TEXAS — An adviser at a high school in suburban Houston has left her job after the principal pulled stories, yearbook spreads and repeatedly questioned her judgment.
Katie Moreno, the media adviser at Seven Lakes High School in Katy, Texas, decided to turn in her resignation after detailing months of censorship and after what her students called “bullying” tactics from the school principal, Kerri Finnesand.
There are no robust protections against prior restraint or censorship for student journalists in Texas. Seven Lakes High School’s district policy leaves it up to individual principals to decide how to operate school publications, and this past year, Finnesand decided to enact tighter control.
Finnesand did not respond to a request for comment. The request was forwarded to Justin Graham, general counsel for the school district.
Graham said the district is prohibited by law from discussing personnel issues, but still tried to make clear Moreno resigned on her own, citing a move to another district.
“Ms. Moreno was not proposed for termination of her contract (as is required to be done publicly by law) and would have been employed with Katy ISD for the 2019-2020 school year,” Graham said via email. “Again, her resignation was done unilaterally and voluntarily.”
Graham did not respond to follow-up questions about the nature of her resignation.
Moreno received the 2018 Rising Star award from the Journalism Education Association, the only educator in Texas to receive that award. The same year, she was given the Pathfinder Award from the Texas Association of Journalism Educators. Many of the publications she’s advised have won state and national awards.
Moreno cannot speak with the media per her contract, which ends later in May.
However, an account of her experience at Seven Lakes High School advising the newspaper, The Torch, and the yearbook, The Odyssey, was provided to the Student Press Law Center. The account’s contents was corroborated by several students and by Vanessa Heintz, a district parent.
Moreno recalls a pattern of quashing coverage, and of feeling pushed to resign.
An article about a “pink tax,” a term describing the high costs of women’s hygiene products, was denied because it was considered “inappropriate content,” according to Moreno’s account.
After a student died in an all-terrain vehicle accident, Moreno’s students planned to cover the vigil. When Moreno went to ask Finnesand if the school building would be open in advance, Finnesand shut down the coverage altogether, saying she is a mother first and has “zero regard” for a story on a student death.
For a yearbook spread on the Pride Club — an LBGTQ-focused club — Finnesand asked that all parents sign a permission slip for students in the clubs’ group picture.
Some students saw this as an attempt to cover up a discriminatory requirement on the Pride Club, and wrote about the incident on a widely shared Snapchat posts. Finnesand turned her ire on Moreno over word getting out and said she was insubordinate for notifying the Pride Club adviser about the requirement.
Finnesand rescinded the permission slip requirement. She publicly blamed Moreno – in the classroom, in front of students.
Three current and former students of Moreno’s said the year’s events have taken a toll on their well being.
“When the day ended, I ran to my car to cry,” said Jessica Tolentino, describing the aftermath of a meeting with Finnesand to address the relationship between the administration and the journalism program.
“I feel like my principal does not support, recognize, or even cares to see the hard work and success in her school’s clubs,” Tolentino said.
Another editor, Lisa Silveria, echoed Tolentino and said the frequent episodes and constant stress affected her academics and her mental health.
“I had to drop a course for the first time in high school my first semester of senior year. I had more frequent anxiety attacks and had to go to the counselors office to calm down in the middle of the school day,” said Silveria. “I began to see a therapist more regularly to help control myself and anxiety.”
Lizzie Heintz, a former student of Moreno’s, said her adviser was clearly a victim of bullying. Currently a journalism undergraduate at Emerson College in Boston, Heintz said it’s unfortunate that while there are district-wide policies on student bullying, there are no similar policies for faculty and staff as some other districts have enacted.
In any situation where somebody holds power over another person, and uses that to get what they want without any justification, I think that is bullying.Lizzie Heintz, Moreno’s former student
Moreno sent a formal grievance letter to the area superintendent December 2018. She said she felt that any decision she made would be questioned, and felt her job was on the line.
“I also fear my job will continue to be threatened, belittled, insulted, and that I will be verbally abused,” she wrote to area superintendent Jeff Stocks.
Communications between Moreno and Finnesand became more formal at the beginning of 2019. Detailed letters were exchanged, as opposed to informal meetings to discuss what would otherwise be commonplace issues.
In late February and again about a month later, Moreno was pulled into meetings and pressed to resign, or else the district might propose non renew of her contract, which could affect her hireability, according to her account.
Moreno eventually decided to resign on her own, to be sure there would be no poor marks on her record.
“None of this was fair or how it should have happened,” Moreno wrote. “But they have more power than I do, and the odds are stacked against me. I have a lot more to lose than I have to win.”
CORRECTION: Student used Snapchat (not Facebook) to signal their discontent about a requiring that members of the Pride Club in a yearbook photo turn in a parental permission slip. Also, language has been modified to clarify the incident.
SPLC reporter Cory Dawson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 202-974-6318. Follow him on Twitter at @Dawson_and_Co.
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