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Removed School Paper Advisor Says Opinion Pieces Did Her In

Education: Garden Grove instructor says she lost her journalism post because of student writings. Principal can't be reached.

June 22, 2002|JEFF GOTTLIEB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The opinion pieces seem standard high school newspaper fare: The cafeteria food stinks, the bathrooms are dirty and many teachers aren't around when students need them.

But Janet Ewell, journalism advisor for seven years to the award-winning student newspaper at Rancho Alamitos High School in Garden Grove, said those stories cost her her post.

Principal Gene Campbell, who had taken her to task for those stories, has told her that next year, instead of teaching the journalism class that puts out La Nueva Voz, Ewell will teach only English classes.

"He told me the paper needed to take a new direction," Ewell said. "He's given no other reason for my ouster other than the contents of the paper. He would like it to be a public relations tool for the school rather than a voice for the students."

The 52-year-old teacher said the newspaper took up half her workload although it was just a fifth of her assignment. "But having said that, it is one of the most gratifying parts of my teaching."

High school newspapers, like the rest of the media, are protected by the 1st Amendment. In addition, the state Education Code prevents administrators from censoring student papers unless the contents are libelous, obscene or would pose a threat to students, said Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Assn.

A principal cannot reassign an advisor solely because of objections to the publication's content, Ewert said.

Steve O'Donoghue, director of the High School Newspaper Support Program, in Oakland, called the decision the "kill-the-advisor strategy. When adults don't like what children write, they get rid of the advisor."

Campbell did not return calls. Alan Trudell, spokesman for the Garden Grove Unified School District, said Ewell's removal was a personnel matter and that he could not elaborate.

Ewell met this week with district administrators. She said they insisted she was a bad teacher because the stories didn't contain both sides.

She said she tried to explain that they appeared on the editorial page, which is for opinions, and not the news pages.

Ewell scheduled the journalism class at 7 a.m. so it wouldn't conflict with students' other classes, and so she would get dedicated students.

Cindy Tran, heading to UCLA in the fall, has been business manager for four years. "Mrs. Ewell is great," she said. "She shows up every morning. That's part of the reason I show up every morning at 7 a.m. I figure if she's going to show up at that time and put the time in, I will too."

The first controversial writing complained about bathrooms, the second about the cafeteria, and the third about an alleged lack of teachers at lunch and before and after school, Ewell said.

She said Campbell asked for a retraction after the third, but the students said no. They did print teachers' letters criticizing the article.

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