Equity & Diversity

Paper Cuts

By Matt Welch — January 01, 2003 10 min read
Journalism adviser Janet Ewell gives kids lots of leeway. Last year, her principal tried to replace her.

It’s 6:45 a.m. on June 17, 2002, in Garden Grove, California, and most folks in this working-class, Orange County suburb are asleep or just blinking through their first cup of coffee. But at Rancho Alamitos High School, Janet Ewell’s door is flung open for her journalism course.

It’s “zero period” at Rancho—the slot for classes scheduled before the regular school day begins—and three students are at their desks 15 minutes early. This isn’t a special occasion, though. In fact, it’s the last Monday of the school year, and the class has finished publishing La Nueva Voz, the student newspaper Ewell helped bring back from the dead seven years ago. The kids, many of whom cram journalism into a full advanced placement class schedule, show up at least an hour before the 8 o’clock bell because, well, that’s what they do.

“Zero period—if you’re there, that means you’re really, really there. You are dedicated enough to wake up at 6 every morning to be there by 7,” explains La Nueva Voz staffer Cindy Tran, who is inspired by her teacher’s dedication. “She stays late with everybody, and she comes earlier than everybody else. She rarely misses a day, ever, unless it’s, like, for a medical reason,” notes Tran. “That’s really what’s kept a lot of us going.”

But today, it’s the students who keep Ewell going. The 52-year-old needs support because, instead of celebrating another year of La Nueva Voz winning various journalism honors—including being picked in May by the L.A. Times as one of California’s top high school papers—Ewell is worrying. In just a few hours, she’ll sit down with principal Gene Campbell and district officials. She’s hoping that she can reverse Campbell’s earlier decision to replace her as the paper’s faculty adviser.

“I feel really, really quite positive about whatever happens,” Ewell insists just after the period ends. “But my intestine is protesting. My intestine tells the tale.”

At first glance, Ewell’s class seems an unlikely laboratory to hatch a controversy intense enough to thrust Rancho Alamitos into the headlines and wrench the tiny teacher’s stomach. Room 502 is a pleasantly ramshackle cross between a newsroom and a classroom. (Ewell also teaches English courses here.) Thirty desks, a half-dozen mismatched computers, and a jury-rigged overhead projector fill the large space. And Ewell, with her long gray hair, loose pink dress, and twinkling hazel eyes, resembles a hippie-esque grandmother. Her students, mostly the children of Asian immigrants, are well-behaved, and they speak in impressively complete sentences.

But a closer look reveals that this is not a typical classroom for Orange County, which is fairly conservative. One wall bears an esteem-boosting educational credo that begins, “I am Intelligent. I am Talented. I am Special.” Ewell has created a sign that reads, “It shall be considered a crime against humanity to target noncombatants for acts of violence to achieve political or personal objectives.” And back issues of the paper feature such headlines as “Fast for Hunger” and “Patriotism, True Blue or Trendy?”

In retrospect, Ewell’s journalism class may well have been a culture clash waiting to happen. Although the paper offers typical high school fare— coverage of athletic events and community service programs, for example—Ewell, in the past, has given her charges the freedom to report less-positive news and to fill their opinion pages with straight-shooting commentary. This approach has pitted free-speech advocates against school-spirit boosters; and in January, the conflict boiled over after an incendiary opinion piece was published. It argued that teachers were insufficiently available outside regular classroom time and ran under the provocative headline, “Where Have All the Teachers Gone?”

The piece, which Ewell believes was a key factor in her dismissal, set in motion a series of events that placed humble Rancho Alamitos at the center of a First Amendment controversy—for the second time in the school’s history. It also transformed Ewell, a devout Mormon and literature enthusiast, into a poster child for free speech. “I have nothing to lose,” the English teacher notes. “I’ve lost my cover as a mild-mannered schoolmarm.”

Eighteen years ago, La Voz del Vaquero (which means “voice of the cowboy,” a reference toOrange County’s history as a home to Spanish ranchers) sparked the school’s first journalism scuffle. As an April Fool’s Day prank, editor David Leeb printed a photograph of five fully clothed female students with the headline, “Nude Photos: Girls of Rancho.” Concerned that one of the girls might sue, then-principal Jim DeLong confiscated the paper, but Leeb, who hooked up with the American Civil Liberties Union, took DeLong to court. Ultimately, the 4th District Court of Appeals ruled in the principal’s favor, upholding California schools’ right to censor student publications in some situations, including when an article seems likely to prompt a successful libel suit. Meanwhile, the paper was shut down.

In retrospect, Ewell’s journalism class may well have been a culture clash waiting to happen.

That’s how things stayed until the early 1990s. Then the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, one of several regional U.S. groups certifying schools that meet established standards of quality, suggested that Rancho Alamitos revive its newspaper. In fall 1995, when Ewell, an experienced newspaper adviser, made the move from a nearby high school to Rancho Alamitos to head La Nueva Voz, or “the new voice,” she brought her staunch belief in putting student editors in charge.

“Some of the best things I know about advising a newspaper came from my background leading Boy Scouts,” Ewell notes, where “the boys lead the program, more or less. Well, I help my editors learn how to edit and how to lead....Sometimes I’ll go to them and say, ‘Are you happy with this? Is this the way you want to do it?’ And if they say yes, I live with it.”

