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.