Blog posts about the Avery Doninger Case

Tinkering with Students’ Lives

Lauren Doninger and Mary Beth Tinker, originally uploaded by Aldon.

In December 1965, a thirteen year old student wore a black armband to school to protest the Vietnam war. It was a small act, and did not lead to any immediate de-escalation of the conflict in Vietnam. She probably didn’t expect her arm band to end the war, but she also probably didn’t expect it to change her life, and the life of others that way it did.

Four years later, the Supreme Court ruled that the school violated Ms. Tinker’s First Amendment Freedom of Speech when they sent her home for wearing that armband.

Last night, she spoke at the ACLU of Connecticut’s Milton Sorokin Symposium, “Students and Schools Pushing the Limits of Free Speech”. The evening started off with Justice Richard N. Palmer presenting the 2009 First Amendment Essay Contest winners. These students had written essays on the topic, “In what circumstance should a school be able to punish students for their speech off campus?”

The evening was moderated by Laurie Perez of Fox 61 News who has written about the Doninger case and noted that this case is the most searched item on the Fox 61 News website.

Many lawyers seemed star struck to be in the presence of a plaintiff of such an important Supreme Court case. What sort of message would Ms. Tinker deliver? How had the event changed her life? What were the influences that led her to wearing the arm band on that fateful day, and what had her life turned out to be like forty years later?

Ms. Tinker spoke about her father being a Methodist minister and how she had been brought up with the exhortation to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. She spoke about moving out of one town because of her father’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement and dinner time discussions about her parents’ experiences going to register voters in the south in 1964.

She commented that “That’s the sort of person I want to be, to stand up for what is right”, and spoke about the importance of telling stories not only about Cinderella, but also about brave people who stood up for what they believed in.

Clearly, her parents’ simple acts of courage had a hand in shaping her life, as did her experiences with the famous lawsuit. She became a nurse and works mostly with trauma patients; gunshots, knifings, and accidents. She spends her free time going from one event to another, trying to help students find their voices, to stand up for themselves, and to lead the way to a better world.

She spoke as a nurse, recognizing that one of the most important things a student can do for their long term health is graduate from high school. She spoke about advocating for ‘democratic schools’ and noted that a punitive approach to education, especially regarding what happens beyond the school yard gate drives students away from schools. She talked about the problems with the school to prison pipeline.

In many ways, her talk could be summed up in the simple words she often tells students, “You are going to make history with your small actions or inactions”. As she spoke, I thought of a different quote from Robert Kennedy:

"Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

Her parents sent forth a tiny ripple of hope, it crossed the ripple of hope she and her fellow students sent out, it now crosses the ripples of hope sent out by the students whose lives she has touched as she goes around the country encouraging students to speak up.

After she spoke, Patrice McCarthy, Deputy Director and General Counsel for the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education spoke. It must be following such a powerful speaker, but Ms. McCarthy held her own and her remarks and the question and answer period deserve their own post.

So, I put up my blog posts and wonder what sort of effect my small actions might make. I wonder about the actions of other bloggers I visit online. We may never see the effect of our actions the way Ms. Tinker has, but we should all keep to our little actions and our hopes for a better world.

Sotomayor and Doninger

Professor Paul Levinson of Fordham University has written an interesting post asserting that Sotomayor's Bad 1st Amendment Decision Should Disqualify Her.

The bad decision is the Second Circuit of Appeals decision in the Doninger case.

I was at the hearing where Attorney Jon Schoenhorn's Arguments in the Doninger Case at the Second Circuit.

In my beginning of the month blog post about the search for a new Supreme Court Justice I wrote:

She [Sotomayor] has an impressive background, and she asked good questions during the hearing, but I disagree with her ruling, at least in that case. It did not seem as if the justices did their homework.

I'm not sure if I would go as far as Professor Levinson in arguing that her decision in the Doninger case should disqualify her. However, I do believe that it raises very significant issues that will need to be addressed in a Senate Confirmation hearing, in the event that it should go that far.

(For previous posts about the Doninger case, see the Doninger category of my blog.)

