Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Story Told, Part IV: The Aftermath

I wrote the following email to the editorial board of The Claw just hours after my "reassignment" meeting. It's pretty melodramatic in retrospect (esp. comparing myself to Obi-Wan Kanobi), but it was a pretty melodramatic situation.

Claw Editorial Board 2006/2007-

I wanted you guys to hear this from me before it's everywhere.

I was called into a meeting with (the principal) and (vice principal) today where I was told I was being "reassigned" from journalism to an English II class because my "professional and educational training was better spent in the core curriculum."

You all know the real reason for this. We told the truth too much this year, and we upset the people at the top. I was asked to soften and change things, and I repeatedly told them that wasn't my role as an adviser of journalism. I don't regret any of it, and I wouldn't change a thing (except the staged fight photo of Greg and Ron).

I know many of you will be angry, and that's fine (I'm plenty angry, too). You are free to make your voices heard in any proper, acceptable format. I don't know whom the new adviser will be, although I doubt anyone currently employed at CP would take the job.

The greatest service you could do for me (those of you returning next year) is not to resign. Instead, remember what I taught you all year long. That journalism is important, that you are the watchdogs of a free society. Never let anyone hold your leash. They can't STOP you from printing what's true and newsworthy, and if they do, they are breaking the law and violating the U.S. Constitution. Keep that spirit we had this year alive, pass it on to the new minions, and all the time and heart and soul I put into being your adviser this year will not have been in vain.

It was a privilege to work with you all...even Dimaggio. I can't thank you enough for all the hard work you put in and the hours of your time you gave me so that we could make The Claw a better newspaper. Above all else, do not doubt that: it was better. I have heard too many unsolicited comments from students and faculty to refute that claim. I'm sorry I won't be around to reach my goal of making it the best student newspaper in the area.

Many times, there's a price for doing something differently and challenging authority. This is a good life lesson for each of us. Perhaps it is better, as Mr. Antolini tells Holden in "Catcher in the Rye," to live humbly for a cause, rather than die nobly for one. But I'm pretty headstrong and don't like being told what to do. Thus, my love for journalism.

If any of you ever need me, you can always reach me at this email. Kinda like Obi-Wan Kanobi, I'll be with you, always. I'll never forget the year we spent together. What a ride it was.

Thanks again. Take care,


From then on, I let nature run its course. I did not solicit a single plea for my reinstatement. Two of my friends and colleagues (Lance Johnson and Joel Swett) wrote emails to the principal, expressing their disappointment and disapproval with the decision. I believe Lance's was signed by other members of the English department. I received a few emails from other staff members who wrote that they had truly enjoyed the paper that year and couldn't believe the principal's decision. Over a dozen more approached me and made similar comments. It's safe to say it was a nearly universally unpopular decision.

Keep in mind this happened the last week of school. Finals were going on. Students and teachers alike were concerned with other things. Still, my case became somewhat newsworthy. I got this email from a Contra Costa Times reporter two days after my meeting with the principal:

Hi Mr. Nolan,

Students and teachers have been calling me in an outrage over what seems to be your reassignment. Apparently, you will not be able to teach journalism next year?

If you are interested in talking with me about it, please let me know ASAP.

I gave the newspaper an interview that came out a week or so later. It ran on the front page of the local section, replete with a photo. Other media outlets started picking up on it, as a version of the Times story ran in the San Jose Mercury News. I can't link to those articles because their online archives don't go far enough back, but here's a mini-editorial that the S.F. Chronicle wrote about it. I had friends and acquaintances contacting me to let me know they'd heard my name mentioned in a news story on KCBS radio. A while later, the California Teacher's Association (CTA) Magazine ran an article about academic freedom that featured my story and comments. My old ally, The Student Press Law Center, penned an article in its newsletter about my case as well.

I actually missed most of the hubbub. I left for trip to Europe with my then-girlfriend shortly after school ended. Meanwhile, the kids were attempting to fight the battle. Keep in mind, many of them were seniors who had just graduated. School was out for the summer. They had their parents calling the school nonstop, demanding a meeting with the principal. I believe they finally may have gotten one, but she just stuck to the line "It's a personnel decision, and we don't comment on those." She also would not comment for any other stories.

What could she say? It wasn't a terribly defensible position. Cleverly (no doubt with help from district advisers), she had waited until the last possible minute to get rid of the nuisance. Now she just had to ride out the summer and wait for it all to die down by the time school started again in September. It didn't die down quite as much as she had hoped. There were three articles referencing the staff's disagreement with my reassignment in the first issue, including this touching tribute from new co-editors in chief Ron Lee and Jessica Shea.

When I came back from getting engaged in Europe, I had two contacts from legal organizations. One was from the ACLU. The other was a lawyer from CTA.

