Alumni of the Matador student paper have filed a complaint over newspaper adviser’s replacements

CALIFORNIA – The California high school that has made headlines for charges of censorship against the student newspaper is now under investigation after a group of recent alumni reported to the state that the school replaced their journalism teacher with two unqualified substitutes.

Neither of the teachers have prior journalism experience. After the journalism teacher, yearbook and newspaper adviser Jennifer Kim was put on administrative leave in mid-August, the duo was assigned to split her duties.

The Williams complaint, filed on Sept. 15, claims the Alhambra Unified School District is in violation of state standards requiring a qualified teacher for the San Gabriel journalism students. Kristy Duong, one of the alumni who filed the complaint, said that her group recently received a phone call from the district’s complaint officer saying they have started an investigation into their claim. State law requires school districts to have a uniform complaint process to help resolve any deficiencies in the classroom, including teacher vacancy or misassignment.

Kim was put on indefinite leave following a disagreement with the principal at yearbook camp. She has since been under investigation by the administration, and unable to have any contact with the student staffers of The Matador newspaper.

“It’s like I’m under this really weird house arrest,” Kim said.

Since then, student staffers and recent alumni of The Matador have been fighting the school board for Kim’s reinstatement. While Kim has been gone, her students have persistently reported on her absence and attended school board meetings. Several alumni who graduated in the spring even plan to make the trip back for the next board meeting Tuesday to help support and plead Kim’s case.

Some of those alumni have started a blog, Defy Silence Under Alliance, as a protest against administrators — not only for removing Kim, but also as a response to an incident at the end of the last school year, when the then-principal told the newspaper not to print a story about a popular teacher’s dismissal. The principal, Jim Schofield, asked to pre-approve the article and told students it had to be a feature, without any details about the dismissal. The school district investigated the incident and said there was no intended censorship, a claim the students continue to deny. Schofield is now a district-level administrator.

The blog, which started in early August, has reported on board meetings, media coverage of the saga and the complaint. It is currently made up of a handful of alumni who were on the paper last year during the censorship case. The blog features more than a dozen entries and a detailed timeline of events that have led to Kim’s departure.

“We’re basically going to continue [reporting on] this until the case is resolved, however long that may be,” Duong said.

Under California’s Uniform Complaint Procedures, the case will have to be resolved within 60 days of submission.

Through her secretary, principal Debbie Stone declined to comment for this story.

One alumnus, Simon Yung, goes to college in the area and has attended every board meeting regarding Kim’s case so far, and intends to go to the October meeting as well. Yung said one board member’s response at a previous board meeting, in which she equated the students’ censorship case to a catfight she had with high school girlfriends in the 1980s, particularly offended him.

“To see a board of constituents dismiss the past three months is frankly embarrassing for her and the school district. Because of her outburst, I have a feeling she offended many members of the audience, one of them being me, so I probably will be speaking again,” Yung said.

At the first meeting Yung attended, he came equipped with an “armor of truth,” what he referred to as an important visual aid to further drive home his point. (Another student dressed in bubble wrap as “Transparency Man.”)

Yung has also helped mentor the current Matador editors in Kim’s absence, helping them gain access to passwords and servers that Kim normally would pass on to student editors.

One of The Matador’s current editors-in-chief, Erin Truong, said one of the two current advisers oversees the staff during class time and one handles the operations, such as printing and fundraising. Both advisers have been doing their best, Truong said, but the students feel they lack the journalistic perspective and connections Kim brought to the table.

“They’ve been hindered by their lack of experience in the journalistic field and that has hindered … the amount of help they can give us,” Truong said.

Truong said the paper has been able to put out its first issue despite Kim’s absence, but there have been sticky moments of confusion: locating passwords to access servers and web page logins, clarifying Matador style errors and setting up interviews, which Kim always helped facilitate.

California Newspaper Publishers Association General Counsel member Jim Ewert, who helped update the California Education Code with student press protections, has helped advise Kim on her case. One of the more recent modifications to the law, supported by Ewert and the CNPA, included free speech protections for advisers as well as students.

To Ewert’s knowledge, Kim’s case is the first test of this update to the law. He said the district’s actions toward Kim are suspicious and the investigation appears to be “dragged out.”

“The district has not yet told her why she has been suspended. It’s still unclear whether there is some legitimate reason why the district has done what it’s done,” Ewert said.

Contact SPLC staff writer Allison Kowalski at 202-478-1926 or by email.

(Correction 10/9/2015: The original version of this article misidentified the two substitute teachers’ backgrounds. They were not both English teachers. The article has been updated to reflect this.)