INDIANA — Asoutheast Indiana journalism adviser sued Greater Clark County Schools onWednesday, claiming administrators retaliated against her for supporting theFirst Amendment rights of students.
Kelly Short filed the federal lawsuit two months after thedistrict placed her on suspension in November. Short advised the studentnewspaper and yearbook at Jeffersonville High School, along theIndiana-Kentucky border near Louisville. She has been a teacher there since1994.
Dan Canon, Short’s attorney, said administrators suspendedher “pending an investigation into some very vague allegations aboutmismanagement of the yearbook, some of which supposedly happened in 2008.”
A school district spokeswoman said the district had nocomment because of the pending litigation.
In the suit, Short alleges the real reason stems from a yearof tension with principal James Sexton over student expression rights. The2010-2011 school year was Sexton’s first as principal there and Short’s firstas newspaper adviser.
The conflict began in late 2010 or early 2011, when thestudent newspaper, The Hyphen,published a story about new security cameras at the school. The story claimedthe system cost $20,000 and that Sexton had four plasma television monitorsinstalled in his office, former editor Stephon Moore said in a June 2011interview with the Student Press Law Center.
Short and Moore concede the actual cost of the system was muchlower, and the paper printed a front-page correction in the following issue.Short said Sexton made his displeasure with the story known.
Moore said the paper then ran a story about the school’sIn-School Adjustment Program, which students can be sent to for disciplinaryproblems. According to the story, students sent to ISAP would sit and do nothing,and some students intentionally had themselves sent there at certain timesduring the day.
Moore said following the controversial coverage, Sextonbegan taking away privileges from the newspaper staff. They could no longeraccess class schedules to find and interview students, and they were no longerallowed to leave campus to collect advertising money or contracts, Moore said.
Sexton also allegedly began asking to review the newspaperprior to publication – something the students resisted. Short was not madeavailable for comment Thursday, but in a July 2011 interview with the SPLC saidshe also opposed prior review.
“I said that it wasn’t up to me if the paper was priorreviewed because it is a student publication, and that the students – it was theirdecision,” she said.
The tension boiled over in December 2010, when Sexton cameinto the newspaper class and announced Short had given the students “badinformation” about him. According to Moore, Short and an email from Sextonattached to the lawsuit, Sexton claimed Short mistakenly told students he wasplaced on an “improvement plan” by the district.
“This type of rumor building is certainly detrimental towhat I personally am trying to accomplish here at Jeff High,” Sexton wrote inthe email. “I do not appreciate your involvement in bad information surroundingme or any staff member here at our high school.”
Moore said Thursday that the newspaper never wrote anythingabout Sexton being on an improvement plan. Moore also said he never heard Shortmention anything about it.
Short later filed a formal grievance against Sexton over theincident. Canon said nothing came of it.
On June 14, Sexton notified Short by email that she would nolonger be the yearbook adviser after that year’s book was finished. Short saidshe met with district officials along with a union representative to argue thather removal violated a collective bargaining agreement. She was notified thefollowing month that she would continue as yearbook adviser.
A few days later, on July 18, Sexton sent Short two written “directives”for the newspaper and yearbook. According to the letters, attached to Short’slawsuit, the Hyphen was no longer tobe considered a “forum” for student expression, and would be subject to priorreview by administrators.
The directives also listed a series of specific requirementsfor the yearbook – such that it have the school colors “very prominent” on theoutside covers, have an index of students and staff and distinguish betweensports seasons. The yearbook would also be prior reviewed by an administrator.
On Aug. 12, Canon sent a letter to Sexton on behalf ofShort. It claimed the directives were unconstitutional and demanded Sextonrescind them.
Short was formally suspended Nov. 9.
The lawsuit claims the suspension is in retaliation for heropposition to prior review and support of students’ right to free expression.It claims the district violated her First Amendment rights and Indiana’s“whistleblower” law, which protects public employees who report wrongdoing.
Zoie Avery, currently co-editor-in-chief of the Hyphen, said interactions withadministrators have improved over time, though the newspaper is now under priorreview. Avery said an assistant principal, the new adviser and another teacherread through the paper with her before it is sent to press. She said there havebeen no major disputes so far and is happy with the new adviser.
“It’s disappointing that it’s gone this far,” Avery said, “butif she really feels that it’s necessary then – I know Short on a personal leveland she’s a good person.”
Wes Scott, an English teacher at Jeffersonville High, hasbeen advising the newspaper since Short’s suspension. Scott is a Jeffersonvillealumnus and former Hyphen staffmember, and has journalism experience, according to Production Manager EmilyCouch.
Short wants her job back, unspecified damages, and adeclaration that the new publications policies are unconstitutional.
“I just am very upset,” Short told the SPLC in July. “I justfeel like he (Sexton) doesn’t appreciate me as a professional. My first concernis always the kids, my second concern is ethics and responsible journalism. Myego is so far down that list, that’s not even a thought.”
Emily Gerston contributed to this report