EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was also authored by Jim Brewer. It is available for reprint courtesy of The Cool Justice Report
Should public officials be held accountable and have to explain their actions to those who pay their salaries?
Clearly, the so-called leadership of the Regional District 10 school system is teaching students a different kind of lesson. Superintendent Paula Schwartz and Lewis Mills High School Principal Karissa Niehoff are on display in New Haven’s U.S. District Court this week, using a team of highly-paid attorneys to squash students who dared to challenge their job performance.
Given the way Schwartz and Niehoff have botched this matter, one is compelled to wonder what kind of job they are doing with the rest of their duties—and why the board of education serving Burlington and Harwinton tolerates it.
A sub-plot of the hearing before U.S. District Judge Mark Kravitz involves the potential affirmation of sanctions against teenagers who thought they should practice what they were taught in civics about democracy and the political process.
Four students leaders who worked on the wildly-popular Jamfest – a battle of the bands sponsored by the student council – took the lead from their adviser, reaching out to the community for support when this year’s event appeared to be doomed only days before it was to be held.
The event had already been postponed several times. Many of the band members were seniors and some of them had taken off from work to practice. To pull off the event, the bands needed to use the sound system in the new auditorium or play only acoustic – what a drag – in a deficient venue such as the cafeteria.
“Our adviser said it wasn’t going to happen in the auditorium … it was supposed to happen that same week,” Pat Abate, student council treasurer, told the judge Wednesday.
Abate and fellow student leaders Jackie Evans, Tim Farmer and Avery Doninger got the bad news from adviser Jennifer Hill on April 24, a Tuesday. The event was to be held Saturday, April 28.
“A lot of the bands said they would refuse to play unless it was in the auditorium,” Evans, who also serves as senior class vice president, told the judge. “If there’s no bands, there’s no Jamfest.”
Evans said yet another date change would diminish participation – as it did when the event ultimately was moved to June 8.
What happened from then until now has to be the ultimate horror show for anyone stuck teaching or studying at Lewis Mills under an astoundingly repressive and bone-headed regime.
The four student leaders – Abate, Evans, Farmer and Doninger – got together with Hill and forged a plan.
“Miss Hill suggested just letting parents know,” Abate testified. “She said we should get the taxpayers involved.”
As Evans put it, “We were told it was the taxpayers’ auditorium, so we asked the taxpayers for their permission.”
Here’s how they did it, after getting passes from class and going to the computer lab. They sent the following email:
Recently the Central Office decided that the Student Council could not hold its annual Jamfest/battle of the bands in the auditorium. The students who are planning the event were informed of the change of venue this morning(4-24) when the event is supposed to be this Saturday. Many of the bands have said that they will not play anywhere but in the auditorium. The date has already been changed 3 times due to the constant pushing back of the auditorium’s opening. Two bands have already dropped out and the others are very frustrated, as is the whole student body. There are very few dates left on the calendar to change the date. The reason that the students are not allowed to hold the concert is the one Region 10 Staff Member who is “certified” to run the new lighting and sound system can not attend. This staff member has however, trained students to use the lights and the Jamfest has its own sound system. Mills administration has said even if we rent own lights the event can not occur in the auditorium. The Central Office says that the auditorium is the taxpayers’, not the school’s. We the students are asking you, the taxpayers, to please contact central office and ask that we be let to use our auditorium. The number for Central Office is (860) 673-2538. Please forward this to as many people as you can.
Thank you very much,
Tim Farmer, Jackie Evans, Pat Abate, Avery Doninger and all The Students of Lewis Mills
“She [Hill] knew we were sending an email,” Abate testified. Indeed, the students copied their adviser on the email.
School officials are claiming in court that the students violated policy by using a school computer for a school event.
The next day, Schwartz went bonkers. She had students called into the office over the public address system for a meeting with top administrators including Niehoff.
“[Schwartz] said she didn’t like that we sent the email,” Evans testified. “They seemed pretty upset that we involved the public.
“I think it’s important,” Evans continued under cross-examination by school board lawyer Thomas Gerarde, “that people contact the school and change things that aren’t working.”
Throughout the day of April 24, students pressed staff for a meeting with the principal. But, they could not find Niehoff to secure a meeting. Doninger had a brief but chilling and intimidating encounter with Niehoff that also came up in testimony Wednesday.
Gerarde repeatedly asked Evans whether anyone told her Jamfest had been cancelled. She said no one told her directly. Pressed further, Evans responded: “Avery told me on the 24th that Miss Niehoff pulled her aside and said Mrs. Schwartz was very upset about the email and was going to cancel Jamfest.”
“As of now, Jamfest is cancelled,” Niehoff is reported to have said.
When Judge Kravitz has to weigh credibility of witnesses – Niehoff and Schwartz versus students and others – it should not be much of a strain.