Ewell also made clear that journalism is an essential ingredient of citizenship. “So many of the [students] are the children of immigrants, and they come from countries where, to survive, you keep your mouth shut and your head down,” she explains. “When I tell them they have the right to complain, it’s a little uncomfortable.” Over time, though, “they have come to realize that words can be powerful and that they have the ability not to just accept everything that comes to them.”

At first, Ewell claims, she had no problems at Rancho Alamitos. But in November 2000, after Campbell had become principal, he took issue with an opinion piece in the newspaper. It criticized the school’s bathrooms and included the home addresses of school board members for possible complaint letters. In December 2001, Ewell received her second reprimand, for a column that mocked the cafeteria’s food. Then last January, all hell broke loose with the publication of “Where Have All the Teachers Gone?”

Running on the opinion page, the piece—written by two students— claimed that many Rancho teachers showed up right before classes began, disappeared during lunch, and cut out soon after the final bell. “Though most teachers are willing to help their students before and after school,” it read, “some neglect their students.” The piece went on to note that kids need to take responsibility, too, making sure they ask questions during class.

Eight faculty members fired off angry letters to the editor. Science teacher Christina Plughoft claimed that many teachers don’t leave campus until 5 p.m. “As for being available during lunch,” she wrote, “teachers do have the right to eat and have conversation with our colleagues.” Many, she added, sacrifice lunch to run club meetings. English teacher Eugene Martin denounced the column’s premise as “slanderous.”

If a principal removes a newspaper adviser because he or she doesn’t like the editorial content of an article, that principal risks running afoul of the California Education Code.

Campbell suggested a retraction. But the student editors opted for publishing the teachers’ letters in the paper. “I think the kids and I handled it very well,” Ewell notes. “I said, ‘Well, [the students are] entitled to their opinion, and they’re entitled to have it printed.’”

Maybe so. But on April 23, Campbell announced that come fall, Ewell would be replaced as adviser. Campbell declined to be interviewed for this article, but according to Ewell, his explanation was that “the paper needed to take a new direction.”

The next morning, a tearful Ewell broke the news to the kids. “A lot of people were crying,” Tran recalls. “We just didn’t think it would go this far.” Acting with the fearlessness their adviser had always encouraged, editors Stephanie Baggett and Tania Pantoja, both sophomores at the time, barged into Campbell’s office and asked whether he was removing Ewell because of the offending piece. “He said it was part of it, but it wasn’t the final straw,” Baggett recalls.

Once Ewell heard about Campbell’s comment, she began to consider challenging the principal’s decision. “After Stephanie and Tania accosted Campbell,” she says, “I realized that he was way out of line, if not out of compliance with the law, because I was being punished for the content of the student press.”

Technically, a California principal may remove a teacher from a coaching or advisory position as he or she pleases. But the state grants broad freedoms to student publications, limiting them only when material is libelous, slanderous, obscene, or is likely to cause disruptive or illegal behavior. So if a principal removes a newspaper adviser because he or she doesn’t like the editorial content of an article, that principal risks running afoul of the California Education Code.

Ewell’s story attracted a posse of supporters, including lawyers. Encouraged by the latter’s advice in particular, she met briefly with Campbell and a union representative in May, to no avail.

But after several articles about the conflictappeared in the L.A. Times and the Orange County Register, she won a meeting with school officials bringing her to the anxiety-filled day of June 17.

Once her classes are over, Ewell steels herself for the trip to district headquarters. Accompanying her is a union rep, along with someone the teacher considers a trusted adviser, Wayne Overbeck, a journalism professor at California State University. The meeting, closed to the press, takes place for the next houror so. When Ewell comes out, she characterizes it as anti- climactic; no resolution was reached. But Overbeck hints that litigation is still a possibility.

‘I feel really, really quite positive about whatever happens.’

Janet Ewell,
Journalism Adviser,
Ranchos Alamitos High
School, California

“We got there, and they had highlighted articles...and they wanted [Ewell] to justify specific articles in the paper,” he explains, adding that the focus on content wasn’t appropriate.

A few months later, Ewell is still teaching at Rancho Alamitos. Two weeks after the June meeting, the district offered her a compromise: She would return as journalism adviser, but according to an agreement drafted by school board officials, La Nueva Voz would have to hew to specific journalistic guidelines. Among them, according to the draft, were requirements to include “accurate news that reflect [sic] an appropriate balance of student achievement (athletic and academic), campus life, community service projects, human interest stories (staff and students), cultural awareness, and school-related events.” In addition, the agreement reiterated Campbell’s right to replace Ewell whenever he sees fit.

After negotiations, Ewell signed a modified version of the agreement. When the school year began, all of the key journalism staff returned, and she got her class up and running.

She said at the time that she’ll honor her end of the bargain, but she won’t forgo her principles—in other words, her students have the same freedoms of expression as before. If Ewell does get fired because of the paper’s content, she is preparedto sue.

“That does not mean that I feel certain I will win,” she said. “It means that I feel certain that I should fight.It may only be for the sake of being a good example for the kids, or even for one kid, but I have been sustained in the struggle and feel encouraged to persist.”

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