum’ out ofthe paper,” she said. “One of the effects of suspending a student or firing a teacher is that there’s a fear that gets instilled — a fear of standing up. And that’s why this victory was so important.”

In the Herald article, Valerie Hughes, attorney for the school district, said the settlement will save money and time for the district, andwill “put the focus back on students and their academicachievement.”

Whittemore, a senior at Cascade High School, helped take the FreeStehekin underground last year as the managing editor. He said when he and other students heard of the situation at Everett High School, they thought taking their papers underground would help fight prior review. At first he said students did all work off-campus, but when alternative locations became too far for some students, they began working with school computers.

In addition to being suspended, Whittemore had to appeal to the school board when Whitehead denied his variance to continue attending Cascade. It is not his normally assigned school, but he has always attended Cascade because it is closer to where he lives. He won the appeal, but under certain conditions: he could no longer be a part of student publications, he is not allowed to use school computers, and he cannot be on school grounds after 3 p.m. But Whittemore said he will not fight the district.

“I think they took it a little too far, I think I’ve had enough of the school district and all its dealings,” he said. ”I just want to finish out this year.”

Amanda Francke, former editor-in-chief of the Stehekin, said she decided to take the paper underground because the district’s attempt at prior review was “against our constitutional rights.” She said the district’s investigation “almost ruined students’ academic years” and officials treated Powers unfairly.

“Kay Powers was more than a teacher to me in high school, and to say she was a danger to students — I just abhor that statement,” she said.

Francke said the Stehekin has printed only one issue this year because the same teacher is handling the journalism class, yearbook and newspaper.

Powers, a teacher for 34 years, said she thinks her struggle to keep her job has emboldened teachers and students.

“I never thought I would lose, however, a) because I was right, and b) because Everett is a very strong union town,” she said. “But even if I had lost somehow, I’d do it again.”