Saturday, April 28, 2007

Woodlan Takes Parting Shot At Sorrell And Media

The East Allen County School System just doesn't get it. Yesterday, school officials held a press conference to blame Amy Sorrell and the media for the media brouhaha which erupted after the school first disciplined and then took steps to fire Sorrell for allowing an editorial promoting gay tolerance to be published in the Woodlan Junior-Senior High School's newspaper. The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette's Krista Stockman writes:

Administrators said by taking the issue to the media, it inflamed what would have been just a routine personnel matter, turning it into a national story. District administrators have heard from people across the country on the issue in recent months, many who chastised and ridiculed them, Novotny said.

“Sadly, a significant majority of the comments received have been rude and disgusting character assassinations that could lead one to conclude that many who preach tolerance and observation of First Amendment protections do so only to provide themselves a forum and a protection for their own foul-mouthed commentary,” she said.

As part of the settlement, Sorrell had to issue an apology stating that she did not intend her actions or comments over the last three months to suggest that administrators were intolerant toward homosexuality. The settlement also dictated Sorrell and East Allen issue a joint statement in which Sorrell acknowledged that EACS has the right to regulate school-sponsored publications and EACS acknowledged students have certain rights under the First Amendment.
Novotny said administrators accepted Sorrell’s apology.

Adding further insult to injury, Superintendant Kay Novotny attributed the 8-year veteran teacher's actions to her "relative youth and inexperience" and issued her a written reprimand for "neglect of duty and insubordination." Novotny accused others of engaging in "character assassination" for commenting publicly about the school's apparent "intolerance" towards gays. By blaming Sorrell and the media for this mess, Novotny and other school officials have completely missed the point on where they went wrong. The media attention and criticism directed at the school had nothing to do with anything Sorrell said publicly; rather, it was the school's own comments about the incident which ignited a national firestorm.

When this issue first arose, Principal Ed Yoder explained why Sorrell should have obtained prior approval for Megan Chase's editorial promoting gay tolerance. In a letter to the journalism staff and Sorrell after the editorial ran, Yoder accused them of exposing the school's students to "inappropriate material." If an editorial about gay tolerance is "inappropriate" in the eyes of the school, it raised a serious concern about what the school's policy was on gay tolerance. Assistant Principal Andy Melin told the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, "there is no policy and didn’t think the board should have to go as far as to write one." Sorrell's attorney hit the nail on the head. “They are blaming Amy for how they’ve been portrayed in the media, but they still haven’t accepted responsibility for any of their own conduct, and if there was anybody that was in a position to repair their own public image, it’s them,” Proctor said. “All they would have to do is issue a formal policy on tolerance regarding homosexuality and free speech, but throughout this they’ve failed to do that.”

Sorry, Superintendent Novotny, but Amy Sorrell and her students demonstrated far more maturity and experience than you and your staff throughout this entire ordeal. Your parting shots at Sorrell and the media make you and your school's administrators look even smaller than they already appeared in the eyes of the public. If this is what you take from this incident, we can only assume you will be condemned to making more foolish errors in judgment in your future management of this public school.


Edward Fox said...

In all this time, I do not remember reading anything by Amy Sorrell. My disgust of the administrators is entirely their own doing and fully merited. They still insist that a column promoting tolerance (of gays) is obviously too controversial to let run in the school paper. (If as they pretend, there was no real harm in running it, and they only wanted to make a couple of changes, they could have had a talk with Amy. All the attempts at discipline, firing, appologies &c. indicate that they believe that allowing a student to express support for tolerance is counter to what they teach and dangerous to their administration of the school.)

Students, both the vicious looking for an excuse, and the intelligent, who will understand the principal's message, will understand that the school, backed by the school board, will not tolerate tolerance, that is to say that it promotes intolerance, and the students will act. Probably teachers will take heed of the very public lesson and refrain from promoting tolerance in their classrooms and in the hallways, and look the other way when students are bullied. As shameful as such neglect would be, it is clear that to do otherwise would be to court the wrath of the administration and the school board.

There is nothing "apparent" about the school's intolerance of gays. They have made it clear in writing and they have fought tooth and nail in support of their intolerance. Their reputation is amply justified by their own words and deeds. If they have any doubts, they should seek counseling, because their prejudice has blinded them, or resign because they are insufficiently familiar with the English language to know what they say and thus unfit to teach children.

edquest said...

I am reading the Amy Sorrell story from New Jersey, as someone who is about to publish a similar story, but in fiction—and my outcome was the same.

A teacher-newspaper advisor targeted by unhappy parents, including school board members, for allowing students to run a controversial story, is reassigned from high school to middle school. I reassigned the teacher in my story, on the suggestion of a former superintendent of schools, because it appeared to be a credible outcome. My teacher allowed students to run a sex test in the school paper without consulting her principal, during a time when sex education was being debated statewide.

The major difference is that my story, called The Sex Ed Chronicles, takes place in 1980, not today.

When I started on my story, I spoke with teachers in my hometown in New Jersey who had taught me 30 years ago. They made the same arguments as Ms. Sorrell: that a high school paper was a student forum and students were entitled to freedom of expression—as long as the writer made no comments that were disrespectful to classmates, teachers and school administrators or disruptive to school activities. My former speech and debate coach told me that it had been only recently that her principal had asked for final approval on student work in the school paper and literary magazine. Recently--as in the 21st century—even though this had not been required of an advisor during the late 1970’s.

I read Megan Chase’s column. She wrote nothing that would have offended anyone, even some one who is, for whatever reason, opposed to homosexuality. She presented an argument and backed it with facts, as a responsible journalist is supposed to do. I read no challenges to her column from parents or classmates; no one proved her wrong in any forum of public opinion, in least in the various articles I read online. I read only one objection from a parent who was not connected to the school district and it was not about the content of the story, but that her teacher did not follow the rules—to get approval from the principal before the story ran.

In Ms. Sorrell’s story, and mine, the principal wants the power of being publisher--but not the full responsibility.

I bet that Ms. Sorrell would have been fortunate to work with a principal/publisher who would have defended Megan Chase, if any one, parent or classmate had attacked her or her column. In that role, he would have followed through on Ms. Chase’s message of tolerance. He would have done the same as a publisher in the professional media would have done.

I can only guess that he was not willing or ready to do it.