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Thursday, May 03, 2007

Ind.Decisions - Followup on "Gay-rights article stirs debate over student freedoms"

The ILB last wrote on the Amy Sorrell situation on April 28th. Here are some press items since then:

"School paper tiff teaches sad lesson in basic civics" was the heading to an editorial yesterday in the Indianapolis Star, stating its position that "School officials escaped accountability in the Woodlan case." The editorial concludes:

We believe Sorrell when she says she was astonished to find an anti-discrimination commentary to be deemed problematic in 2007. Even though the school board formally condemned homosexuality in a 1995 resolution rebutting a call for tolerance from the National Education Association, we will agree with the board that homosexuality is not the issue here. The First Amendment is.

While student press freedom is not and cannot be absolute, court precedent holds that educators may not arbitrarily suppress school journalism and must show academic reason for intervening. Avoidance of trouble does not strike us as an academic criterion, much less a guide for budding opinion writers.

Far more seriously, the authoritarian posture taken by school officials remains in place and free of a court test as the "toxic" teacher is banished from Woodlan and, temporarily, from the company of young journalists. The best hope now is that the case remains isolated and doesn't cast too long a shadow over the First Amendment.

That 1995 anti-gay resolution passed by the school board is the subject of a story today by Krista J. Stockman in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. Some quotes:
East Allen County Schools officials say a resolution passed 12 years ago by the school board denouncing homosexuality reflected the feelings of the board at that time and doesn’t need to be rescinded or otherwise altered.

EACS officials have been under fire and accused of being homophobic in recent months since the controversy sparked by a student opinion column suggesting tolerance for homosexuals. * * *

In announcing the settlement, EACS officials said they had received many e-mails and phone calls from people accusing them of being intolerant.

Superintendent Kay Novotny said the district is tolerant and officials didn’t deserve to be falsely accused otherwise.

But that doesn’t mean the district should make amends for a resolution passed on Dec. 19, 1995, supporting family values and denouncing anything that undermines the family structure, including gay and lesbian behavior, Novotny and school board members said.

“It’s not a policy,” school board President Stephen Terry said. “It predates this board.”

At the time, the statement was adopted, the National Education Association had recently adopted a resolution calling for tolerance of gays and lesbians among staff, students and parents as well as the concept of a gay and lesbian history month.

The resolution reflects what the board believed in 1995, Terry said.

None of the members of the board today was on the board in 1995, and there is no reason to return to the resolution or change it because it is in the past, he said.

“The mind-set and mentality of digging up the past, I believe, is what kills people,” Terry said.

A side-bar sets out the resolution:
Resolution from Dec. 19, 1995

We resolve as the Board of School Trustees of East Allen County Schools to strongly support and value those things which contribute to and improve the stability of families. Likewise, we denounce anything which undermines such family structure and encourage others both inside and outside of our school system to join us in these efforts. This is a denunciation of activities such as drug use, premarital sex, violence or gay and lesbian behavior or the support of such activities.

The Bluffton News-Banner had an opinion piece by Mark Miller on April 30th that included these quotes:
Friday’s news that Amy Sorrell, the Woodlan High School journalism teacher, had struck a deal to keep her teaching contract in place, was greeted with mixed emotions in these parts.

That would be our conclusion based on responses received after we printed the student editorial in our recent Saturday space that caused Mrs. Sorrell to be placed on paid leave and in danger of losing her job. She was quoted by The Associated Press that her family could not afford to fight her suspension and accepted the offer to continue teaching at another high school in the East Allen corporation.

The editorial was written by Megan Chase after a friend had confided in her that they were homosexual. Chase made a case for tolerance of people who are different. Sorrell had not cleared the editorial with the school principal, something she had done with other articles in the same edition that she felt might be controversial.

“Thank you for publishing the article that has created such a stir in Allen County,” one reader wrote us. “our world would be a better place if there were more people with the insight and character of Megan Chase. Unfortunately, apparently the adults have not the compassion or the capacity to see beyond their own prejudices.”

“The student and teacher show more open mindness and maturity than the principal who has his head in the sand,” another wrote.

“I have to admire Megan’s stand on an issue where admittedly, I have not been so tolerant at times,” wrote another reader. “She displays wisdom beyond her years which we should all try to emulate.”

And yet another: “There is absolutely nothing inappropriate about the student opinion column. It is timely and powerful. Truthfully, the column speaks to a universally accepted standard in our society - live the Golden Rule. Megan’s parents should be proud!”

There were others, but not a single negative word pertaining to the column itself or the teacher’s decision to publish it. “If I were the teacher, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to seek approval,” wrote one.

We had phrased the question as to whether this was appropriate for a student newspaper in rural Indiana. The thought here was that such a column in a Boston or New York City high school newspaper wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow, but that we people in the Heartland might be a bit more conservative or, might we say, less inclusive.

Editor & Publisher reported on the outcome of the dispute yesterday.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on May 3, 2007 09:11 AM
Posted to Ind. (7th Cir.) Decisions