Blog posts about the Avery Doninger Case

The Cost of a Quality Education

This morning, I received an email which included a copy of a letter saying:

Dear Attorney Chinni:

Despite repeated requests, the Middletown Board of Education, Woodrow Wilson Middle School, and now their counsel, which is your office, has refused to provide Monique McClain’s Homework Packet.

Therefore, my office has instructed a State Marshal to go to the Board of Education this Tuesday, March 29, 2011, to pick up Monique McClain’s Homework Packet.

While it is disappointing to see that things have progressed this far, the use of State Marshall’s to enforce a child’s right to a good education is not surprising. What surprised me was the attorney that was being addressed.

Attorney Christine Chinni represented the Lewis Mill High School in Burlington, CT in the famous Doninger V. Schwartz & Niehoff lawsuit. It is a lawsuit that continues to wind its way through the courts nearly four years since I started covering it.

Early on, people wondered why the school board insisted in continuing to pay high lawyer fees to Chinni instead finding a reasonable settlement and a better way of meeting the educational needs of their students. In her handling of that case, she was admonished by the FOIC

Commission Chairman Andrew O'Keefe, a highly-regarded Hartford lawyer, admonished attorney Christine Chinni Wednesday for her clumsy tap dance last year to sidetrack production of write-in ballots in a stolen election at Lewis Mills High School in Burlington.

The article, FOI To Chinni: Don't Pull That Maneuver Again goes on to say:

Meanwhile, Chinni attempted to delay production of the uncensored billing records for her firm by another week. After discussion with the commission, she agreed to mail them by Monday, June 16, 2008. Those records are public documents and available for inspection by anyone. They should have been produced on Aug. 1, 2007.

Perhaps the Doninger case may be coming to a close and Chinni is searching for a new Board of Education sponsored cash cow to milk. The Middletown Board of Education might want to take a close look at how well Chinni represented Lewis Mill High School, and the total costs and determine if they want to go down a similar path of spending money on legal bills instead of on providing a safe quality education to the children of Middletown.

Note: The opinions expressed above are my personal opinions.

Drawing the Line

When does ‘off campus’ speech become ‘on campus’ speech? This is a question that the defense in the Doninger trial has been trying to blur. A key argument in the case is that when Avery Doninger wrote her infamous blog entry criticizing the school administration, she posted it on the Internet, and anything on the Internet has the potential to be brought on campus, and should be considered on campus speech.

However, if the Doninger case is about blurring a line, a new case is about obliterating the line between home and school. Outside of Philadelphia, a suit has been filed against the Lower Merion School District for allegedly activating the webcams on laptops provided by the school without students' knowledge or permission while the students were at home.

Let’s just hope that the school didn’t capture recordings of students calling the folks at the central office douchebags.

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Free Speech, Good Conduct, the School to Prison Pipeline and the Educational Imperative

Recently, there has been a fascinating discussion concerning free speech and learning going on online that I wanted to explore and comment on. Last week, David Drury wrote an article in the Hartford Courant about teens facing fines for swearing at Windsor High School.

Andy Thibault posted a letter from Jon Schoenhorn to the Hartford Courant entitled Swearing In School Is Not A Crime. Jon writes:

Once again, school officials are foolishly trying to use the police to enforce good manners …
Apparently this principal doesn't understand that constitutional free speech protects bad manners and language in criminal prosecutions, unless the intent of the speaker is to annoy and harass, or unless the language constitutes "fighting words" — that is, words likely to provoke a violent reaction.

I got to know both Andy and Jon through my coverage of the Avery Doninger case. Andy has provided great coverage on the case and Jon is the lawyer representing the Doningers. My initial reaction was to side with them on this issue.

However, going back to the Hartford Courant, it says that students "who use profanity directed toward a teacher, toward another student in class or during a verbal altercation in the hallway or cafeteria," will be ticketed. It may well be that the intent and the actual practice will be to only ticket students whose language constitutes fighting words and falls very nicely within the bounds of free speech laws.

Yet there are also deeper issues. First, how big a concern is “fighting words” at Windsor High School. According to the Courant article, there were some parents “that expressed some surprise over Sills' letter, since there had been no communication about what led up to it.” Perhaps it is not only the students who have not been communicating as effectively as they could be.

Another concern that has come up with this is that by using police, Windsor High School may be perpetuating or expanding the school to prison pipeline. Schools that use police to address behavior problems may be keeping the immediate behavior problems a little bit better under control, but may ultimately be adding to problems by causing student to think of themselves as in conflict with the legal system and not simply in conflict with their teachers. On the other hand, it may be that the best way to get students to learn more effective ways of dealing with their anger and frustration than using fighting words in school is to hit them where it hurts most, in their pocketbooks.

