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N.M. teacher sues school, claiming he was fired over students' poems
Popular teacher advised school's creative writing and poetry clubs
September 29, 2003

NEW MEXICO ---- A former Rio Rancho High School teacher filed a lawsuit this month alleging that his First Amendment rights were violated after school administrators fired him because of his students' controversial poems. The lawsuit, filed Sept. 15 in state district court in Albuquerque asserts that the Rio Rancho Public Schools disregarded Bill Nevins' constitutional right to free speech and association. Nevins is seeking reinstatement as a teacher within the school district and as the high school Slam Poetry Team and Write Club coach. The lawsuit also seeks to have the school district adopt a policy that would protect students' and teachers' First Amendment rights.''We want the district to pass a policy that recognizes that students can express freely their opinions on any subject and that teachers are encouraged to teach critical thinking without the fear of reprisal because the views may be unpopular with the administration or others,'' said Eric Sirotkin, Nevins' attorney. Sirotkin said Nevins is seeking unspecified punitive damages ''to deter this from happening again.''Defendants named in the lawsuit are the Rio Rancho Public Schools, Superintendent Sue Cleveland, Principal Gary Tripp and Assistant Principal Sue Passell.The Rio Rancho Public Schools released a statement declining to discuss the legal action filed by Nevins.''We have not been able to discuss this matter because it is a personnel issue, beyond saying that it is not a free speech or freedom of expression issue. The filing of the suit does not change that,'' the statement said.Nevins taught humanities at Rio Rancho High School from September 2001 to May 2003. In September 2002, Nevins became the coach of the school's Write Club, a student creative writing group, and the Slam Poetry Team. According to the complaint, Nevins encouraged students to share their work with the community by performing it publicly. Many of the students' poems addressed controversial subjects, including the educational system and the military-industrial complex.The lawsuit alleges that the controversy began in December 2002 when Passell attended one of Nevins' classes during a poetry slam, which featured students performing their work aloud. Two months later, in February, Passell told Nevins his classroom activities were not meeting instructional goals and that his students were showing a lack of respect.Shortly thereafter, a Slam Poetry Team and Write Club member read her poem ''Revolution X'' over the school's closed circuit television system. An excerpt from the poem reads: ''You drive by a car whose bumper screams God bless America. Well, you can scratch out the B and make it Godless because God left this country a long time ago...''After the reading, the lawsuit alleges, the school military liaison complained to Tripp about the poem's ''disrespectful speech,'' and school administrators demanded a copy of the poem to look for obscenities and inferences of inciting violence.In the meantime, however, another school approached Nevins to teach and head the writing and poetry clubs at the school. The lawsuit alleges that Nevins filled out the necessary paperwork to transfer schools, but Tripp did not send the papers to be processed despite Nevins' repeated inquiries and requests. Several weeks later, Nevins was put on paid leave without an explanation, the lawsuit claims. Nevins was later notified that Rio Rancho High School administrators were investigating incomplete field trip forms from a Slam Poetry Team public reading.The lawsuit contends that while Nevins was on paid leave, Tripp asked him to provide copies of the poetry to be read at an upcoming event. The administration also passed a rule banning student and teachers from reading poems over the school intercom.In April, Nevins was notified that the high school would not rehire him, and he was later told the district would not renew his contract.The lawsuit also claims that at a school event in May the school's military liaison read a poem written by a solider that instructed those expressing their desire for peace to ''shut their faces.'' At the same event, Tripp hoisted a U.S. battleship flag from Afghanistan. Nevins contends he suffered embarrassment, public humiliation and stress as a result. Nevins is currently teaching journalism at an Albuquerque charter school. He said the disbandment of the Rio Rancho High Write Club and Slam Poetry Team is a loss for the students, teachers and the community. ''[Poetry] inspires us to speak about the issues,'' Nevins said.

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For More Information: Nevins v. Rio Rancho Public Schools, et al., CIV. CV-2003605 (2nd N.M. Dist. Ct. Bernalillo County Sept. 15, 2003)

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© 2003 Student Press Law Center

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