Free Speech Principal Suspended
By ARIELLE LEVIN BECKER
The Hartford Courant 3:06 PM EDT, June 13, 2008
The high school principal named in a federal free speech lawsuit over a Burlington student's blog post has been suspended for two days for disclosing private information about the student in an e-mail to a member of the public, documents obtained by the Courant show.
Lewis S. Mills High School Princial Karissa Niehoff was also ordered to attend workshops or training sessions on student privacy law. Superintendent of Schools Alan Beitman, who placed Niehoff on unpaid administrative leave, also urged Niehoff to write a formal apology to the student, Avery Doninger, and her family.
Niehoff wrote about "warnings" Doninger had received about her behavior in an e-mail to a Wisconsin man who took issue with the school's handling of Doninger's case. In letter to Niehoff dated June 9, Beitman wrote that "the sharing of any student related concerns or issues should never have occurred."
Doninger's mother, Lauren, filed a lawsuit against Niehoff and then-Region 10 Superintendent of Schools Paula Schwartz last summer after Avery was prohibited from serving as senior class secretary.
Niehoff barred Doninger from running for the position, which she later won through write-in votes, after administrators discovered a blog post in which Doninger described central office administrators as "douchebags."
Avery had written the blog after a dispute about the school's Jamfest, a battle of the bands that Doninger helped organize. In her post, she urged readers to write or call Schwartz "to piss her off more."
In the lawsuit, Doninger argued that punishing Avery for a blog post she wrote off school grounds violated her right to free speech.
Doninger's attorney sought an injunction to allow Avery to serve as class secretary and speak at graduation, but a federal district court judge rejected the request, saying Doninger's attorney had not shown substantial likelihood of challenging the constitutionality of her punishment. An appeals court agreed last month, ruling that Doninger could be disciplined for her blog post because it posed a risk of "substantial disruption" to the school.
The case is expected to go to trial.
After the appeals court ruling, a Wisconsin man named Mike Morris, who read about the case in the New York Post, e-mailed Lewis S. Mills staff members and asked "if it has ever dawned on any of you that your retaliatory action against Avery Doninger constitutes an ironic, prima facie evidence of the truth of her characterization?"
Niehoff replied that not all the news he read was correct, then described previous issues with Doninger.
"Prior to this issue, Avery had repeatedly been warned by her class advisor to stop calling the student council advisor and members names during junior class meetings," she wrote.
"Thus, this was not the first incident of its kind with Avery."
Niehoff also wrote that "Avery had received multiple warnings about her behaviors prior to the Jamfest issue."
In a letter to Niehoff dated June 9, Beitman, who was not superintendent during the Jamfest or blog controversies, wrote that he had "serious concerns regarding what I consider to be an uncharacteristic lapse in judgment."
Lauren Doninger, who said she had read Avery's entire school record, said she had never been made aware of any of the issues Niehoff described. "No one has ever called me, expressed concern to me, in any way advised me that there was any problem with Avery being derogatory, vulgar, calling anybody names," she said. "The comments on report cards and so forth have never been anything but glowing."
Lauren Doninger praised Beitman for his response, and said it stood in contrast to how her daughter's case had been handled by administrators in the past.
She called the situation ironic, noting the parallels between what Avery and Niehoff did.
"[Niehoff] made ill-considered remarks, she sent it out into cyberspace, they made their way back to the public," she said. "Avery's remark didn't break federal law."
Lauren Doninger said she wished Niehoff's two-day suspension occurred over graduation, so Niehoff would not be allowed to speak at graduation.
Niehoff did not return a phone message seeking comment.