Va. adviser removed after students criticize school conditions

VIRGINIA — A dispute 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 the journalism class disappeared from the 2011-2012 schedule in favor of a class labeled “Desktop Publishing.”

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

The dispute began after students published an editorial criticizing the condition of the school’s facilities and an article about changes to the science curriculum in its May edition. Principal Mike Sisler told her to recall the issue and to tell people the recall was due to an error in the paper, LaRoue said. He threatened to prevent the next edition from going to 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 reversed because I mentioned that we couldn’t compete in the Wachovia Cup if we didn’t have three issues,” LaRoue explained, referring to a statewide academic competition MCHS enters every year. “The June issue did end up coming out, but it was highly censored.”

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

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

Neither Eberhardt nor Sisler responded to repeated requests for comment.

Jennifer Canavan, a Mountaineer staff member last school year, said administrators removed the paper because they did not like the perceived negativity and because they claimed there were inaccuracies in the article and editorial. However, Canavan said she did not see any factual inaccuracies in either article, and neither Sisler nor Assistant Principal Josh Walton objected to the content when they told LaRoue they had reviewed the paper prior to printing.

The editorial called into question the accessibility and safety of the building

“Some of the classrooms have cracked windows and the possibility of 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 buttons that could be pressed for help,” read the editorial. “Our school is far from able to meet the requirements for the handicapped and disabled… The only concession to the federal mandates is the elevator.”

Documents obtained by the Student Press Law Center through a public records request supported the editorial’s claims. The building was listed as being in “fair/poor” condition and recommended for renovations in the most recent draft of the Capital Improvement Plan, the county’s assessment of building conditions and planned replacements. There were also multiple reports of dysfunctional air conditioning, ants and bugs in the buildings and leaky roofs.

The building’s parking lots, bleachers, restrooms, room identification signage and door hardware all fall short of standards mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to the county’s improvement plan. The plan also indicates the school’s fire alarm system is out of code, and notes teachers’ inability to communicate with the office from their classrooms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canavan said she is unsure whether she wants to be part of the newspaper if the school continues the program, even though LaRoue had recommended 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 before the official changes were announced. “I know that our adviser is no longer in charge of the newspaper anymore, which caused a lot of students in the class to be outraged, especially me.”

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

“I’m really hoping that I’m going to get to be adviser again, if not at Madison then at another school one day,” she said. “I just really 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 sour them on journalism.”

By Emily T. Gerston, SPLC staff writer