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Ohio high school newspaper adviser fired after 19 years
Critics claim motive was censorship; school board denies
August 26, 2011

OHIO — When a high school newspaper adviser is fired, school administrators often face censorship accusations from the adviser’s supporters, a situation currently playing out in one Ohio school district.

Rebecca Taylor was informed June 20 that she would no longer advise Rocky River High School’s Pirate Press newspaper, which she defined by starting the journalism program 19 years ago.

“I’ve pretty much had a stomachache everyday this summer,” Taylor said, recalling the past several weeks leading up to her return to the school, which started Thursday.

While she won’t be advising the paper, Taylor is teaching the introduction to journalism class and ninth-grade English. But returning to the school leaves her ambivalent, noting, “I’ll be leaving my classroom as my former students are coming in.”

Abby Freeman, one of her former students and current editor in chief of the Pirate Press, is one of Taylor’s supporters who fought back against the school’s decision, bringing the issue to a school board meeting last week. Freeman and other community members decried Taylor’s demotion at the heated meeting, many seeking reasons for her dismissal.

“This decision really pulled the rug out from underneath me as editor and as my only year to truly make a difference at the paper,” Freeman said.

After Freeman and other supporters talked at the meeting and questioned the school’s decision, the district school board called for an executive session to discuss the personnel matters regarding Taylor’s firing. The board returned with three reasons, which Superintendent Michael Shoaf shared with attendees.

Though Taylor was not present at the meeting, she listened to a recording and challenged the reasons given.

Taylor said for the past few years the newspaper has undergone prior review by the school administration, and she identified several instances of censorship by the administration.

One instance involved a story rejected by the administrators, which was re-written by the writer and then approved. Taylor had both the original and revised copies on her USB drive that went to the printer, and the original was printed by mistake. This led to a formal reprimand by Principal Debra Bernard, which Taylor responded to with an apology letter detailing the new procedures the paper would be implemented to avoid future problems. The formal reprimand was the first reason given for her firing at the board meeting.

The second reason Shoaf gave was students were using personal email accounts instead of school accounts to contact sources, a problem he said Taylor was warned about four times, which she denied.

“I was not emailed four times,” she said, instead suggesting a generic blanket email went out to all teachers regarding the school policy, “but I was never given a specific email to me saying, ‘Hey we’re doing a history and we see that some of your students are using their own emails, can you take care of this?’ because then I could have addressed it.”

The third reason referenced a full-time English teaching position she applied for at the high school, though her cover letter to Shoaf specified she was interested in the job if it was combined with her role in the journalism program.

In applying for the position, “they said I desired to leave the program, which is ludicrous,” Taylor said. “It’s my passion, I never wanted to leave the program. I wanted to do it the rest of my life.”

Taylor recalled three times the paper was censored by school administration in the previous year because of prior review, a process she said was originally justified to her to add “an administrative perspective” to the stories “that eventually evolved into ‘Come see me, we don’t want you to put this in the paper.’”

Freeman said the prior review had increased over the years she worked at the paper and had gotten out of hand in the past year when the paper seemed to have “meetings with the administration every issue about a story.”

Kim Lenahan, a parent in the school district who helped round up people to attend the school board meeting, praised Taylor and her work over the years.

“The Pirate Press over the past two years I would say has become a real significant vehicle for parents to understand what the student perspective is in the school,” Lenahan said. “As one parent said to me when I called, ‘We don’t need another district newsletter, we need what the students are thinking.’ And the Pirate Press has really come to fill that void very well.”

Lenahan said Taylor’s firing was an attempt by the school to censor the paper, and she was disappointed the school board would not move from its position regarding Taylor.

“It was evident that the entire board was setup with one agenda when we came in, and that they were going to essentially give us a public hearing,” she said, “but at the same time it was also evident that they were not listening to what we were saying.”

Jay Milano, a Cleveland lawyer who sits on Rocky River’s Board of Education, said the role of the board is to deal with district policy, not personnel matters.

“Let me make this very clear,” Milano said. “We will never get involved with administration’s decisions on what contracts they let, on what teachers they hire, what positions they take. That’d be intemperate, it would just be silly.”

He declined to expand on the reasons Superintendent Shoaf offered at the meeting for Taylor’s removal but said the school’s decision “had nothing to do with the idea of censorship.”

Milano said concern over a school policy such as the prior review could have been dealt with by the board, but to his knowledge no complaints had reached his level.

“A policy issue brought to us is very easy to address,” he said, “but no one ever did it and that’s where you get into this fool’s errand of trying to deal with it when you have a personnel issue and people are not happy with it, and that’s the case with any school.”

Milano said the school’s policy of prior review will not continue at the newspaper, which also has a new adviser, and additional complaints should be brought to the school board’s attention.

“If anybody comes to a board meeting and says we’re somehow censoring or shutting down, or clamping down on that newspaper unfairly, then they’re going to get a very receptive ear from the board — certainly from me, but I think from the whole board,” he said.

With school now starting up, Abby Freeman is still upset with the school for firing Taylor and unhappy with the outcome of last week’s board meeting, adding she will continue to fight the decision.

“If anything, the information given to me from that meeting lent fuel to my fire and reminded me that it is a censorship issue despite what they’re saying,” Freeman said.

More than two months after losing her role as adviser, Taylor said the situation is out of her hands.

“My desire for Kim Lenahan and Abby and whoever else is still going out there is for them to get whatever they want out of this,” she said, “but that’s not my fight.”

She is, however, hoping for an eventual outcome.

“My hope is that I will teach journalism again, the newspaper again. That’s what I want to be teaching,” she said. “My desire is to be in the journalism program.”

By Peter Velz, SPLC staff writer

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© 2011 Student Press Law Center

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