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Saturday, April 28, 2007

Ind.Decisions - Yet more on "Gay-rights article stirs debate over student freedoms" [Updated]

The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette has both a story and an editorial today on the settlement reached Thursday between Amy Sorrell, "a teacher at Woodlan-Junior Senior High School in Allen County who was suspended in March after a column appeared in the school newspaper calling for tolerance toward gays" (description from the Ind. Star) and the East Allen County Schools (EACS). Both today's story and editorial should best be read in full. The editorial begins:

Administrators at East Allen County Schools had an opportunity to demonstrate compassion and tolerance in reaching an agreement with teacher Amy Sorrell. Instead, they used the occasion to continue their attacks on her character and professional judgment and to leave little doubt that defense of their own reputations takes precedence over creating a supportive environment for teaching and learning.

The bitter remarks contained in statements presented by Superintendent Kay Novotny and Assistant Superintendent Andy Melin suggest they did not support the settlement agreement that allowed Sorrell to continue teaching, albeit at a different high school. What looked initially like a compromise in which both the district and Sorrell gave up something and prepared to move on appears to be the first salvo in an effort to create a hostile environment for the teacher.

Melin lauds the district’s willingness to settle as demonstrating “an exceptional level of compassion and fairness.” On the contrary, their statements and the entire episode have demonstrated a rigid and undiscerning allegiance to administrative prerogative.

Here, from the news story, are some of the comments to which the editorial refers:
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.

[Superintendent Kay Novotny] said administrators accepted Sorrell’s apology.

“(We) assume that her statement of apology was sincere and heartfelt and not some shallow, insincere statement made, with her fingers crossed behind her back, in order to save her job,” Novotny said.

Regarding Sorrell’s acknowledgement of the district’s authority over student publications, Novotny said, “Had Mrs. Sorrell displayed this newfound wisdom earlier, there would have been no personnel matter to precipitate this recent controversy.”

The editorial today concludes:
At the district’s request, the settlement was made public and allowed either party to comment on its terms – seemingly to ensure that administrators would have the last word. Their last words should make it clear to East Allen students, parents, faculty and staff that administrators have learned nothing from the case. Their attempts to blame the media for the controversy ignore the district’s own bungled handling of the situation that included the board refusing to allow discussion about the First Amendment at a public meeting.

Their caustic response to the settlement clearly shows that those who attempt to exercise their rights risk a personal and professional ordeal.

Friday’s statements were an unfortunate ending to what should have been a constructive discussion of student press issues and an unfortunate beginning to a talented teacher’s reasonable attempt to move on.

(For background, start with this ILB entry from April 26th.)

[Updated Saturday evening] The afternoon Fort Wayne News-Sentinel contains a story by Ese Isiorho that begins:

At least one apology has been issued in the matter of Amy Sorrell vs. East Allen County Schools, and district officials hope it’s not the last.

“Although Mrs. Sorrell’s apology is the first one received, it should not be the last apology East Allen County Schools and its administrators should receive on this matter,” said Superintendent Kay Novotny at a news conference Friday morning.

The story includes a detailed timeline.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on April 28, 2007 11:39 AM
Posted to Ind. (7th Cir.) Decisions