PRESS RELEASE REGION 10 SCHOOLS September 10, 2007
From: Beth Duffy, Chairperson of the Region 10 Board of Education
On August 31st U.S. District Judge, Mark Kravitz denied the injunction requested by Avery Doninger and her mother to void the election of senior class secretary at Lewis Mills High School. Until the case documents became public, Region 10 officials and board members were restricted by privacy laws from publicly discussing the case. The press has done a great job of covering Avery's version of the story. However, there has been very little coverage of the district’s side. Now it's time to set the record straight.
Yes, let’s set the record straight. My understanding, based in part from Beth Duffy’s comment at the previous Board of Education meeting is that it is the advice of legal council and the policies of the Board not to discuss issues of pending litigation. The case has been appealed, so litigation is still pending. It appears as if Beth is going against the advice of council and board policy.
On top of that, it is my understanding of case documents have been public for quite a while. I received copies of them back on August 22nd.
Despite what has been reported in the press, Ms. Niehoff and Mrs. Schwartz did not infringe on Avery Doninger’s First Amendment rights.
That is the assertion of that continues to be challenged in court. Duffy, Niehoff, Schwartz and Kravitz seem to believe this assertion. I, and various civil libertarians do not believe it. The real question is will the Second Circuit accept the assertion.
Judge Kravitz ruled that they acted appropriately in rendering Avery ineligible to run for the office of senior class secretary because she deliberately and publicly circulated information that was vulgar, false and incited members of the community to disrupt the central office.
Again, the Board seems to not get the facts straight. Judge Kravitz did not rule that Niehoff and Schwartz acted appropriately. Instead, he ruled that the plaintiff’s did not present sufficient information to warrant proactive injunctive relief. There is a very big difference between the two.
Avery took her action after Ms. Niehoff had addressed the issue of appropriate behavior of class officers with her that same day. Ms. Niehoff then withdrew her support of Avery’s candidacy only after it was clear that Avery did not understand that her conduct was unbecoming a class officer.
Holding the position of class officer at Lewis Mills is not a right - it is a privilege.
This gets to the interesting aspect of where rights and privileges intersect. Driving is a privilege, and that privilege cannot be taken away because someone executed their rights of free speech. If it were, you could run into very dangerous precedents. For example, I suspect Duff, Niehoff, Schwartz and Kravitz would not want to see someone’s privilege of driving taken away because that person wrote in a personal blog somewhere about a traffic cop being an asshole. If they do believe that privileges should be taken away in such contexts then that illustrates what poor regard they view the rights of U.S. Citizens.
The definition of privilege in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is "a right or immunity granted as an advantage or favor esp. to some and not to others". At Lewis Mills, the privilege of running for class office must be earned through good citizenship, and appropriate behavior. Mrs. Doninger has admitted publicly that she believes her daughter's behavior was neither appropriate nor acceptable. That means she agrees with the assessment of her daughter's behavior made by the Region 10 administration! She just disagrees with the consequences imposed by the school district, and that is why this matter was in federal court.
This gets to a fundamental question. Who should punish a child for unacceptable behavior that takes place at home. The American tradition has always been that this is the realm of the parents, and Avery’s mother has handled this appropriately. What is inappropriate is when the reach of the government, including public schools extends into our homes.
I should point out here that Region 10 did not start this lawsuit. It was filed by Avery Doninger, her mother and their lawyer, in spite of numerous attempts by the school district to work out a compromise.
I hope the Board will be forthcoming about its efforts to reach a compromise. I have heard that there have been many efforts to reach a compromise, including a meeting with a judge in Bridgeport. None of these have born any fruit and the description I have heard of Niehoff and Schwartz’ approach has been ‘stonewalling’.
Our administrators have acted and continue to act in a professional, ethical and responsible manner. We have tried to settle this matter on at least two occasions and have been met with unreasonable demands by the Doningers. We will continue to defend the administration as long as necessary.
Citing Constitutional rights as protection for bad behavior does that incredible document a grave disservice.
