Saturday, June 14, 2008

Wtby Rep-Am Story On Suspended Principal

Friday, June 13, 2008 10:13 PM EDT

Lewis Mills principal suspended for privacy breach


BURLINGTON -- The principal of Lewis S. Mills High School was suspended for two days this week for writing an e-mail containing personal information about a student who has sued her in federal court, alleging free speech violations.

Principal Karissa Niehoff was suspended without pay Tuesday and Wednesday after responding May 31 to an e-mail from a Wisconsin man who criticized the school's punishment of Avery Doninger.

Doninger, a senior who graduates next week, was not allowed to run for re-election as class secretary after calling administrators "douche bags" on her blog last spring. Doninger's mother, Lauren, filed a lawsuit on her daughter's behalf against Niehoff and former Region 10 Superintendent Paula Schwartz, contending her free speech rights were violated.

In addition to mandating the two-day suspension, Region 10 Superintendent Alan Beitman encouraged Niehoff to write a formal letter of apology to the student and student's family and ordered Niehoff to attend student privacy rights training, according to a letter obtained through a Freedom of Information request by the Republican-American.

The superintendent also said in the letter that the principal had shown an "uncharacteristic lapse in judgment."

"As a seasoned and experienced school administrator, at the very least a call or e-mail to me seeking advice or an opinion on how to respond to the e-mail should have been made," the letter said. "That being said, the sharing of any student-related concerns or issues should never have occurred."

Beitman, who became superintendent after Doninger's lawsuit was filed, declined to comment.

In part, Niehoff's e-mail read:

"Avery has always been quite vocal about her opinions, which is fine, if expressed appropriately during the school day (not interrupting lessons, using vulgar language, etc.) Prior to this incident, Avery had repeatedly been warned by her class adviser to stop calling the student council adviser and members names during junior class meetings. Thus, this was not the first incident of its kind with Avery."

Her e-mail also said media stories about Doninger's lawsuit had been biased. Niehoff did not return calls to her office and home seeking comment Friday. A woman who answered the phone at Niehoff's home said she was not available.

Mike Morris, the man who wrote the e-mail, said he was inspired to write to Niehoff about the case after reading about it in the New York Post. On a whim, he said, he forwarded his note, and Niehoff's response, to Lauren Doninger. The e-mails were also posted on the blog of Litchfield writer and activist Andy Thibault, who has been an advocate and fundraiser for Doninger's cause.

"I was flabbergasted," Lauren Doninger said Friday, of Niehoff's e-mail. She pointed out what she called an irony, that Niehoff was punished for making a comment and sending it out over the Internet, the same thing that Niehoff punished her daughter for.

Lauren Doninger said she has filed a Freedom of Information request for all Niehoff's e-mails that mention her daughter.

The Doningers had filed for a preliminary injunction in U.S. District Court in New Haven to allow Avery to reclaim her position as class secretary in time for graduation June 20, where she would have, as a class officer, been given the opportunity to speak. That was denied, and the Doningers lost an appeal earlier this month in the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York.

However, Lauren Doninger said they plan to proceed with a full trial.

The case has raised new questions about the domain of school administrators in punishing students for online speech.

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