Calif. students say principal forbade them from reporting popular debate coach's firing

CALIFORNIA — After clashes with their principal over coverage of a controversial teacher firing, staff members of The Matador student newspaper at San Gabriel High School took their complaints to the school superintendent in a private meeting last Friday.

The staff believes that Principal Jim Schofield violated California’s Student Free Expression Law by censoring their coverage of the dismissal of popular first-year English teacher and speech and debate coach Andrew Nguyen.

Rebecca Lei, a 2015 graduate and one of two editors-in-chief of The Matador for the 2014-2015 school year, along with staff writers Kelly Ho and Thomas Wang, met with superintendent Laura Tellez-Gagliano, assistant superintendent Marsha Gilbert, and board member Bob Gin, Lei said in an email.

After hearing that Nguyen was dismissed, The Matador’s staff attempted to interview Schofield. Schofield kept “retreating” to the issue of privacy, even after he was notified that the students had Nguyen’s written permission to cover the issue, said Simon Yung, a 2015 graduate of San Gabriel High School and a copy editor and correspondent for The Matador during the 2014-2015 school year.

In a May 24 email to Lei, Schofield said that “there are policies and I believe laws in place that prohibit me from speaking directly to alleged employee matters such as this.”

Schofield asked to pre-approve the article about Nguyen’s dismissal, said Yung. The staff agreed to the request, thinking it was probably due to professional courtesy or employee confidentiality, said Yung.

“The optimist in all of us got the better,” he said.

Schofield soon ordered the staff to not publish any material on the specifics of Nguyen’s dismissal, said Yung. The staff was told that the only type of article they could write was one “praising Nguyen”–a feature, he said. No rationale was given for the restriction, Yung said.

The students did publish a pre-approved feature about Nguyen’s departure on the newspaper’s website May 27 downplaying the controversy about his removal, along with a short editorial alerting readers that the coverage had been censored.

Schofield, Tellez-Gagliano, Rodriguez-Mackintosh, and Collier did not respond to requests for comment.

School board won’t address principal’s directive to withhold news coverage

The Matador’s staff first aired their grievances at the Alhambra Unified School District’s school board meeting on June 2. There, Yung asked the school board to order Schofield to lift his restriction, as it is a violation of California Education Code 48907, also known as the California Student Free Expression Law, Yung said.

The code establishes the right to freedom of speech and press in public and charter schools in California, except when the material produced is obscene, libelous, or slanderous, or creates “clear and present danger” of the commission of unlawful acts on school premises, the violation of lawful school regulations, or the substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school.

Schofield’s restriction violated the law because the topic of Nguyen’s dismissal did not fit any of the exemptions that enable administrators to censor speech under the code, Yung said.

The board did not directly address the request during the meeting, said Yung. At the end of the board meeting, members said that it was great to see people standing up for their First Amendment rights, Yung said.

“Then they went into their testing scores and budgets and all that and completely neglected the issue,” said Yung.

At the meeting, board president Adele Andrade-Stadler said the board would never comment on a personnel matter.

“I know you realize how seriously we take our responsibility to provide the best instruction for our students at the district, so thank you, thank you very much for letting us hear your views,” she said.

Journalism educator Konnie Krislock, one of the primary advocates for the California law and current publications adviser at Sage Hill School in Newport Coast, Calif., spoke in support of the students at the meeting.

According to the law, the students are the only ones who have the right to determine the content of the publication, Krislock said at the meeting.

“For someone to suggest that students may not write about things that have to do with the instructors in their classroom is ludicrous. It’s their school,” Krislock said.

“What is against the law is for a principal or any administrator to tell students that they can’t write something, and by intimidation limit their coverage,” she said.

In a June 2 letter to the school district, an ACLU of Southern California attorney asked for an investigation into whether Schofield illegally censored The Matador.

“Whatever obligation Dr. Schofield and school officials may have had not to discuss employment decisions to protect the dismissed [teacher], they had no right to under Education Code § 48907 direct the student newspaper not to publish a story about the teacher’s non-renewal,” wrote ACLU legal director Peter Eliasberg.

At the board meeting, school board member Patricia Rodriguez-Mackintosh said that Nguyen was given a reason for his dismissal. However, Nguyen denies that he was given a reason.

Lei said that the requests at the subsequent June 5 meeting with school officials for further clarification on that discrepancy were met with “roundabout answers that clarified absolutely nothing.”

The school board denied that the students were ever censored, she said.

“All school board members blatantly denied the presence of censorship. They were insistent on the fact that we were not censored,” she said.

Teacher’s removal prompts show of support, backlash

Prior to the restriction, Schofield intimidated students who gathered in his outer office pressing for a meeting in response to Nguyen’s dismissal, Yung said in his speech at the board meeting. Yung covered the confrontation for The Matador.

Schofield asked for only one representative to meet with him from the group of about 40 or 50 students, Yung said. When the representative came out of Schofield’s office, she said that Schofield had demanded the names of all the participants, especially the leaders, Yung said.

The staff wrote the feature article on Nguyen and submitted it for prior review, but the students continued to work on an article covering the controversy and the surrounding events, including the petitions and the gathering outside Schofield’s office.

A group of students had planned to protest Nguyen’s dismissal outside of San Gabriel High School’s graduation ceremony, said Eric Hong, a 2015 graduate of San Gabriel High School and speech and debate team member.

Nguyen said he received a phone call from Roz Collier, president of the Alhambra Teachers Association, on the last day of school. Collier told him that the human resources department of the Alhambra Unified School District had contacted her and told her to tell Nguyen that it would be in his “best interest” to have the protest canceled, he said. Nguyen then said that he was not involved in the protest.

Collier said that Nguyen could lose his health benefits over the summer, his reason for being terminated could be changed so that he would not be able to work in education, and his students would be arrested if the protest went as planned, Nguyen said.

Nguyen reached out to the students, who canceled the protest. The ACLU letter asks Superintendent Tellez-Gagliano to investigate whether district officials pressured Nguyen with wrongful threats.

Collier did not return multiple messages seeking comment.

Throughout the newspaper’s attempts to contact Schofield, they never received any concrete information, or any answers to the lists of questions they sent, said Yung.

“There’s still a lot of unanswered questions that people want answers for,” Yung said.