Yet it is precisely these situation where we honor our Constitution, our founders, and the people that have fought so hard for our basic liberties. I am sure that people during the revolutionary war period would have considered refusing to provide housing to soldiers bad behavior. Yet it was abused, and we now have the third amendment to protect against this. Likewise, using a word like douchebag is a bad behavior, but if we reduce our rights to only when everyone is acting above reproach, then we have very few rights left.
This is an issue of standards. We have high standards for our students in Region 10 - good behavior, strong academic achievement, good sportsmanship and civil behavior to one another. Sometimes students make bad decisions because they are young, inexperienced and impulsive. When that happens, we should attempt to help the student learn from his/her mistake. That was done in this case. When a student repeatedly makes the same bad decision, it is the school's responsibility to impose consequences. That was also done here. But if our school system backed down on a fair and just consequence for bad behavior, then we would be letting down the other 2859 students in our district and our communities as well. Judge Krawitz recognized that in his ruling. We have high standards in Region 10, and I for one am proud we do.
It appears as if these ‘high standards’ are viewed as being higher than respect for the Constitution, or using moments of conflict, no matter how far they go, to find valuable teachable moments.
There are many opportunities at Lewis Mills for an intelligent, passionate, determined young lady like Avery to hone her leadership skills. Class secretary was just one of them. I know that both Ms. Niehoff and Mrs. Schwartz would like nothing better than to find an opportunity for Avery to shine in her senior year. I hope that she opens the door to that opportunity.
She has. She has stood up in court to protest the erosion of our civil rights. This goes far beyond anything she would have been able to do as class secretary. I firmly believe this will carry her much further. Avery clearly is the winner in the larger battle. She has shown more maturity than Niehoff or Schwartz. It is a sad commentary on the Region 10 School System.
The New York Times had two articles that made me think of the Avery Doninger Civil Rights case yesterday. The first was straightforward reporting about the case. The second was less obvious.
A good friend of mine sent me a link to David Oshinsky’s article, No Thanks, Mr. Nabokov. By way of introduction, she said,
I'm saving this in my archives for every brilliant, budding author I might come across who has been rejected & thought of quitting or burying their manuscript.
Oshinsky starts of noting Alfred A. Knopf Inc’s rejection of the English translation of Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl.”
The work was “very dull,” the reader insisted, “a dreary record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances and adolescent emotions.”
Later on, Oshinsky mentions the rejection of Nabakov’s Lolita as too racy. All of this gets to my thoughts about Avery’s civil rights case. If it weren’t for the reaction of the administration of Lewis Mills High School, Avery Doninger’s now famous blog post would have been quickly forgotten. A commentator might note the raciness of the language, using terms like “douche bag and pissed off”. Yet they would also probably note that it wasn’t all that exciting. Instead, it was a dreary artifact of petty annoyances and adolescent emotions.
Yet it is these racy terms, petty annoyances and adolescent emotions that make up the fabric of our lives. It is when they are woven into the larger discourse of the collision between our basic rights and new technology that they become fascinating.
A thing that people tend to forget, and I think was a fundamental flaw of Judge Kravitz’s decisions is that there isn’t anything new under the sun and we would do well to look at the petty annoyances of the past.
One person asked me what I would have thought if Superintendent Schwartz had referred to one of the students with a vulgar derogatory term in a blog. My initial reaction is that if she is like so many superintendents, the only reason she hasn’t is because she doesn’t blog. Instead, if we think of what the equivalent of a blog for people who aren’t online, I could easily see a scenario like this:
A superintendent, after frustrating interaction with some students, expresses that frustration at dinner at a local restaurant suggesting that someone should “give those little fuckers in the student council a good kick in the butt”.
Now if I were a taxpayer, sitting at a near by table and overheard something like that, I could perhaps empathize, even though I disagreed with the use of words or the suggestion of corporal punishment. If I were in such a situation, I might pull the superintendent aside and suggest that she be more careful with her language in a public place. I would not demand that she be fired or resign from any position of privilege. I might even suggest finding getter ways of dealing with anger or attending an anger management course.
