Connecticut high school newspaper adviser removed from position, appeal declined

CONNECTICUT — The superintendent of Shelton High School has denied an appeal from the school’s former newspaper adviser, who says she was told she had exhibited “questionable judgment” when she was removed from the position in June.

Because Carolyn Finley, who advised the Gael Winds student newspaper staff for four years, will remain an English teacher at the school, Superintendent Freeman Burr declined her grievance on Tuesday, Finley said. Because Finley’s removal as newspaper adviser is a reassignment and not a disciplinary termination, the administration contends that the move is not covered by her contract.

Finley now plans to appeal to the Connecticut State Department of Education, she said.

Finley said that in May her supervisor Dana Jeanette-Kneen, a department head at the school, said she was being reassigned next school year, and would no longer be allowed to advise the Gael Winds. Finley said she was told the school’s Headmaster, Beth Smith, called for the reassignment. While Jeanette-Kneen declined to comment, Smith did not respond to phone calls or an email.

During a May 28 school board meeting, more than a dozen current and former Gael Winds staff members defended Finley as their adviser and called on Smith to end prior review.

“The ‘questionable judgment,’ Mrs. Finley had allegedly exercised, resulting in the termination of her position, seemed arbitrary, especially considering the newspaper is under prior review,” former Gael Winds Editor-in-Chief Kristen Grabarz said, according to a prepared statement. “By that logic, I wonder whether Dr. Smith been exercising equally as questionable judgment simply by allowing the newspaper to go to print.”

In a letter to Burr, Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte said the removal of an adviser violates the First Amendment when done to send a “‘warning shot’ of intimidation to student editors,” and encouraged Burr to reconsider Finley’s removal.

Christine Chinni, a lawyer who represents the Shelton Board of Education, said in a letter to LoMonte that Finley’s teaching reasignment was not designed to punish the students in the journalism course.

“Decisions about course assignments for teachers at Shelton High School are in Dr. Smith’s discretion,” Chinni said. “Nor did the change in the courses Mrs. Finley teaches result in any loss of pay. It was in no way a disciplinary action.”

Finley and several of her students, however, claim her removal is a form of censorship.

In December 2012, the Gael Winds newspaper staff created a special edition featuring the Mayan “doomsday” calendar on their front page. On the morning of Dec. 14, the newspaper was sent to the printer. That same morning, Adam Lanza shot and killed 26 people at Sandy Hook elementary school, located about 12 miles from Shelton High School.

Finley said she and her staff didn’t notice the coincidence until the following Monday after the paper had been printed and was ready to be circulated.

“Doomsday had nothing to do with what occurred at Sandy Hook, but I felt like it didn’t fit right with me,” Finley said. “This is just horrible timing.”

After consulting Smith about how to handle the situation, the newspaper reprinted the issue with the “doomsday” story on an inside page. After the incident, Smith began requiring administrative prior review of the paper before it went to press, Finley said.

Although the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier states that high school newspapers are subject to a lower level of First Amendment protection and may be censored under certain circumstances, it does not apply to publications classified as an “open forum” for student expression.

Former Gael Winds op-ed editor Neel Swamy, who graduated in June, wrote about his experiences at the newspaper in a column for The Undergraduate Times, saying that Smith forced members of the Gael Winds staff to “alter or entirely remove sentences that she deemed ‘inappropriate,” including an article about a “pirate-themed” student council conference that used the word “booty.” In another case, Swamy said in a telephone interview, the staff was required to alter a student’s quote.

Gael Winds staff members asked Smith to lift the prior review after a year with no avail, Swamy said, adding that the prior review “made us angry because we felt like our voices were being controlled by somebody who does not have a strong enough background in journalism to know the difference between good and bad journalism.”

Contact Keierleber by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 123.

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