Tuesday, September 11, 2007

School Bosses: We Did Nothing Wrong

Reg. 10 board defends actions in free speech case

Register Citizen Staff

BURLINGTON - The Region 10 Board of Education said that its district's administration did nothing wrong in dealing with comments made by student Avery Doninger and said that it was the school's responsibility to impose consequences for Doninger's actions.

"We have tried to settle this matter on two occasions and were met with unreasonable demands," board chairman Beth Duffy said.

Duffy said that the press had done "a great job" of reporting Avery's side of the story. Now, it was the board's turn to respond, she said. Superintendent of Schools Paula Schwartz and Lewis S. Mills High School Principal Karissa Niehoff "did not infringe" on the rights of Doninger and even warned her before the blog entry that started the whole situation. Duffy said that the board and the district were unable to respond publicly about the case because federal law prohibited it. She said that Aug. 31's Memorandum of Decision from the U.S. District Court District of Connecticut agreed with the school administration and board. The board provided many copies of the decision for the public at Monday's meeting.

In his 34-page Aug. 31 ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Mark R. Kravitz denied Doninger's application for a temporary injunction. Doninger alleges that she was stripped of her junior class secretary title and not allowed to run for senior class office because she exercised her right of free speech when she criticized the district administration on an Internet blog from her home computer. Doninger was denied the opportunity to run for the school class of 2008 secretary post due to the offensive comment on the blog, which prompted the lawsuit.

In his ruling, Kravitz said that "the Court finds that Avery was not singled out for punishment among the students who disagreed with the administration's decision; rather, she was punished not for her disagreement but for the manner in which she, and she alone, chose to express that disagreement."

The Doningers are not done pursuing the matter. On Monday morning, they filed an appeal for injunctive relief to overturn the high school election results, where she won as the write-in candidate but was not allowed to take office. Avery Doninger and her mother Lauren filed the appeal in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York.

"The reason we filed this appeal is because this moment in time for Avery cannot be recaptured," Lauren said Monday. "The intent of the injunction is to preserve her senior year. The intent of the trial is to expose how all of this unfolded."

During the public comment portion of Monday's meeting, Wayne Carter, 5 Ventres Way, said that there was a perception that the punishment did not fit the crime. He asked for more information, if possible, regarding the incident, which could show that the punishment did fit the crime.

"Because it's ongoing litigation, we don't get to discuss the details," Schwartz said.

"With any litigation, the school's hands are always tied," Duffy said, referring to the district's inability to speak publicly due to federal privacy laws.

Schwartz said that the court asked the sides to meet to settle the matter. They met twice with no progress.

"We had (meetings) and it didn't move forward," Schwartz said.

The board was asked how much money is budgeted for legal actions. Business Manager David Lenihan said that the district usually budgets $85,000 for legal expenses.

Schwartz said that the district has budgeted as little as $20,000, but has also had special education litigation where $100,000 is spent on a single case.

Carter said that in business he has seen situations where lawyers are suing other lawyers. He said that the worst outcome for a case is when it goes to trial. Carter said that it "behooves" the sides involved to come to an agreement outside of court.

In her statement, Duffy said that the other 2,859 district students would have been let down had the administration backed down.

Bristol Press staff reporter Jacqueline Manning contributed to this report. Kevin D. Roberts can be reached by e-mail at winsted@registercitizen.com.

  • Travesty

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