Education Bills before the Connecticut General Assembly

As the 2009 Session of the Connecticut General Assembly proceeds, there are now nearly fifty education bills proposed in the Senate and nearly one hundred such bills proposed in the House. While only a small number of bills ever see the light of day, I thought it might be interesting to look at some of these bills.

I have broken bills into my views about appropriate sections and added my commentary on the bills. I’ve only gotten through about three quarters of the Senate bills, and this has gotten to be very long. However, I hope this is interesting and will get others to think about bills before their state legislatures.

The Tale of Three Superintendents

As I write this, I believe my seven year old daughter is sitting in the superintendent’s office explaining to him what she has said online. Those of you who have followed my coverage of the Doninger case might expect me to be irate. In fact, I am ecstatic. Let me explain.

When Avery Doninger was a junior at Lewis Mills High School, she was secretary of the student council. She worked hard to help organize a battle of the bands at her school and at one student council meeting was told that due to scheduling issues, the Jamfest would need to be rescheduled or moved to a different location. She, and some fellow students reached out to the community to encourage parents to contact the school administration and urge them to reconsider.

The school administration did not take kindly to being contacted by parents and confronted Avery and the other students, telling them that unless certain conditions were met, conditions that Avery did not believe were possible, Jamfest would be cancelled.

That evening at home, she wrote in her personal diary something to the effect, “Thanks to the douchebags at the central office, Jamfest is cancelled.” She went on to describe how all the calls from parents had pissed off people at the central office and she encouraged more parents to call.

The problem is that her personal diary was on Livejournal, a website where many people write there personal thoughts so their friends can see them. Some weeks later, the son of the superintendent found the diary entry and pointed it out to her mother. Her mother responded by forbidding Avery to run for re-election as class secretary. Nonetheless, Avery won the election as a write-in candidate, which the school refused to recognize.

Avery has since graduated and is spending this year as a volunteer for AmeriCorps. However, a lawsuit lingers. Avery’s mother did not believe that the school should punish children for things that they do at home. That should be the purview of the parents. Mrs. Doninger spoke with the school about appropriate punishments for using language that some find objectionable. Yet the school administration was intransigent.

Mrs. Doninger then filed a suit against the school for violating her daughter’s freedom of speech. As is typical for cases like this, they move slowly. The school argued to have the case moved from the Connecticut courts to the Federal courts. The Doningers sought a preliminary injunction to allow Avery to take her duly elected position as class secretary, but the District court did not grant the injunction. This was appealed to the Second Circuit which did not override the judges decision.

Since then, the superintendent has retired. The principal has been reprimanded for emails that she has sent violating students’ privacy. Some of these emails have been released because of Freedom of Information requests and paint a picture of a vindictive school administration seeking vengeance as opposed to protecting the school from significant disruption. In fact, it appears that any significant disruption stems not from the blog post, nor even from the email the students sent, but from the initial decision of the school administration, yet again postponing or canceling the Jamfest.

Last week, I was back in District Court, where the defense was arguing for a summary dismissal of the case. The plaintiffs presented evidence that had not been available during the hearings for the preliminary injunction and argued that the dispute of facts of the case warrants a full jury trial. The defense argued that the facts in dispute were not material and that even if they were, the whole thing should be dismissed because of qualified immunity.

The qualified immunity argument seemed especially twisted. To show qualified immunity, you need to show that reasonable people would argue whether or not the principal’s actions were legitimate. Much of this hung on whether or not reasonable people might guess that at some point in the near future the courts might overturn previous decisions that the reach of schools to punish students for what they say stops at the school gate.

Now, a reasonable school administration would probably settle this out of court, unless the school administration really wants to assert its right to reach into students’ bedrooms. So far, such reasonableness seems to have eluded the Region 10 School District.

This takes me back to Dr. Stella, who is the superintendent for the Woodbridge School District. Like many school districts, the Woodbridge District is struggling to find how to use the Internet to enhance the education of its students. Last week, Dr. Stella attended the convention of the Connection Association of Boards of Education (CABE). At this conference he attended a session entitled, “New Ways of Communicating in an Electronic Age”. The presenter was the third superintendent that I wish to highlight.