Students have always used derogatory vulgar terms to talk about school administrators when speaking in public spaces away from school. They always will and school administrators are likely to often act in similar ways. While it may not be the way we would want people to deal with frustrations, while it may be “very dull”, it is part of the fabric of our lives.
The school administration has failed to address this in a constructive manner. The judge has failed to have any context or perspective. Perhaps it is up to us online to encourage people to find the beauty, meaning and the teachable moments amongst the very dull petty annoyances and adolescent emotions.
Apollos Academy says School Officials Fail Constitution 101 and quips that they “must have missed the "Caution: You Are Entering A Constitution-Free Zone" signs.”
The Bristol Press writes about Avery receiving nationwide support for her free-speech case.
Over at Cool Justice, there is Frank Douskey has a great Douchebag Retrospective.
The Boston Globe has a short piece about Avery returning to school.
Yankee Cow Girl writes about students not being allowed freedom of speech.
The Region 19 BOE Gazette has a very interesting take on the case.
The agenda of these new politically greased courts seems to be to deny students any right to speak out. This has little to do with freedom of speech or cyber-bullying or any such nonsense. This is about growing a docile citizenry that will not protest its own growing subjugation to forces that no American should ever genuflect to.
Then to tie it all together, be sure to check on the Channel 61 segment of Beyond the Headlines about the case.
Now, for the action items: If you haven’t contributed to the Avery Doninger Appeal Fund, please do so today. You can also contribute by clicking on the widget to the right.
Also, for any of you who have not yet registered to vote and are eligible to do so, please do. I’ve just added a new widget brought to you by the folks from Rock the Vote. Please click on the widget to the right to register to vote.
News reports out of New Jersey are talking about twelve people arrested for taking bribes “from companies that offered insurance and roofing services to school districts and municipalities”. The arrests included the chair of the Pleasantville school board, another school board member and three former school board members.
In the Avery Doninger case, people have been quick to point out that some of the costs of defending Superintendent Schwartz and Principal Niehoff have been picked up by the insurance company, Massamont Insurance. Regular readers will recall that on August 23rd I sent this letter to Massamont Insurance. I have not received a reply from them.
As I look at the coming Board of Education elections in Burlington, I note that two of the Republican candidates, Phillip Penn, and Jeanne Doerr work in the insurance industry.
While Region 10 Superintendent Paula Schwartz came to Burlington from being Principal at Summit High School in New Jersey, which saw a “$22 million capital improvement project for the high school” while she was there, I have seen no evidence of corruption regarding insurance or building contracts in Region 10. Afterall, Region 10 as well as Summit High School are in wealthy communities. Pleasantville is a poorer community just outside of Atlantic City.
However, my father-in-law, a retired special agent for the U.S. Treasury Department was part of the Tri-Town Amity Investigation Committee back in 2001. I have not yet read the report of that committee, but it does seem that wealthy communities in Connecticut also are worth investigating.
So, if I were a taxpayer in Burlington, CT, I would be asking a lot of very serious questions about building and insurance contracts of all the Board of Education candidates for this November’s election.
The first hour of the event was provided attendees to mingle and find out about people running for local office as well as visit tables set up supporting five of the Presidential candidates. At least three Board of Education candidates were there, including Joan Johanson of Clinton, David A. Stevenson of Bethel and Matt Cooper of Essex. Matt’s wife is due any moment and I didn’t get a chance to speak with him. However, I did get a brief chance to speak with both Joan and David.
Neither had been following the Avery Doninger case closely, but they had both heard of it and knew the general issues. As such they didn’t have any specific comments about the case other than generally upholding freedom of speech, particularly when the speech takes place away from school grounds.
In other discussions during this period, one educator commented about how school superintendents around the state spend inordinate amounts of time speaking with their lawyers and another person noted that schools, particular at the high school view any contact from parents as disruptive. Perhaps if they viewed contact with parents as an important part of their job they would need to spend less taxpayer money on lawyers.