New Jersey journalism adviser resigns from position after censorship controversy

NEW JERSEY — The adviser of a New Jersey student newspaper, whose student editor fought censorship for the past three months, has resigned from his position.

John Wodnick, who advised the Northern Highlands Regional High School’s student newspaper, The Highland Fling, announced his resignation earlier this week in an email to his students titled “End of an Era.” Wodnick, a tenured teacher, was the adviser for 10 years and will continue to work in the school’s English department.

“The number one thing I’m going to miss is the ability to work with such dedicated and idealistic students to produce something real, something that contributes value to the community,” Wodnick said in an interview.

Wodnick said he was unable to go into detail about the reason for his resignation. His news comes less than two weeks after a controversial three-month censorship battle was resolved between The Highland Fling and the school’s board of education.

The incident arose when the newspaper’s then-editor-in-chief, Adelina Colaku, wrote an article for the March issue about a conflict between the school’s superintendent and teachers. Colaku, who has since graduated, sought to publish a story about grievances that had been filed against John Keenan, the district’s superintendent.

Principal Joseph Occhino originally censored the piece. Colaku published an article in the April edition of the newspaper that explained her original article was censored and she appealed the censorship case to the board of education.

Colaku obtained pro bono legal representation from Benjamin Marks, an attorney from the New York offices of Weil, Gotshal & Manges, through the Student Press Law Center’s attorney referral network. After several weeks of negotiations and revisions to Colaku’s article, it was eventually approved by the Board of Education and Occhino, and was published earlier this month.

Colaku said Wodnick told her of his resignation personally and that she will miss his presence in the newsroom. She said she doesn’t know the reasons for his resignation.

“He will be dearly missed by all of the staff, and I think that he’s exceptional at what he does,” Colaku said. “I think it’s disheartening that he’s resigning.”

Occhino and Board President Barbara Garand did not return calls or an email, respectively.

Wodnick said he remains committed to the mission of student journalism.

“I think it’s important for students to understand that they do have a voice and the right to ask questions and to speak up and to contribute to their community in that way,” Wodnick said.

Wodnick and Colaku said they do not know what the process will be to choose the next adviser.

“Mr. Wodnick has been an exceptional adviser throughout the past four years,” Colaku said. “I remember going into Fling being a very timid girl … He transformed me from this shy person to more of a daring person.”

John Tagliareni, a member of the Journalism Education Association’s Scholastic Press Rights Commission and the past president of the Garden State Scholastic Press Association, said Wodnick’s resignation was concerning, especially in light of the removal of another New Jersey adviser, Bill Gurden. Gurden was removed from his position earlier this month after his students fought back against censorship.

“A lot of principals and a lot of administrators want to have [journalism] just as an activity,” Tagliareni said. “They don’t want anyone to rock the boat … some of these people just can’t take criticism from staff, from certainly students.”

Tagliareni said he believes that Colaku “did an unbelievable job at writing the story.” He said he sees a lot of students who do not always follow through and fight censorship. Advisers, like Wodnick and Gurden, often “wind up paying the price.”

“The problem is, how do you get the kids to go to a point where someone like Adelina went to that point?” Tagliareni said. “She knew what her rights were and she followed through.”

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