California adviser worries about retaliation after principal resigns

CALIFORNIA — A high school adviser whose students protested the principal’s confiscation of a February issue is worried she and the journalism program might face retaliation now that the principal has announced her resignation at the end of the year.

It’s unclear why Bear Creek High School Principal Shirley McNichols resigned and Vice Principal Tim Swartz wasn’t reappointed at a school board meeting this month, but news that they would be leaving came out in a local newspaper shortly after McNichols confiscated 1,700 copies of The Bruin Voice. The newspapers were returned the same day.

Mike McKilligan, the school district’s assistant superintendent of personnel, said in an email that the departures have nothing to do with McNichols’ confiscation of the newspaper. He declined to give a reason.

McNichols declined to comment for this article.

Bear Creek High School journalism adviser Kathi Duffel said while McNichols’ relationship with the newspaper may have been part of the reason for her resignation, she doesn’t think the newspaper was “the sole cause.” Duffel said she’s never seen administrators at the school let go so quickly, which is why she believes “there are definitely other issues going on.” McNichols became principal in fall 2011.

Still, Duffel said she worries about the guilt her students might feel from being associated with two administrators leaving their jobs.

“I think I used the phrase, ‘We might have been the icing on the cake but we were not the cake,’” Duffel said of discussing the situation with her students.

Though the administrators will not be returning to their positions in the fall, they will continue operating in their full job capacities until the end of the current school year. That means they can continue making personnel decisions and decisions regarding teachers’ class schedules, McKilligan said in an email.

Duffel said she fears the “lame duck administrators” could retaliate against her before the school year is up. She’s been through this situation before and feels she’s already gotten a glimpse of retaliation this time.

During a previous principal’s “lame duck” administration in spring 2011, Duffel was told she had to submit the newspaper for prior review. When she let the paper go to print without prior review, Duffel was written up for insubordination. She said she had to hire an attorney to get the insubordination write-up and prior review directive rescinded.

“That’s why I’m so fearful of this lame duck issue,” Duffel said. “You’re really allowed to do whatever and you’re off the hook. There’s no accountability.”

Shortly after the confiscation and return of the student newspapers this year, McNichols denied Duffel’s request for money to take her class to a national journalism conference. Duffel said she’s received school funds to take her students to the Journalism Education Association’s conference for the last 20 years and had submitted a request for “categorical funds” this year.

When Duffel found out McNichols wasn’t funding the conference because she felt it didn’t impact enough students to meet the criteria for a categorical fund expense, she sent McNichols an email challenging her decision.

The Bruin Voice is provided free of charge to every student on this campus,” Duffel wrote. “Many teachers use the paper to teach lessons in opinion writing, interpreting graphs and charts, as well as examples of fine, investigative reporting.”

In her responses to Duffel, McNichols wrote that the conference didn’t “strongly meet the parameters” for categorical fund expenses because it wouldn’t “directly impact” a large enough group of students. She added that Duffel’s funding request came in late and was not submitted to the correct person.

Duffel maintained that her request “was submitted in a timely manner” just after the availability of funds was announced.

In an interview, Duffel said the discussion with McNichols continued and she eventually was granted funding after speaking with higher-ups and then having a lengthy meeting with McNichols.

But Duffel said she remains concerned that the administrators could retaliate against her in their remaining months at the school by reassigning her to remedial classes for next school year, or by cutting the journalism program.

“I think we’re all at the whim of administrators’ pet projects, and if your program falls out of favor, you really have to fight for it,” Duffel said. “Electives in general tend to run a little bit lower in number, so I think administrators could always use budget as an excuse.”

California Education Code 48907 prohibits retaliation against both students and advisers on the basis of legally protected speech in student media.

By Sara Tirrito, SPLC staff writer. Contact Tirrito by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 124.