I have never met a person working in school administration who was not an invertebrate. I’m not ruling out the possibility that there may be a few anomalies out there with a spine but I have yet to meet one. If you think I’m being too harsh, think of all the books ordered pulled from the shelves of libraries and classrooms by administrators because of the complaint of a single parent. Think of all the librarians and teachers (including yours truly) who have lost their jobs because they dared to champion intellectual freedom and protest against such action. Think of all the librarians and teachers who are too afraid to have a particular book on their shelves or even on a suggested reading list because they know that if there is a complaint, they will not have the support of their administration. That’s called self-censorship and it’s rampant in schools because most administrators are invertebrates. Many educators are afraid to do their job because these spineless powers that be create a culture of fear.
There is a recent case in my area of the country of a teacher being punished by his administration for doing his job. His name is James Yoakley and he was, until very recently, an English teacher at Lenoir City High School who served as advisor to the newspaper and yearbook.
In February, eighteen-year-old Krystal Myers had her atheism editorial censored from the Panther Press. She wrote “No Rights: The Life of an Atheist” after learning about separation of church and state laws in class. She researched court cases about religion and applied her findings to the school’s practices. Myers, Panther Press editor, claimed some teachers promote Christianity and that prayer occurs at football games, graduation and school board meetings. Lenoir City Schools Superintendent Wayne Miller disputed the claims. He said prayer at football games is student lead, but admitted the school board does pray before meetings.
Miller justified the censorship claiming that the column would pose “academic challenges” to the school district. Miller said there is no formal review process for the weekly student newspaper, but the topics of sexuality, politics and religion are generally avoided because they inspire “passionate conversations.” You don’t want to give students cause to have passionate conversations in an academic environment.
The editorial was published on the Knoxville News-Sentinel website. Miller and Myers both said they have not noticed any disruption since publication, and Myers said no one at the school has been outwardly negative toward her since. So much for the fear of academic disruption.
Yoakley was called into Principal Steve Millsaps’s office to answer for a story in the yearbook called “It’s O.K. to be Gay,” after a parent complained about it in an email. The student-written story profiles gay student Zac Mitchell, who discusses coming out, bullying, and his family’s donations to gay rights causes and breast cancer research. Mitchell also describes an experience cross-dressing with a friend while in Nashville. Yoakley said the story was the student editor’s idea. The yearbook theme is “In My Element.”
After the yearbooks were distributed, an email circulated in the community demanding action from school administrators. “It is time to take a stand for our faith,” the email reads. “We aren’t being called to risk our lives and go before a king like Nehemiah – but our walls are broken down and our gates are burning.”
Van Shaver, a school board member in a neighboring district, called for a criminal investigation into the matter. “If in fact it was Mr. Yoakley or any other teacher who allowed this article to be published in the yearbook, they should be dismissed from the school immediately,” Shaver wrote on his personal blog. Shaver also wrote that if Yoakley or any other teacher talked with students about their sexual orientation “prior to those students being of legal age, those teachers should be charged with child sex abuse by an authority figure and arrested.”
“The editor tried to capture the school from all the different ways and places students fit into the school community,” Yoakley wrote in an email. “She did it quite well. The gay student was just one of many ‘elements’ we covered.” Yoakley also remarked: “I view the school yearbook and newspaper as student media. They make the editorial decisions, they decide the content and layout. I have been the adviser for six years and have developed a philosophy that I think falls in line with student productions across the country.”
The Knoxville News-Sentinel reported that Yoakley was recently notified that he was removed from the yearbook and newspaper and transferred to Lenoir City Middle School. Yoakley, who served as English department chair and has been advising the newspaper and yearbook for six years, believes the district’s move was in direct retaliation to the content. Yoakley had refused Lenoir City High School Principal Steve Millsaps’s suggestion that he resign.
“I’m not happy with the reassignment, but will make the most of it and use it as an opportunity to grow as a teacher,” he said in an email. “I think that because I had done nothing that warranted my dismissal and that since I refused to acquiesce to the principal’s suggestion that I resign, the system decided that the only way they could show that they had taken action was to move me to another school.” Superintendent Wayne Miller, who ordered Yoakley’s transfer, denies that the transfer is retaliation or due to political pressure.
As Knoxville News-Sentinel columnist Pam Strickland (also a former high school newspaper and yearbook advisor) remarked: “Yoakley has been doing exactly what he’s supposed to do … [T]he students get more than a grade. They get freedom, respect, trust, high expectations. They learn collaboration, research, problem solving. They refine their language skills, and they become comfortable with technology. They can also win contests and scholarships.” Who would find anything wrong with that? A school district superintendent and a high school principal among others apparently.
Read “No Rights: The Life of an Atheist” by Krystal Myers.
Read “It’s O.K. To Be Gay” by Zac Mitchell
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