Tuesday, August 14, 2007

JI Story On Doninger Write-In Win

Student barred from running
outpolled rivals as a write-in candidate

By Karine Abalyan
Journal Inquirer
Manchester, Conn.

A Burlington high school student, removed from class office last spring and banned from running again because she used offensive language to describe school officials, says she was nevertheless the overwhelming choice for re-election as class secretary when classmates wrote in her name on the ballot.

Avery Doninger, who will be a senior at Lewis S. Mills High School this fall, said ballots obtained from the school system last week show she received a majority of the student vote despite the district's decision to keep her from office.

Lauren Doninger, Avery's mother, said Avery received 53 votes when classmates wrote in her name on the ballot.

The two class secretary candidates whose names were printed on the ballot received 42 votes and 31 votes, Lauren Doninger said.

A total of 128 ballots were released under the Freedom of Information Act. Two students didn't vote for class secretary.

"It shows me that I have support from my peers," Avery, 17, said. "I didn't think that many people would vote for me."

Because Avery has been banned from running, school officials declared the candidate with 42 votes to have been elected class of 2008 secretary, Lauren Doninger said.

Last month, Doninger filed suit on her daughter's behalf against high school Principal Karissa Niehoff and Region 10 Superintendent Paula Schwartz for removing Avery from office and keeping her out of the election.

A hearing is scheduled on Aug. 22 at the U.S. District Court in New Haven.

Niehoff and Schwartz did not return calls seeking comment. Christine Chinni, the lawyer representing the Region 10 Board of Education, declined to discuss election results.

Avery said she is going to court to seek a new election for class officers. She also wants the opportunity to give a campaign speech, which she was not allowed to deliver last spring.

Avery said she had been class secretary for three years. She was removed from the student council in May and told she could not run for re-election after top school officials learned she had used a derogatory term in an online blog to describe the administration.

The offensive message, posted from Avery's home computer, criticized school officials for delays surrounding a school music event called Jamfest, but didn't name any official in particular, Lauren said.

"Next time I'm definitely going to use more sophisticated language," Avery said, but added that the school violated her freedom of speech.

Lauren Doninger said she didn't like her daughter's language but believed "it was not the school's place to punish her."

She said she first tried resolving the issue with the administration, suggesting that Avery be banned from Jamfest or from planning the event.

When attempts at compromise failed, Doninger, a community college instructor who has been researching the First Amendment in a doctoral program in educational leadership, said she and Avery decided to bring the matter to court.

"It really has to do with monitoring government," Doninger said.

"It's not just Avery who didn't have a democratic process," she added, explaining that students who voted for her daughter were also deprived of their rights.

Andy Thibault, a Litchfield-based columnist and blogger, requested the ballots under the Freedom of Information Act this month.

There are 178 students in Avery's class, a school official said, but Thibault said he received 128 ballots. It is unclear if the remaining 50 students were absent or chose not to vote.

Avery said she's had no prior problems with the administration, but Lauren Doninger suspects a letter to the editor she wrote in March criticizing the school system's zero-tolerance substance-abuse policy may have turned some school officials against her daughter.

The letter appeared in several state newspapers and drew an angry response from the superintendent, Doninger said.

The lawsuit was filed on July 16 in New Britain Superior Court. The school has since moved the case to federal court in New Haven. Chinni didn't explain why school officials opted for the change.

Avery said she hopes to win the case, but even if she doesn't, she said this experience will have been worthwhile.

"I'll walk away with the whole democratic process under my belt," she said.


vivek said...

Our school crafted a new behaviour policy last year. One of the most important items that came up for discussion was: how does a teacher decide what 'punishment' or 'action' to take against errant behaviour?

The staff spoke against the common mistake of not being able to distinguish between an "errant child" and "errant behaviour" (our staff was of the view that most transgressions fell under the second category).

The same may be true here. Yes, the child probably did err in her choice of words and in her expression, does that mean that a capable student leader be thwarted?

She should have been reprimanded for her action- linking her errant action to the disbanding of her electoral efforts is uncalled for.

Anonymous said...

The teenager acted like a teenager. The teachers are acting like children.

The adult response to name-calling is to shrug and walk away.