Fla. district pays $20,000 to settle adviser's lawsuit

FLORIDA — Ending a five-year dispute, a former high school newspaper adviser has settled a lawsuit with a school district that refused to renew his teaching contract after a year of disputes over controversial content in the student paper.

In May, the Palm Beach County School District agreed to pay Toby Eichas $20,000 in a settlement, but the district did not admit any guilt in the conflict. The dispute began during the 1998-1999 school year when the student newspaper published columns that school officials called insensitive. 

Eichas insisted the columns were “mildly controversial.” One column contained what administrators described as Jewish stereotypes and another sexual innuendoes. 

In October 1999, Eichas sued the district, claiming his contract was not renewed as retaliation for his stance on the students’ First Amendment rights. When Boca Raton High School Principal Diana Harris demanded prior review of The Predator during the previous school year, Eichas resigned from his adviser position, and the student editor quit. 

The district, however, contended that Eichas’ contract was not renewed because of his poor planning, failure to work well with others and failures to attend mandatory training sessions. 

The district had requested the suit be dropped because Eichas’ First Amendment rights were not violated.

The dispute at Boca Raton High School is common, say those who work with student publications around the state.

To avoid potential conflicts when tackling controversial issues, it is important for advisers to outline their responsibilities and policies with administrators before the school year begins, said Florida Scholastic Press Association President Terry Sollazzo. 

“At the moment you agree to teach, make it very clear what your standards are, and then get a clear ruling from the school on what they expect of you,” she said. 

In most Florida school districts, teachers who agree to advise student activities, such as a newspaper or chorus, are paid a supplement that is not protected in contracts relating to job security, she said. The school has the right to decide who advises student activities, she said, however when policies change in the middle of the year, such as implementing a prior review policy when there had been none before, chances for conflict are greatest. 

Eichas, who now teaches English at a public school in Broward County, said he was satisfied the ordeal was over though he had requested an admission of guilt and a higher settlement fee.

“He was in this for the vindication, and he felt vindicated,” said Charles Wender, Eichas’ attorney. “He is very proud of what he did.”

Fall 2004, Florida, Palm Beach County School District, reports