Monday, April 23, 2007

Resolution expected soon for suspended adviser in Indiana

About a month ago, we brought you the story of Amy Sorrell and the staff of the Woodlan Junior-Senior High School newspaper, in which Sorrell had been punished for failing to bring an editorial the principal later found too controversial to his attention before publication.

Sorrell now faces losing her job.

In what has been a pretty slow-developing story, the school board is finally ready to make a decision on Sorrell, who has been suspended since the incident. According to this AP story, a public hearing on Sorrell's status will be held Saturday, and a vote on the matter by the school board is expected by Tuesday.

Sorrell regulary submits stories she believes could be controversial to Principal Ed Yoder for review, but failed to submit an editorial that advocated for tolerance of homosexuality. School officials argue Sorrell should have known better.

"The way we view it is the broad topic of homosexuality is a sensitive enough issue in our society that the principal deserves to know that it's something the newspaper is going to write about," said Andy Melin, assistant superintendent of secondary education and technology.

At the risk of blaming the victim, this case should serve as an excellent example of why it's never a good idea to agree to submit stories to administration for review -- especially agreements where it's up to the adviser to determine what might be controversial. It's a no-win situation, and I know from experience that sometimes the stories that are most controversial are the ones you never anticipate.

If a principal insists on reviewing content, it's wise as an adviser to insist they review it all. That way, you have protected yourself from the very predicament Sorrell finds herself in. This principal has created a situation where he wants all of the control but none of the liability. It's a bad spot for an adviser to be.

On the bright side, the coverage of this case has brought out the most thoughtful piece of writing from a school official that I can remember. John Quick, a superintendant in Indiana, wrote this piece over the weekend for the Indianapolis Star, advocating for student publications to operate as an open public forum.

"Empowering our students with high-level thinking and decision-making skills in this manner is solid educational practice. Students take their position of ownership seriously. They are well-versed on current events and seek to present information within a local framework. They understand writing for a teenage audience. They contact sources by interviewing experts outside the school in addition to school administrators and students. ...

"In addition, student journalists acquire high-level and transferable skills. These include initiative, responsibility, leadership, accountability, problem-solving, teamwork, delegation, meeting deadlines and communication. Their future employers will be grateful. Because students have the unique opportunity to maintain the journalistic credibility of their own publications, they practice such intrinsic values as integrity, truth, loyalty, courage and commitment to excellence."

Think about doing as I've done with this piece: Print yourself a copy and save it for when you need to articulate to someone why it's so vital that students operate in a public forum setting -- especially a school official who refuses to believe it can be done responsibly. So often, these arguments come from advisers. This one comes from a superintendant.

We'll update you as more info becomes available on the Woodlan situation.

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