Douche Bag School Bosses
Begin To Crumble
As New Superintendent
Releases Some Public Records
Graduation Is Friday At Lewis Mills High School
By ANDY THIBAULT
The Cool Justice Report
June 19, 2008
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is available for reprint courtesy of The Cool Justice Report, http://cooljustice.blogspot.com
BURLINGTON -- New Region 10 School Superintendent Alan Beitman was too kind - and incorrect -- in remarks when he suspended Lewis Mills High School Principal Karissa Niehoff for violating federal privacy laws. Citing Niehoff's email rant to Wisconsin educator Mike Morris last month, Beitman wrote, "I do have serious concerns regarding what I consider to be an uncharacteristic lapse in judgment … "
Niehoff was suspended for two days earlier this month after she violated the Family Education Right and Privacy Act and the Professional Code of Conduct of the State of Connecticut for School Administrators. A defendant in a free speech lawsuit brought by graduating senior Avery Doninger, Niehoff made unsubstantiated and undocumented allegations against Doninger in a number of letters.
In fact, the letter to Morris was just one of perhaps many going back to at least July 18, 2007. On that date, Niehoff wrote to a Bryan R. Jones, saying, in part, "You do not know the entire story regarding Avery's situation … The story … in the media … is not accurate, nor does it address the multitude on incidences [sic] for which Avery has been warned … "
Beitman released about 30 pages of Niehoff emails Wednesday evening. The correspondence reveals the author writing in a confused, vengeful and sometimes childlike manner, offering to explain the free speech lawsuit to students in other districts and taking measures to stifle a write-in vote movement. On one occasion, Niehoff herself even writes about the benefits of humor when discussing an email entitled "Douchebag drinkers in central office." That note was sent to Schwartz, firstname.lastname@example.org, on March 9, 2008, a few months after Schwartz retired.
The Niehoff correspondence made public by Beitman is among about 500 pages of emails reviewed by teams of lawyers working for the district.
Significantly, not a single email was produced following a series of Freedom of Information requests and complaints beginning Aug. 1, 2007. The Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission cited former Superintendent Paula Schwartz and attorney Christian Chinni on June 11, 2008 for breaking the FOI law related to the withholding of public records including uncensored legal bills. FOI Commission Chairman Andrew O'Keefe also admonished Schwartz and Chinni for stonewalling production of write-in ballots, calling their conduct "offensive."
Schwartz, Niehoff and Chinni suppressed the election results in which Doninger was elected Secretary of the Class of 2008 by write-in vote. They had banned Doninger from running for re-election after she and other students sought community support to hold a popular battle of the bands known as Jamfest. Schwartz, angered and upset by community input, cancelled Jamfest. Doninger wrote about that on her personal blog, referring to the douche bags in the central office.
Schwartz ultimately rescheduled the event. Her 36-year-old son later found Doninger's post and another one calling the superintendent "a dirty whore." Only Doninger was punished. The other student received an award at graduation last year and was praised for her citizenship.
As the free speech lawsuit progressed, Niehoff wrote on Oct. 26, 2007 to someone identified as email@example.com, "It looks like Team Avery has filed their appeal. Goody-goody!"
In correspondence with Schwartz on Oct. 28, 2007, Niehoff cited an email supporting her and said, "Oh my … how I would LOVE to send this one to both Doningers!!!!!! Who is this very cool friend of yours whom I absolutely adore right now??? Karissa."
"Dearest, dearest Ken," Niehoff wrote on Aug. 20, 2007: "I got your email from a week or so ago, and have been negligent in responding - my bad [sic] entirely! … Thank-you for your support … sometimes I feel like I'm not sure what's right / wrong anymore. See you very soon!!! Karissa."
Niehoff notes an informant told her about the movement to elect Avery Doninger via write-in ballot. Preparing for the uprising of democracy, Niehoff directed a teacher to clamp down on the movement. Later, Niehoff herself would police students, seizing a free speech t-shirt.
From a May 25, 2007 email to Schwartz and fellow administrator Peter Bogen:
"I heard a whisper from [deleted] that a few kids may be planning to wear a Vote For Avery shirt today for the class speeches and elections, or that they might write her name on the ballot. I told Jen to stop any conversation that she hears. I hope Avery herself stops her group of friends from doing this."