David Title is superintendent of the Bloomfield Public Schools and he spoke about his blog. As far as I can tell, Dr. Title has not used the word “douchebag” to describe people that he disagrees with. Instead, he has set an example of how superintendents can use the Internet to get the message out about what is going on at the school.

I can only imagine what would have happened if Avery attended the Bloomfield Public Schools. I imagine him telling Avery that he understands that her post was on a private diary at home and published on the Internet, which gives space for more emotional outbursts, but that he feels she should work on communicating her views in a more positive and articulate manner. Perhaps he would even have asked her to write a guest post, on his blog, about how students could better deal with their frustrations and be heard by the school administration and the public. That would have been a true example of using blogs to communicate and educate. Yet, unfortunately, Avery was not in the Bloomfield Public School system.

I, on the other hand, am fortunate. I went to the Board of Education meeting last night where the CABE conference and Superintendent Title’s presentation was discussed. After the meeting, I had an opportunity to talk with Dr. Stella about the issues of making sure that the Internet is used as effectively as possible to further students’ education while at the same time, not putting students at undue risk.

I mentioned Fiona’s Radio Show which she does every Sunday evening at 6:30. Fiona and I talk about the events of the week. It provides a great opportunity for some quality father-daughter time, and is building an archive of recordings that Fiona will be able to go back years hence, to find out what her life was like when she was seven. I suggested that perhaps some Sunday, Dr. Stella could call into Fiona’s radio show.

Dr. Stella was intrigued. He suggested that Fiona should find a time to come down to his office and tell him about her radio show. That is why my daughter has gone to the superintendent’s office this afternoon and why I am pleased about it. Dr. Stella and Dr. Title are examples of superintendents working hard to use new communication tools to improve their schools. I’m sorry that Avery didn’t have a superintendent like that to deal with, but I hope that this story, and others like it will be an encouragement to superintendents across Connecticut to move into a Twenty First Century that teaches and encourages intelligent use of new communications media.

Poetic Justice

During my time covering the Avery Doninger case, I’ve often pondered better ways of this being handled. Avery Doninger is the high school student who was barred from running for class office after she wrote a blog post at home critical of the school administration, using the word Douchebag and encouraging parents to call the school, when the school administration cancelled, or if you want to parse words the administration’s way, postponed yet again, a battle of the bands known as JamFest.

I don’t know the details of why Jamfest was repeatedly cancelled and rescheduled, but it seems that there should have been a better process. I do know that Avery could have used better language when she encouraged the citizens of the town to get engaged in the issue, and I believe that Avery has learned that herself. I believe that the school administration could have made much better choices in how to take the incident and turn it into a teachable moment instead of a Federal lawsuit.

Now, Principal Karissa Niehoff is being punished for errors that she has made. On May 31st, Principal Niehoff sent an email to Mike Morris concerning details of the case. The email appears to have violated policies of the Board of Education and the Professional Code of Conduct of the State of Connecticut.for School Administrators. As a result, Ms. Niehoff has been asked to write a formal letter of apology to the Avery and her family, has been placed on administrative leave without pay for two days, and has been asked to attend a workshop on the Family Educational Right and Privacy Act. In addition, Ms. Niehoff will be asked to develop at least one goal for the 2008-2009 school year that will show her understanding of the seriousness of this. Perhaps she should start a blog about this and post ideas on how school administrators can better address these issues in a digital age online. Others have suggested that poetic justice would call for her not being allowed to speak at this year’s graduation ceremony.

I applaud the new Superintendent, Alan Beitman, in his efforts to take the situation and make it an educational experience for all involved. I also appreciate the difficulties that a case like this presents. It is difficult to be constrained by advice from lawyers as well as professional responsibility from speaking out when you feel that only the other side is being heard. Yet my interest in the Doninger case has brought me in touch with representatives of other school districts. I have been impressed with the professionalism with which other school administrators address complicated situations, situations much more complicated than the Doninger case.

The age of instant, persistent searchable communications places many new challenges that Ms. Doninger, Ms Niehoff and all of us need to think long and hard about. My interactions with Ms. Doninger leads me to believe that she has learned much about our rights and responsibilities in a digital age. Let us hope that Ms. Niehoff will have similar learning opportunities and will be able to make good use of them.

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