Better Seen and Not Heard? High School Students across the Country Are Running into the Same Roadblocks, No Matter Where Their Beliefs Fall: Must They Leave Their First Amendment Rights at the Schoolhouse Gate?

Article excerpt

For two months Amy Sorrell's job as an English and journalism teacher at Woodlan High School in Woodburn, Ind., was on the line. She didn't have an affair with a student, nor was she slipping brandy into her coffee. Sorrell, 30, simply OK'd a short op-ed in the school newspaper.

"I can only imagine how hard it would be to come out as homosexual in today's society," sophomore Megan Chase wrote in the January 19 issue of The Tomahawk, reacting to a friend's having come out to her. "There is nothing wrong with them or their brain; they're just different than you."

Shortly after the newspaper hit the cafeteria, Sorrell says, she received an e-mail from Woodlan principal Ed Yoder reminding her to run all contentious articles by him. On January 29, Sorrell says, she received a letter from the school brass informing her that all future Tomahawk articles would have to be reviewed before going to print, then a letter February 12 accusing her of insubordination. On March 19, Sorrell, who had taught at the school for half of her eight-year career, was suspended without warning.

Andrew Melin, an assistant superintendent for Woodlan's school district, says that Sorrell was suspended not because of the column's content but because she failed to run it by Yoder.

"Homosexuality anywhere can be a sensitive topic, and there are going to be people who fall on all sides of that issue," Melin tells The Advocate. "The principal is ultimately responsible for what is in the content of any school publication."

Melin points out that students as young as 11 read the paper.

Sorrell says the content was appropriate for students of all ages. "If just thought that it was going to prompt discussion," she says. "And yes, there are people who don't agree with [homosexuality], but that's the nature of the newspaper. That whole article is about tolerance. That's the main gist of it: Just be nice. I have a sixth-grade son myself. I think my sixth-grade son can read it and understand."

At least six states have laws that protect high school journalists from administrative censorship; Indiana is not among them. Sorrell says that on February 8--days before the insubordination letter arrived--the Tomahawk staff she oversaw asked for a meeting with Yoder to discuss freedom of expression; he refused, though he met individually with the paper's editor.

Sorrell's attorneys settled with the school district in late April. She'll keep her job as an English teacher. However, to stay in the district she must transfer to another school, and she can't advise its student newspaper. …


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