After meeting with the ACLU in their offices in San Francisco, they decided that they didn't have cause to take legal action, but they wrote a letter of reprimand to the principal and intimated a "we'll be watching you" approach.

The CTA lawyer felt that we might have the basis for a complaint and filed one on my behalf (without cost to me, of course. I neither asked nor paid for legal representation). The ensuing details are beyond tedious, but the bottom line is that the complaint was dismissed. The principal had done nothing illegal. She had "reassigned" me, as was her right as principal. She has ultimate authority over those decisions. I now understood why she had said nothing criticizing my performance as journalism adviser in that meeting, even though I had confronted her about it. Making a case that I was doing an unsatisfactory job wouldn't help her in the least; it would only cause her difficulty. Better to vaguely claim it was a "personnel decision."

In September of 2008, the Governator signed into law the "Journalism Adviser Protection Bill" The law took effect on January 1st of this year and protects an employee from being "dismissed, suspended, disciplined, reassigned, transferred, or otherwise retaliated against" for solely acting to protect a pupil's speech, or for refusing an administrator's order to illegally censor speech.

In other words, what happened to me is now against the law.

Apparently, this sort of thing happened enough so that even California's politicians took note. If there's any lasting good that came out of this whole ordeal, I'd like to think that my case formed at least one brick in the wall that eventually formed this bill. I'm sure there are still principals abusing their power over student publications. If you're reading this, and you know of any incidence of this sort, the best favor you could do for me is to let the kids and their adviser know that the law is now on their side. They don't have to be pushed around anymore.

What happened to the paper after I left it? I'll tread carefully here out of respect for the work the staff and their advisers put into it. Many of my ex-staffers soldiered on and did their best, but I think it's safe to say The Claw hasn't been the same these past four years. A huge part of the problem has been continuity. In the three years after I was removed, the newspaper had five different advisers. That is not a misprint. One year they had three different teachers.

Although by any objective standard the newspaper is less successful than it was during my tenure, the principal got exactly what she wanted. It's reverted to publishing the traditional "all one big happy family" fare, without a whiff of controversy. I highly doubt anyone has been called into the office recently because of an objectionable topic. I do have it from a very reliable student source that two years ago the principal forced a writer to change part of a story after again indulging in the (illegal) practice of prior review. The adviser didn't put up a fight. Of course, there were three of them that year, so I can't put the blame there.

I believe that a quality school newspaper can unite the student body and imbue the campus with a sense of pride just as well as a great football team can. That is what is so frustrating. We had actually gotten kids excited about a student-run publication, and it was ripped away because of the insecurities of a small group of administrators. They chose their own comfort and interests over the interests of the school.

It's been three-and-a-half years, and I'm clearly not over it. Probably never will be. But at least now the story has been told.

And that's the way it was.


Kaboom32 said...

Yeah, while the details are different, too much of your story is similar to my yearbook experience. The Journalism Adviser Protection Bill came just a bit too late for me as well, though it turned out that I didn't need it since I resigned anyway. Though I did follow it pretty closely. I also had a few good talks with the people at the Student Press Law Center. I use a lot of that information in my Constitution unit now, so at least there's that.

I think 2006 was even the year I interviewed at College Park for the job I didn't get. Now that I think back on it, when we talked about yearbook, I mentioned that I believed in the rights of kids to have control of their content. On one hand I doubt it had anything to do with not getting the job - I'm sure whoever was hired was more highly qualified. but it makes me wonder.

Michael Tucker said...


npjohnson said...

Yup. Been there and done that. Undoubtably, advising my school's newspaper in Denver was the most important thing I've done as a teacher though. The Student Press Law Center was an incredible resource for me. I quit after four years because the whole thing was just so stressful and tiring. I fought my principal on prior review regularly, and she was cruel in her personal digs on me if the school happened to look less than perfect to the readers. They asked me to advise this year, and god, I wanted to, but I know it would ruin my relationship with my principal, who I love as is, and I am no longer willing to dedicate that amount and time and energy to anyone but my new little family. Selfish and a bit lame, but that's how it is. No matter what class I teach now, I spend a considerable amount of time of the freedom of speech, Hazeldon, and student newspaper controversy. Must be done. In my next life, I want to be a lawyer and work at the Student Press Law Center. I love those people. Anyway, I found your story interesting. Well done.

npjohnson said...

And this is Molly Topf. I guess my sister was last on my computer...

npjohnson said...

Hazelwood, not Hazeldon.

Megan Maguire said...

That year was the only year I read the Claw. You raised controversy and got students talking. In general, I think Ms. Oaks does a very good job as principal, but I think that she made a mistake in reassigning you. And not just because you were doing an excellent job. I remember all the anger towards the administration held by students my final years at CP. Your removal increased this bitterness.