Curiously, Niehoff referenced "the hate mail folder," which might include correspondence from citizens critical of Niehoff and Schwartz. Under the subject line "AVERY DONINGER," Niehoff wrote to Schwartz on July 17, 2007, "You guessed it … the hate mail folder … "
Niehoff offered to make herself available to inquiring students from another district in an email to Suzi Dannolfo, sdannolfo@newington-schools-org, on Sept. 27, 2007: "If your students have any other related questions, I'd be happy to provide answers. I'm looking forward to our gathering in Litchfield! I had a nice time working with [deleted] in West Haven. She loves working with you! Well, duh! Karissa."
The Lewis Mills principal also took special note of the Oct. 14, 2007 Poets & Writers For Avery Event featuring Wally Lamb at the Litchield Inn.
Referencing the event in correspondence with Schwartz, Niehoff was directed to "Find out from [deleted] if this was sent from school email or home."
Niehoff quickly followed up on Sept. 17, 2007, writing to Cynthia Adajian about the event: "Paula wanted to know if the email you received from Avery was sent to your school account. I told her I was pretty sure it was, but that I needed to confirm."
Niehoff also forwarded a flyer for the Poets & Writers event to Elenabon1@att.net
A Niehoff note to Schwartz on Sept. 7, 2007 has the air of dictators clamping down on their subjects: "Our meeting with the student officers and advisors went really well. There was absolutely no discussion or any questions about why we were meeting, or about Avery herself … "
Among the most bizarre missives is a Niehoff letter to staff dated March 6, 2008. In it, she talks about Avery Doninger's appearance before the Legislature's Education Committee in February.
As a prelude to that letter, Niehoff wrote the day before to Margaret Tylutki and Nina Fournier under the subject line, "another event!!!"
"You may want to look at this," Niehoff wrote. "This is how Miss Doninger is choosing to present you as advisors and the student council as a whole. How she got to the CT General Assembly I don't know. Karissa."
Avery Doninger's testimony was warmly received by the Education Committee. Here's her testimony:
Avery W. Doninger,
Student: Lewis S. Mills High School, Burlington, CT
to the Education Committee, Connecticut General Assembly
29 February 2008
Chairman Senator Gaffey, Chairman Representative Fleischmann, and Members of the Committee, I deeply appreciate the opportunity to appear before you today at this hearing on the Genocide Awareness Education bill.
In late 2007, I attended a Leadership Conference where I saw the Danbury High School film on the genocide in Darfur. This was the first I knew of current genocide. I'm 17, I take honors and AP classes, how is this possible? I remember learning about the Holocaust in elementary school, but it seemed like ancient history. At no time in middle school or high school have I been taught about any genocide other than the Holocaust, not Cambodia, not Darfur, not Rwanda. This is not acceptable. In fact, I did not know about genocide in Cambodia until a week ago when I came to the Teach Against Genocide Lobby Day at the capitol.
When I became aware of the situation in Darfur, I wanted to help and I wanted other students at Lewis S. Mills High School to become informed. I prepared a proposal to present to Student Council. I included a long explanation of what was occurring in Darfur. I presented some ideas about what we could do about it, such as donating proceeds from events, showing the Danbury High School film, and opening discussion.
I wanted to pass the proposal out at a Student Council meeting, but beforehand I showed it to my two advisers. I was utterly shocked when I was told by my advisers that I was not allowed to hand out my proposal to Student Council because the cause was "too controversial". I was told that if students took the material I passed out home to their parents and their parents didn't approve then the school could get in trouble. We need funding for teacher training so that teachers are better equipped to respond to genocide and to teach about it.
Despite the barriers initially presented by Student Council advisers, I found a teacher willing to serve as a club adviser and started a Save Darfur Club at LSM. There has been overwhelming interest by students. We have 30 members, we raise money by selling breakfast twice a week; we are planning a benefit concert in the spring. We can and are making a difference!
This is a very sad commentary. How are we suppose to prevent future genocides from occurring if students don't even know about the genocide going on today? We are supposed to learn from past mistakes so that they aren't repeated, but if we don't know about them then we are doomed to repeat them. I believe that, like me, if others become informed they too will want to take action. Active citizens are good citizens and this type of education can fan the flame of activism among students, the next generation of leaders.
PLEASE, expand this bill so that it makes genocide education a permanent and sustainable part of secondary school curricula; it is a moral obligation. Please expand this bill to provide funding for teacher trainings; we can't afford not to.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today. I am prepared to answer any questions.
And here is Niehoff's reaction, sent to the faculty and staff of Lewis Mills High School:
"You may have received inappropriate emails and / or phone messages from unknown sources. They are obviously related to the Doninger lawsuit, and Avery's recent appearances at the Connecticut General Assembly, at which she spoke poorly about our Student Council, Student Council advisors, and educational background in the area of genocide …"