Kravitz told both attorneys they are moving slowly and he will be reserving a certain amount of time for his own questions. Only two witnesses—Abate and Evans -testified Wednesday.
Gerarde began running out the clock during the first cross-examination and continued pelting the teenagers with many variations of the same question.
When he pressed Abate on whether he had ever seen the famous douchebag posting, Abate’s responses included: “I haven’t seen it on my computer monitor, I haven’t seen it in my dreams.”
When Gerarde asked Abate if he was trying to incite the public with the Jamfest email, Judge Kravitz cautioned the attorney, saying, “I don’t think you need to use words like incite.”
“There wasn’t like rioting or major disruption,” Abate answered. “People were down about it and talking about it. They weren’t ripping down fences or anything.”
Doninger’s attorney, Jon Schoenhorn, produced an exhibit that appeared to be either falsified and / or tampered with, #17.
The exhibit shows an entry in Doninger’s disciplinary file dated April 24 and – with some appeal to Twilight Zone fans—citing events allegedly occurring the following day. Another student also received such an entry with the same or similar wording as follows:
4/24/2007 Bogen, Peter [assistant principal] – Inappropriate use of school computers to send inaccurate email to students, parents, and community members regarding Jamfest. Consequence / action – 1. follow-up conversation on April 24th between principal and student regarding: appropriate use of computers, appropriate communication strategies for resolution of conflict, responsibilities of class officer as representative of student body. 2. Expected apology to superintendent and follow-up email correcting original email 3. Meeting on April 25th with principal, superintendent, and Director of Building and Grounds regarding rescheduling of Jamfest, use of auditorium, and appropriate behaviors for student officers.
During the April 25 meeting with Schwartz and others, Evans testified there were no warnings or threats of disciplinary action. Again, this should not be a close call in terms of who is telling the truth.
“It didn’t seem like there was going to be a punishment,” Evans testified.
Schoenhorn started to say, “If there’s a false entry, entered a month later to cover up … ”
Judge Kravitz cut him off, but Schoenhorn was also able to continue a few moments later: “They created evidence and stuck it in here.”
Evans also recounted Niehoff’s banning of free speech t-shirts during an election assembly.
“At the assembly, people were yelling Avery’s name—vote for Avery,” Evans testified.
Some students wore t-shirts saying Democracy, Team Avery and Support Freedom of Speech.
“Miss Niehoff stopped a couple on the way in,” Evans told the judge. “All I heard was, ‘You can’t wear that in there.’ “
Students were never given an explanation of why Avery Doninger was removed from the ballot for secretary of the Class of 2008. That’s probably because administrators don’t have a valid reason. They’re also probably embarrassed that Doninger actually won the election by write-in vote, as noted by The Cool Justice Report after a Freedom of Information complaint forced release of the ballots.
During the proceedings Wednesday, Schoenhorn asked Abate and Evans to define douchebag.
“Stupid, moron, idiot, Abate said.
“Jerks,” Evans said.
Wonder who they were thinking of …
After Niehoff grabbed Doninger and told her Jamfest was cancelled, Doninger posted an entry in her personal blog that night.
Here it is:
jamfest is cancelled due to douchebags in central office. here is an email that we sent out to a ton of people and asked them to forward to everyone in their address book to help get support for jamfest. basically, because we sent it out, Paula Schwartz is getting a TON of phone calls and emails and such. we have so much support and we really appriciate it. however, she got pissed off and decided to just cancel the whole thing all together. anddd so basically we aren’t going to have it at all, but in the slightest chance we do it is going to be after the talent show on may 18th. anddd..here is the letter we sent out to parents.
Schoenhorn has objected to the exhibit as presented by the defense because the second page is missing. In that page, another student calls Schwartz “a dirty whore.” That student apparently was not disciplined and actually won a citizenship award.
At one point during the hearing Wednesday, Kravitz affirmed that equal protection is an issue before the court.
On April 25, administrators had no problem with students sending email to the community.
Abate testified Schwartz told students: “We should send an email to have people stop calling.”
“We had to write that second email,” he said.
The civil rights lawsuit asks Kravitz to order the school superintendent and the principal to reinstate Doninger as secretary of the Class of 2008 and allow her to give a speech and run for re-election in September.
The school system has yet to acknowledge Doninger’s write-in victory.
Kravitz delivered an eloquent closing to Wednesday’s events.
He said he would be happy to decide the case, alluding to interesting and difficult issues that can challenge and inspire judges. But, he said there might be a way for both sides to save face, nudging the parties toward a settlement.
“I urge you in the moments we have,” Kravitz said, “to think about whether there’s an opportunity to teach the students of this fine high school that there are other ways of resolving disputes than full-scale litigation or war.”
Testimony is scheduled to resume at 9 a.m. Thursday.