Journalism teacher says union activity, student’s poem cost him adviser role

Friday, March 24, 2000

When high school journalism teacher and newspaper adviser Mike McGee and the student staff of the Oracle decided last month to let their poetry editor publish one of his own admittedly darker works, they had no idea that they were unleashing a firestorm that could end up costing McGee his position.

McGee has taught journalism at Orland, Calif.’s public high school and advised the school’s student newspaper, the Oracle, for a decade. But after parents complained about a poem published in late February, he was told by school administrators that next year the paper would be under the watchful eye of an advisory committee and that he would neither be teaching journalism nor advising the paper.

McGee and Orland High School Principal Dell Wells have been at odds over the paper for several months. Last October, Wells took issue with the Oracle after McGee allowed the students to use the words “damn,” “suck,” “screwed” and “nipple” in the paper. Wells threatened to put a letter in McGee’s personnel file regarding the language and demanded that the teacher submit each newspaper for review before publication. McGee refused, but invited Wells to visit the Oracle‘s office anytime to preview the paper and see what the students were working on. McGee says the third-year principal never came.

McGee said he knew that February’s issue could prove controversial, so before he sent it to print he sent a memo to Wells asking him to preview the issue.

“He never came,” McGee said. “The next thing I know I was told to come down to the principal’s office and was very dramatically shown on the ‘big board’ (of teacher’s assignments) that I wouldn’t be teaching journalism next year.”

McGee, who is also a vocal union leader and opponent of the school district’s administration, says he believes his transfer is part public relations and part punishment from the higher-ups in the district.

“I think the decision is a punitive one,” McGee said. “I think I am being punished because of my stance in the union and my involvement with giving the students a voice.”

McGee says he has received no word from the administration as to what he will be doing next year but laments the loss of his role as journalism teacher and adviser. “Here is this paper I let the kids have,” he said. “I champion them and they champion me. We produce a good paper. We were questioning what’s going on around here and they (the administration) got tired of it.”

Mike Hiestand, an attorney with the Student Press Law Center, agrees with McGee’s assessment of the situation.

“It’s a shame, honestly,” he said. “This sounds like a very good teacher who is being dismissed because he is making life a little difficult for the administration … we see this way too often.” Hiestand says that California is one of a handful of states with expanded protection for the student press and therefore he questions the principal’s right to impose prior restraint through a newspaper advisory committee.

“Parents cited the fact that some of the language in the poem was inappropriate and gross, [but] that is not a compelling enough reason” to reassign McGee, Hiestand said. The district’s administrators “need to do some checking with their lawyers.”

Wells said that McGee’s transfer was strictly a personnel issue. He told the Sacramento Valley Mirror that “this has nothing to do with any individual article. There wasn’t a specific article or poem or anything else. We had ten teachers last year with a change in their assignment.”

The only details Wells offered to the Valley Mirror about the Oracle’s new review committee was that it would be made up of parents, teacher and students.

David Miller, superintendent of Orland Unified School District, told The Freedom Forum Online that McGee’s transfer was a personnel issue and refused to comment further. Wells, also contacted by The Freedom Forum Online, likewise refused to comment.

McGee says he has filed a complaint regarding his transfer with his union on contractual grounds but beyond that is unsure of his next move.