Series Of Memos Shows Officials
Braced For Student Outcry
After Cancellation Of Jamfest
"Regarding the Jamfest, I'm not sure at this point if Paula will even let it run in the auditorium after the grief the kids have caused."
-- Karissa Niehoff to Jennifer Hill, April 24, 2007
Sampling Of Newly-Released Documents, Some From Days Earlier:
“I will tell Jen Hill that the event runs in the cafeteria, acoustic only, or that it is cancelled.”
-- Niehoff to former Superintendent Paula Schwartz, April 22, 2007
“As you can surmise, the students are upset about the fact that Jamfest cannot occur in the auditorium.”
-- Hill to Niehoff, April 24, 2007
In which Niehoff refers to the event, not yet held, in the past tense:
“I would like to run something by you regarding an activity that was scheduled for the auditorium called Jamfest.”
-- Niehoff to school employees, April 20, 2007
By ANDY THIBAULT
The Cool Justice Report
June 29, 2008
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is available for reprint courtesy of The Cool Justice Report, http://cooljustice.blogspot.com
BURLINGTON, CT – Jamfest really was cancelled because of the douche bags in central office.
Of course, we already knew that.
Now, with the discovery of new evidence, even a U.S. District judge and the U.S. Second Circuit will have to re-examine their findings.
Funny how a battle of the bands in a small Connecticut high school could become so significant in a landmark free speech case.
The students who negotiated from January through June 2007 to have Jamfest at Lewis Mills High School were compelled to seek redress of grievances. That’s how they got in trouble in a school system that equated constitutionally-protected activity with disruption.
The former superintendent, Paula Schwartz, made sure she was unaccountable to the school board and the community. When students challenged that, lobbying for support, there was hell to pay. They knew Schwartz was “pissed off” by public inquiry, and they tried to piss her off even more by having taxpayers support their event. When the public exerted pressure, Schwartz buckled. But, she made sure students, one in particular, would pay a price. And damn the taxpayers. They’ll be paying for Paula Schwartz & Co. for many years to come.
Schwartz has denied cancelling the event. She even denied there were emails about Jamfest, a stolen election and other issues related to the Avery Doninger free speech case.
Now, about 500 such emails have been discovered. Many of them were made public last week by the new superintendent, Alan Beitman. They tell a story of petty bureaucrats lording over students and instilling servility rather than nurturing free expression and inquiry. It is a despicable picture of abuse of power by administrators and negligence by an elected school board.
Avery Doninger, who graduated from Lewis Mills on June 20, will serve in Americorps
for a year before attending college. She was one of four students who, upon the suggestion of their class adviser, sent emails to the community seeking support for Jamfest.
“The real reason I did not allow Avery to run for office for this year was because she incited readers to bother the superintendent,” Lewis Mills Principal Karissa Niehoff told a former student in an email dated Nov. 26, 2007. Niehoff will likely have to explain this version of her story and others when Doninger v. Schwartz, Niehoff, et al, goes to trial.
Niehoff might have discovered by now that hitching her wagon to Schwartz wasn’t such a great idea in the cost-benefit ratio department. They sure must have to compare notes a lot, depending on which story they are telling.
Schwartz cancelled Jamfest after receiving a number of calls and emails regarding the event.
“You can imagine how upset she was when parents started calling her,” Niehoff told the class adviser, Jennifer Hill, on April 24, 2007.
This was hours after Niehoff pulled Avery Doninger into her office.
“Mrs. Schwartz wasn’t happy with all the phone calls and was very annoyed,” Niehoff told Avery Doninger.
“As of now,” Niehoff said, “Jamfest is cancelled.”
In Niehoff’s contemporaneous memo to Hill, the distraught principal concluded: “Regarding the Jamfest, I’m not sure at this point if Paula will even let it run in the auditorium after the grief the kids have caused.”
Doninger subsequently referred to administrators in a live journal blog as central office douche bags, and Schwartz’s son found the posting while trolling the internet for his mother a couple weeks later. While Avery Doninger was banned from school office, another student who called Schwartz a dirty whore was given an award and lauded for citizenship.
Avery Doninger has a civil rights trial pending in New Haven U.S. District Court. She and her mother, Lauren Doninger, sued Niehoff and Schwartz after they removed Avery from the ballot for Class of 2008 secretary.
School officials suppressed the write-in vote in which Doninger was elected by a plurality. Schwartz refused to accept Doninger’s apology for her choice of words. During an assembly, Niehoff banned free-speech and Team Avery t-shirts and seized at least one shirt.
Even before Niehoff told Avery Doninger on April 24, 2007 that Jamfest was cancelled, there were serious rumblings – memorialized in emails -- about the possible cancellation.
Niehoff – by her own admission on April 20 – left Avery Doninger confused about whether Jamfest was cancelled.
“Avery Doninger approached me this morning with a question about Jamfest, which is currently scheduled for the 28th,” Niehoff said in the opening of an email to colleagues. Niehoff did not clarify the status of the event, but concluded, “she [Avery] is confused about whether the event is running or not, and if so, where.”
In a follow-up email that day, Niehoff said, “I have no problem being the bad guy, so to speak by directing them to use the cafeteria again this year – acoustic only. But I know there will be repercussions; you may get a phone call or two.”
Bands with electric guitars had been rehearsing for months. Senior in the bands had taken time off from work for rehearsal during the final stretch of their high school careers. They told peers they would likely be unavailable after April 28th. Students also said they were trained to run equipment in the auditorium.
On April 21, Schwartz told Niehoff: “I agree that unless an adult stage supervisor is available, we should not use the auditorium.”
The next day, Niehoff responded: “I will tell Jen Hill that the event runs in the cafeteria, acoustic only, or that it is cancelled.”
On the evening of April 24, Hill told Niehoff: “As you can surmise, the students are upset about the fact that Jamfest cannot occur in the auditorium.”
Jamfest eventually was held in June 2007.
Before the Doningers filed suit, Avery’s mother, Lauren, met with Schwartz and Niehoff in an effort to resolve the matter. Schwartz discouraged school board members from attending even after the board chair suggested board members could attend as observers.
“This is an administrative issue and Ms. Doninger does not call the shots,” Schwartz said in an email to board members on June 14, 2007. I will meet with her and Karissa. Please do not attend.”
Regardless of whether the matter was administrative, board members theoretically supervise and evaluate the superintendent. Their mere observation might have made a difference.
The Doningers are seeking -- among other remedies -- an apology for civil rights violations and recognition of the write-in victory over an administration-backed candidate.
New Haven U.S. District Judge Mark Kravitz denied a motion for a preliminary injunction [immediate relief] last fall and his ruling was appealed to the Second Circuit in New York. That appeal was denied May 29. A full trial is expected on the issues in New Haven U.S. District Court.