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It's Back to School for Exiled Teacher

January 20, 1990|DENISE HAMILTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jean Stapleton's troubles arrived a year and a half ago in an envelope with no return address.

Next month, they will end when she goes back to work as a journalism teacher and adviser to the campus newspaper at East Los Angeles College after winning a prolonged battle with the school.

In April, 1988, Stapleton had almost completed her 15th year as faculty adviser to Campus News, the student newspaper at ELAC. The award-winning paper regularly incensed school administrators for its critical--some said biased--coverage of campus issues.

The envelope that initiated Stapleton's ordeal contained a photocopy of the academic transcript of ELAC's student body president. It showed she was enrolled in three units instead of the nine-unit minimum required by those in student government.

The next week, the paper published a story with the headline "Lisa Quesada taking insufficient units to hold ASO president post" next to a photograph of the alleged transcript. It included Quesada's explanation that she had been late in adding two classes that didn't show up on the transcript.

That story--which the newspaper later retracted--would prove Stapleton's undoing.

A livid Quesada and school administrators maintained that the article was incorrect. More seriously, they said in a formal disciplinary action that the school paper violated federal, state and college district privacy rules by printing the transcript.

For administrators, it was only the latest in a long string of stories that had stirred up trouble. Last May, saying it was "for the good of the school," the Los Angeles Community College District transferred Stapleton to Pierce College in Woodland Hills.

The transfer reduced Stapleton from head of ELAC's journalism department to an instructor with five classes. Her commute more than doubled. She was separated from longtime friends and colleagues because, Stapleton said, she exercised a principle she had been teaching for many years: freedom of the press.

Stapleton fought back, and in late fall, an arbitrator ruled that the district had no right to transfer her. It ordered her reinstatement effective Feb. 5, when the spring semester begins.

Stapleton will return to a different ELAC. Many former administrators have retired or been transferred, bringing once-bitter faculty infighting to an end. Those who remain speak highly of the new president, Omero Suarez.

"There's a whole new attitude on this campus now," said Raul Cardoza, ELAC's vice president of academic affairs.

Although Stapleton was vindicated, the case raises important questions about freedom of the press and censorship. The debate is especially acute for school-financed campus papers, where students often use investigative reporting skills learned in class to turn a critical eye on administration policies.

At Stapleton's hearing, the teachers' union argued that upholding the transfer would create "a serious chilling effect on freedom of the press at ELAC and on academic freedom of all advisers in the district." The district argued that Stapleton was at the center of controversy on campus and that her transfer would alleviate "substantial instability and strife."

In the last six years, Campus News has come under criticism for stories about:

- Problems in the administration of former ELAC President Arthur Avila, who received a faculty vote of no confidence for what was called poor morale and lack of leadership. Avila resigned in August, 1988, under pressure, according to the Los Angeles Community College District.

- The arrest of Hal Mintz, chairman of ELAC's business department, for running a house of prostitution and income tax evasion. Mintz eventually resigned from ELAC and pleaded no contest to the charges.

- Avila writing a letter of praise about Mintz to the West Hollywood Business License Commission, which later revoked the license of Mintz's massage parlor.

- A $250 phone bill for ELAC's Associated Student Organization that included charges for calls to Acapulco, Mexico, El Salvador and at least a dozen 976-prefix numbers.

- Three ELAC professors who held doctorates from colleges that were unaccredited at the time their degrees were awarded.

Some faculty members have applauded the paper's coverage. "There's a lot of dirty politics going on at our school," said Daniel Fertig, a life science instructor. "She was doing a good job, but she printed too many hot stories about the administration," he said, referring to Stapleton.

But school administrators say Stapleton should have seen to it that the students printed more balanced stories. They say she violated one of the basic tenets of journalism by printing several critical stories without giving administrators a chance to respond.

"We believe Jean Stapleton created too much conflict on the campus . . . and that it was in the best interests of the students and faculty to make the change," Jose Robledo, acting vice chancellor of human resources for Los Angeles Community College District, said of the transfer.

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