Yet perhaps, there are even better ways to address this. Schools are supposed to be learning environments. Fighting words can disrupt a learning environment, but they may also be opportunities for deeper learning. Should Windsor High School have a special session on Free Speech? A couple years ago, I went with Avery Doninger to Windsor High School to talk about her case. She had learned a lot from her experience. She learned that some popular colloquial words for, such as using “Douchebag” when you mean “jerk”, may hamper ones efforts to get a message across. She also learned the importance of being allowed to get ones message across and standing up for that right. She shared this learning with students at Windsor High School and I think it was a great educational event.

Likewise, should the school have classes in anger management and learning better ways of dealing with conflict than resorting to fighting words, or for that matter, resorting to $103 tickets? Perhaps such classes could be offered where students, teachers and administrators are all the learners in the class.

Ultimately, I hope that all my friends on all sides of this discussion return to the educational imperative. What are the goals of public education? What are the best means of achieving these goals? In my mind, learning about the importance of free speech, what it means, and how to stand up for it, as well as learning about better ways of dealing with anger and frustration than using fighting words are important parts of this educational imperative. They aren’t part of the Connecticut Mastery Tests (CMTs), but perhaps they should be. The race to the top, and breaking the school to prison pipeline are both important goals that such learning could facilitate.

What do you think?

Where does Internet Speech Reside?

Tuesday morning, Judges Kearse, Cabranes and Livingston heard oral arguments at the Second Circuit on the latest developments in the Avery Doninger case. In the spring of 2007, Ms. Doninger wrote a Livejournal post using an unsavory colloquial term meaning jerk to criticize of administration of the high school she was attending and encouraging students to ask their parents to contact the school administration to redress a grievance. As a result, Ms. Doninger was punished, in part by not allowing her to run for re-election as class secretary. This made the local news, and various students rallied to show their support of Ms. Doninger by wearing T-shirts that said “Team Avery” and writing in her name for class secretary. However, the administration did not recognize the results of the election where Ms. Doninger won a plurality of the votes and they prohibited students from wearing the shirts to a school assembly. The crucial issue in this case is where does Internet Speech Reside? Specifically for students writing blogs at home, is this on campus or off campus speech?

This Week in Woodbridge (and Beyond)

On Monday, the Library Commission will meet at 6:00 PM. The agenda is not currently available. However, from the previous meetings minutes, it appears that the Friends of the Library will be holding a book discussion on Monday as well. At 6:30 in the Presentation Room in the Amity District Offices, the Amity Board of Education is scheduled to meet. Included in their agenda is a discussion about a proposed cell tower. Starting at 7:00 will be a finance committee meeting of the Woodbridge Board of Education. Their meeting will take place in the Conference room of the Woodbridge District Office.

The Zoning Board of Appeals will meet at the town hall and will discuss a request for variance to allow a larger sign for the Crest Auto Group as well as a variance for a house to allow the addition of a porch and a handicap ramp.

At 8 PM, the Democratic Town Committee will meet. Besides the normal items of the meeting, there will be a Democratic Caucus to choose members to serve on the Town Committee for the coming two years.

On Tuesday, the Connecticut Siting Coucil is holding hearings concerning a proposed cell tower at 1900 Litchfield Turnpike. At 2 PM, a balloon is supposed to be floated which will illustrate the height of the cell phone tower. At 3 PM there will be a hearing at the Center Gymnasium. This will be followed by an opportunity for public comment, also at the Center Gymnasium at 7 PM.

Also on Tuesday, the Board of Selectmen are scheduled to have their semimonthly meeting starting at 6 PM at the Town Hall. At present, an agenda is not available.

On Wednesday at 7:30 PM at the Pepper Pike City Hall in Ohio, Jill Miller Zimon will be sworn in as City Council member. Jill grew up in Woodbridge and her parents live in town. She has set up a blog In The Arena, to write about events from a City Council members perspective.

On Friday, there will be a reception with Dan Malloy at the house of Nan Birdwhistell for Women Opinion Leaders. According to an announcement on Facebook, the reception is not a fundraiser.

The Woodbridge Citizen website lists each of these events and will add more events as information becomes available. In addition, each event is open to comment for registered users.

(The part above was also published at the Woodbridge Citizen.)

Beyond Woodbridge, Tuesday arguments will be heard on the Doninger Case at the Second Circuit of Appeals in New York City. This will be followed on Wednesday by arguments in the Citizen’s Election Case. Also, during the week, arguments will be heard in the case over the constitutionality of Proposition 8 in the Ninth Circuit. These arguments are expected to be made available on YouTube.

It is also worth noting that Tuesday will see the special election to replace the late Sen. Edward Kennedy. Various people from Connecticut will be heading up to Massachusetts to help get out the vote.

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