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April 30, 2007

Journalism suffers a blow in Indiana

By Zach Brokenrope

When high school sophomore Megan Chase wrote a column for her Indiana school newspaper calling for tolerance of homosexuals, she didn’t think it would be big deal.

“I didn’t think anyone would say anything,” Chase said last week.

Neither did her teacher, Amy Sorrell, who said she was more worried about another story in the Jan. 19 issue of Woodlan Junior-Senior High School’s paper, The Tomahawk. It dealt with teen pregnancy and birth control.

But Chase’s opinion piece – which said people should not “look down” on gay men and women or make fun of them - unleashed a series of events that eventually cost Sorrell her job as a journalism teacher.

It started in the days after the column appeared, when Principal Edwin Yoder expressed his unhappiness with the piece and took steps to clamp down on the paper, including demanding prior review of its contents.

“Who would have thought an article about tolerance would upset anyone when on the next page of the paper we had a 2-page special feature on teen pregnancy?” Sorell asked in a Feb. 23 email to The Tattoo.

“The irony here is that Yoder saw the pregnancy spread ahead of time and said he thought it was really good,” she wrote, “and then he flips out about an article on tolerance!”

Sorrell, who has taught in Indiana for four years, said she did not think the idea of tolerance toward gays would be controversial.

Sorrell wound up on administrative leave for allegedly refusing to obey Yoder’s rules and ignoring school protocol. Chase said the accusation included claims that Sorrell neglected her duties in producing a yearbook and handling Advanced Placement classes.

“I don’t think this if fair at all and I don’t agree with the other allegations against her,” Chase said.

“I think it’s all ridiculous,” said Sarah Randall, another member of the journalism staff. “Ms. Sorrell is a great teacher.”

Sorrell said that after she was put on leave, some students quit the journalism staff.

“I’ve gotten a huge amount of support,” she said. “The support we've gotten from many of the students has been awesome.” 

Despite facing the possibility of losing her teaching job with the district, Sorrell said last week that she would make the same decisions again.

“I think it’s just a big overreaction,” Sorrell said.

Days later, however, she cut a deal with the district that let her move to a different school after apologizing in public to Yoder and district administrators.

A statement on Friday from Kay Novotny, superintendent of the East Allen County Schools, called the dispute with Sorrell “a routine personnel matter” that journalists blew out of proportion.

Her four-page statement defended the district’s right to punish Sorrell for failing to continue publishing the paper and for refusing to go along with Yoder’s new rules, which is within the law as courts currently interpret it.

The statement made no attempt to defend Yoder’s stance against Chase’s column on gay tolerance.

The only clear reference to the source of the controversy was the claim by Novotny that Sorrell had issued an apology saying that nothing she has said in the last few months should be taken to mean that she suggested her supervisors were motivated by “intolerance toward homosexuality.”

Novotny’s otherwise detailed statement, however, provided no indication what else might have caused Yoder’s reaction.

Novotny said that administrators agreed to let Sorrell teach in another school because they chose to show her “compassion” based in part on her “relative youth and obvious inexperience.”

Why Sorrell took the deal is unclear, except that it allows her to keep teaching.

What also isn’t clear is what kind of newspaper The Tomahawk will be in the months and years ahead.

Link to Novotny's statement (in PDF form)


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