N.D. school board replaces dismissed adviser

NORTH DAKOTA — Recent actions by a North Dakota school boardaffirm the district does not plan to reinstate the high school newspaper adviserwho was removed from the position in June over what the adviser said was adifference in philosophy.

On July 13 the West Fargo School Board in West Fargo, N.D., approved thehire of a new adviser to replace Jeremy Murphy, who advised the school paper,the Packer, for two years. Earlier in the meeting, a crowd of studentsand parents addressed the board, asking for them to consider the importance of astudent newspaper free from administrative control, said Meagan McDougall, lastyear’s co-editor-in-chief.

“We were really hurt by the way they handled it,” McDougallsaid. “We had 50 students crammed in that room wanting to see what wouldhappen and have our voices heard, and they kind of just stomped all overus.”

When students spoke to the board — donning T-shirts that read”Save Murphy, Save the Packer” — they were not allowed tomention Murphy by name because the board does not allow discussion of personnelissues. In the school board’s prepared response, McDougall said PresidentTom Gentzkow “disregarded everything we said.”

Gentzkow did not return a message for comment.

McDougall said the Packer staff members and their parents werebothered by the school board’s choice to make the hiring of the newadviser — a former teacher from Moorhead, N.D. — a consent item. Theboard voted to approve the list of consent items without acknowledging they werehiring a new adviser, McDougall said. She said the board’s actions felt”extremely hypocritical.”

“You have all these high school kids and you’re telling themthey need to be good citizens and speak out about what they feel strongly about,but then you have the school board who is squelching anything the students wantto say,” she said.

Packer staff member Molly English said the meeting showed the boardwas planning to hire the new adviser regardless of what the student journalistshad to say.

“We had just let Murphy down,” she said. “Everything weworked for, it sounds traumatic, but it’s all been washedaway.”

The North Dakota Education Association and the West Fargo EducationAssociation have publicly supported Murphy. The groups held a press conferencebefore the school board meeting; the public is not allowed to comment onspecific personnel during the meeting. Representatives from the associationswere not available for comment, but a press release from the statewideorganization said they will “move forward with litigation and pursue everyavenue” for Murphy, who kept his position teaching English and advisingthe school’s yearbook.

English said Gentzkow told the crowd the issue had nothing to do with thenewspaper’s content, which English said was “like spitting in ourface.” According to her, school officials have told both Murphy andseveral student journalists they were not happy with some of the award-winningpaper’s content.

In e-mails to Murphy, Principal Gary Clark wrote he was concerned withcertain stories the paper had published. The Forum, the local newspaper,obtained the 286 pages of e-mails in response to a Freedom of Information Actrequest.

Clark wrote in one e-mail message: “Simply put, decisions (such aswho will be included in the yearbook, for example) are NOT made by students. …the final decision will not be made by students.”

In another e-mail, Clark said he was apprehensive about “loadedquestions” student journalists were asking while reporting for a story onthe district’s move to block scheduling. Clark wrote he felt the”controversial” topic could “harm our relations in thisdistrict” and felt a staff member had told the students to ask certainquestions.

“These are issues that need to be kept private with our staff,”Clark wrote. “There are not issues for the ears of students or parents andcommunity.”

In e-mails between Murphy and his wife, an elementary teacher in thedistrict, Murphy said the administrators wanted the paper to only cover positiveissues. Murphy told the SPLC in June he was removed from the position because ofa disagreement in his leadership philosophies.

“I felt the role of the adviser should be to advise,”28-year-old Murphy said. “And they felt it should be tocontrol.”

Murphy did not return a message for comment. A message left for West FargoSuperintendent Dana Diesel Wallace was also unreturned.

Murphy’s students said they are hopeful the fight to reinstate Murphyis not over.

“I think Murphy saw how much we need him as an adviser and how muchwe need him to be there,” English said. “As students, our job isover except to back up Murphy.”

For More Information:

  • N.D. high school newspaper adviser removed from position News Flash, 6/29/2009