Ohio high school newspaper adviser fired after 19 years

OHIO — When a high school newspaper adviser is fired, school administratorsoften face censorship accusations from the adviser’s supporters, a situation currently playingout in one Ohio school district.

Rebecca Taylor was informed June 20 that she would nolonger advise Rocky River High School’s PiratePress newspaper, which she defined by starting the journalism program 19years ago.

“I’ve pretty much had a stomachache everyday thissummer,” Taylor said, recalling the past several weeks leading up to her returnto the school, which started Thursday.

While she won’t be advising the paper, Taylor is teachingthe introduction to journalism class and ninth-grade English. But returning tothe school leaves her ambivalent, noting, “I’ll be leaving my classroom as myformer students are coming in.”

Abby Freeman, one of her former students and currenteditor in chief of the Pirate Press,is one of Taylor’s supporters who fought back against the school’s decision,bringing the issue to a school board meeting last week. Freeman and othercommunity members decried Taylor’s demotion at the heated meeting, many seekingreasons for her dismissal.

“This decision really pulled the rug out from underneathme as editor and as my only year to truly make a difference at the paper,”Freeman said.

After Freeman and other supporters talked at the meetingand questioned the school’s decision, the district school board called for anexecutive session to discuss the personnel matters regarding Taylor’s firing.The board returned with three reasons, which Superintendent Michael Shoaf sharedwith attendees.

Though Taylor was not present at the meeting, shelistened to a recording and challenged the reasons given.

Taylor said for the past few years the newspaper hasundergone prior review by the school administration, and she identified severalinstances of censorship by the administration.

One instance involved a story rejected by the administrators,which was re-written by the writer and then approved. Taylor had both theoriginal and revised copies on her USB drive that went to the printer, and theoriginal was printed by mistake. This led to a formal reprimand by PrincipalDebra Bernard, which Taylor responded to with an apology letter detailing thenew procedures the paper would be implemented to avoid future problems. Theformal reprimand was the first reason given for her firing at the boardmeeting.

The second reason Shoaf gave was students were using personalemail accounts instead of school accounts to contact sources, a problem he saidTaylor was warned about four times, which she denied.

“I was not emailed four times,” she said, insteadsuggesting a generic blanket email went out to all teachers regarding the schoolpolicy, “but I was never given a specific email to me saying, ‘Hey we’re doinga history and we see that some of your students are using their own emails, canyou take care of this?’ because then I could have addressed it.”

The third reason referenced a full-time English teachingposition she applied for at the high school, though her cover letter to Shoaf specifiedshe was interested in the job if it was combined with her role in thejournalism program.

In applying for the position,“they said I desired to leave the program, which is ludicrous,” Taylor said.“It’s my passion, I never wanted to leave the program. I wanted to do it therest of my life.”

Taylor recalled three timesthe paper was censored by school administration in the previous year because ofprior review, a process she said was originally justified to her to add “anadministrative perspective” to the stories “that eventually evolved into ‘Comesee me, we don’t want you to put this in the paper.’”

Freeman said the prior reviewhad increased over the years she worked at the paper and had gotten out of handin the past year when the paper seemed to have “meetings with theadministration every issue about a story.”

Kim Lenahan, a parent in the school district who helpedround up people to attend the school board meeting, praised Taylor and her workover the years.

“The Pirate Pressover the past two years I would say has become a real significant vehicle forparents to understand what the student perspective is in the school,” Lenahansaid. “As one parent said to me when I called, ‘We don’t need another districtnewsletter, we need what the students are thinking.’ And the Pirate Press has really come to fillthat void very well.”

Lenahan said Taylor’s firing was an attempt by the schoolto censor the paper, and she was disappointed the school board would not movefrom its position regarding Taylor.

“It was evident that the entire board was setup with oneagenda when we came in, and that they were going to essentially give us apublic hearing,” she said, “but at the same time it was also evident that theywere not listening to what we were saying.”

Jay Milano, a Cleveland lawyer who sits on Rocky River’sBoard of Education, said the role of the board is to deal with district policy,not personnel matters.

“Let me make this very clear,” Milano said. “We willnever get involved with administration’s decisions on what contracts they let,on what teachers they hire, what positions they take. That’d be intemperate, itwould just be silly.”

He declined to expand on the reasons Superintendent Shoafoffered at the meeting for Taylor’s removal but said the school’s decision “hadnothing to do with the idea of censorship.”

Milano said concern over a school policy such as the priorreview could have been dealt with by the board, but to his knowledge nocomplaints had reached his level.

“A policy issue brought to us is very easy to address,”he said, “but no one ever did it and that’s where you get into this fool’serrand of trying to deal with it when you have a personnel issue and people arenot happy with it, and that’s the case with any school.”

Milano said the school’s policy of prior review will notcontinue at the newspaper, which also has a new adviser, and additionalcomplaints should be brought to the school board’s attention.

“If anybody comes to a board meeting and says we’resomehow censoring or shutting down, or clamping down on that newspaperunfairly, then they’re going to get a very receptive ear from the board —certainly from me, but I think from the whole board,” he said.

With school now starting up, Abby Freeman is still upset withthe school for firing Taylor and unhappy with the outcome of last week’s boardmeeting, adding she will continue to fight the decision.

“If anything, the information given to me from thatmeeting lent fuel to my fire and reminded me that it is a censorship issuedespite what they’re saying,” Freeman said.

More than two months afterlosing her role as adviser, Taylor said the situation is out of her hands.

“My desire for Kim Lenahan andAbby and whoever else is still going out there is for them to get whatever theywant out of this,” she said, “but that’s not my fight.”

She is, however, hoping for aneventual outcome.

“My hope is that I will teachjournalism again, the newspaper again. That’s what I want to be teaching,” shesaid. “My desire is to be in the journalism program.”