Va. adviser removed after students criticize school conditions

VIRGINIA — Adispute with school administrators over newspaper content has cost Kate LaRoueher job as adviser of the Madison County High School Mountaineer.

Now there may not even be a Mountaineer for her students to return to this year, as thejournalism class disappeared from the 2011-2012 schedule in favor of a classlabeled “Desktop Publishing.”

LaRoue learned less than three weeks before the new schoolyear started that instead of teaching journalism and English at MCHS, as shehad done the year before, she was scheduled to teach in the new AlternativeEducation department on a separate campus. Rather than return, LaRoue accepteda job teaching social studies and history with a different school district.

The dispute began after students published an editorialcriticizing the condition of the school’s facilities and an article aboutchanges to the science curriculum in its May edition. Principal Mike Sislertold her to recall the issue and to tell people the recall was due to an errorin the paper, LaRoue said. He threatened to prevent the next edition from goingto print, but that paper was eventually released, she said.

“At first it was ‘There isn’t going to be a June issue,period. There will not be one, you will not print one.’ That decision was reversedbecause I mentioned that we couldn’t compete in the Wachovia Cup if we didn’thave three issues,” LaRoue explained, referring to a statewide academiccompetition MCHS enters every year. “The June issue did end up coming out, butit was highly censored.”

Criticism from Superintendent Matthew Eberhardt spurred theschool into action, according to Maggie Vaillant, last year’s Mountaineer editor in chief.

“Well, retaliation is perhaps a strong word, but thesuperintendent clearly did not like what was written in the articles because ofpossible ‘negative light on the school,’” she said.

Neither Eberhardt nor Sisler responded to repeated requestsfor comment.

Jennifer Canavan, a Mountaineerstaff member last school year, said administrators removed the paper becausethey did not like the perceived negativity and because they claimed there wereinaccuracies in the article and editorial. However, Canavan said she did notsee any factual inaccuracies in either article, and neither Sisler nor AssistantPrincipal Josh Walton objected to the content when they told LaRoue they hadreviewed the paper prior to printing.

The editorial called into question the accessibility andsafety of the building

“Some of the classrooms have cracked windows and the possibilityof mold in the ceilings… If we were to be faced with an intruder in the school,the classrooms in the older sections of the school do not have panic buttonsthat could be pressed for help,” read the editorial. “Our school is far fromable to meet the requirements for the handicapped and disabled… The onlyconcession to the federal mandates is the elevator.”

Documents obtained by the Student Press Law Center through apublic records request supported the editorial’s claims. The building waslisted as being in “fair/poor” condition and recommended for renovations in themost recent draft of the Capital Improvement Plan, the county’s assessment ofbuilding conditions and planned replacements. There were also multiple reportsof dysfunctional air conditioning, ants and bugs in the buildings and leakyroofs.

The building’s parking lots, bleachers, restrooms, roomidentification signage and door hardware all fall short of standards mandatedby the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to the county’s improvementplan. The plan also indicates the school’s fire alarm system is out of code,and notes teachers’ inability to communicate with the office from theirclassrooms.

LaRoue said Sisler told her she was being removed as advisershortly before the end of the school year via email after the Englishdepartment chair mentioned to her that she may not continue as adviser.According to teaching evaluations LaRoue provided, Sisler had given herexcellent marks as adviser as recently as one week before the May edition ofthe paper came out.

The evaluation, however, also notes “there have been issueswith the newspaper that have been addressed.”

Canavan said that administrators were critical of the paperall year, complaining that articles referred to teachers by name only, theindustry standard established in the Associated Press Stylebook, rather thanusing courtesy titles such as “Mrs.” and “Mr.”

“Looking back I believe administration created more problemsthan we gave them,” she said. “Granted we may have had a few careless errorsfrom time to time, but is that reason to completely take us out? We’re juststudents trying to learn.”

Although the June issue was allowed to print, the paper willlikely undergo drastic changes if it is permitted to continue at all. While schooladministrators did not respond to multiple requests for comment, the absence ofa scheduled journalism class and the inclusion of a new Desktop Publishingclass suggest major changes.

“I think that it’s really sad that they’ve created apublishing course as opposed to an actual journalism course,” LaRoue said. “Iworry that it’s not going to be as effective and they’re not going to learn asmuch about the ethics and the law and the other things that make journalismsuch a fascinating and really exciting content to teach and to learn.”

Canavan said she is unsure whether she wants to be part ofthe newspaper if the school continues the program, even though LaRoue hadrecommended Canavan to be next year’s editor in chief.

“They have talked about getting rid of the class completely,but I do not currently know the outcome of that thought,” Cananvan said beforethe official changes were announced. “I know that our adviser is no longer incharge of the newspaper anymore, which caused a lot of students in the class tobe outraged, especially me.”

Though she will not be advising at her new school, LaRouesaid student journalism remains important to her.

“I’m really hoping that I’m going to get to be adviseragain, if not at Madison then at another school one day,” she said. “I justreally hope that my students do understand the value of what they’re learning,even from this experience. I mean, I know it’s hard to find anything positive,but I really hope they use this as a learning experience, and it doesn’t sourthem on journalism.”

By Emily T. Gerston, SPLC staff writer