Texas high school journalism adviser resigns; district implements prior review policies
The journalism adviser at a high school in Katy, Texas, has resigned after a prolonged conflict with school administration, which originated over how the yearbook should cover LGBTQ content. In the wake of this conflict, the principal also changed campus policy so that future issues of the yearbook will be subject to prior review.
The Seven Lakes High School teacher, Katie Moreno, declined to speak with the U. S. Press Freedom Tracker about the situation, citing the conditions of her employment contract with the Katy Independent School District. But she consulted with the legal team at the Student Press Law Center, and a staff attorney there, Sommer Ingram Dean, provided to the Tracker a 30-page document in which Moreno details her interactions with Seven Lakes principal Kerri Finnesand.
“When a school district forces an award-winning journalism teacher to resign, you have to think there’s something more to the story than what school officials may be stating. Time and time again we see fearless journalism advisers teaching their students sound, responsible journalism, and winning awards for it, but still struggling to keep a job,” Dean said. “Every adviser that is bullied out of a job and every student that is pressured into silence is a threat to free speech. I hope Seven Lakes understands the gravity of this situation.”
Moreno, who has taught at Seven Lakes since January 2014, was awarded the Journalism Education Association’s “Rising Star” award in November 2018, according to an article published by the Katy Times in January.
According to Moreno’s account, in November 2018 she brought a yearbook page for the Pride Club, the school’s group for LGBTQ students, to Finnesand for her review. The yearbook content had never been subject to prior review before, but Moreno showed it to Finnesand out of respect for a former administrator, whose child was featured on the page. Finnesand wrote in an email to Moreno that the administrator's child “will not be featured in the year book with the Pride Club” and ordered her to contact the parent of every student featured “about their child’s quote and the context of the club.” Finnesand did not respond to a request for comment.
Moreno drafted a permission slip for parents to sign and let the adviser of the Pride Club know about it. The adviser protested, saying that no other clubs faced such a requirement, so it could be construed as discriminatory. When the adviser brought it up directly with Finnesand, the principal told Moreno she was being “insubordinate” by broaching the topic with the Pride Club adviser.
On Dec. 5, a yearbook student sent a private message on social media, writing that the principal wanted to change the publication layout for several groups, and have the parents of all Pride Club members sign a permission slip. The student lamented that “[a]ll the work we’ve done to build these clubs, all the memories, all the growth, will all be excluded from the yearbook if we don’t use our voice now in whatever ways possible.” Another student reposted the message, and Moreno brought the message to Finnesand’s attention, who viewed it as a “personal attack,” according to Moreno’s documentation.
The next afternoon, Finnesand came into Moreno’s classroom and confronted her within earshot of her students. “She said I’m not doing my job, and that I clearly can’t control my kids. And I ‘let’ them go to social media to slander her. And because of that I don’t need to be the yearbook adviser here,” Moreno wrote.
A meeting between Finnesand and Moreno’s journalism students took place on Dec. 7, where they agreed on a plan on how to cover non-curriculum clubs in the yearbook going forward.
After the students left that meeting, Finnesand spoke with Moreno again where she expressed that she never has problems dealing with leaders of other organizations. Moreno, in her document, wrote her interactions with Finnesand left her feeling belittled: “[d]ue to the nature of student publications, there will be times she needs to have a conversation with the adviser and with the editors. Every single time I have contacted her with a question or an update, I am met with animosity, condescension, and judgement. This is an unfair comparison, as issues regarding censorship do not arise from service organizations or athletics.”
The print edition of the school’s newspaper, The Torch, has always operated under prior review. Moreno’s students dropped off a proof of the December issue for review by Finnesand on Dec. 3, and it was returned to Moreno without any comments. The issue’s cover included an edited image of a girl surrounded by a cloud of smoke, accompanying an article about vaping titled “A Fatal Fad.” The photograph was taken using dry ice. The cover was included in the approved proof binder, but after the issue was distributed, Moreno was given a performance review memorandum to sign for the image appearing on the cover.
Following a series of interactions with Finnesand, Moreno sent a grievance letter to Jeff Stocks, assistant superintendent of the Katy ISD, in which she outlined the communication difficulties she was having with Finnesand. At a meeting with Stocks and Finnesand on Jan. 8, 2019, Moreno was giving a document that stated that “campus administration will approve all pages of the SLHS yearbook,” a departure from the previous policy that did not require prior review. At the conclusion of that meeting, Finnesand informed Moreno that she would not be the yearbook or newspaper sponsor next school year, according to Moreno’s account.
According to Moreno’s account, after a series of meetings with a school district Human Resources representative where the future of Moreno’s teaching contract was called into question, she opted to resign on April 1.
Moreno will teach through the end of the school year, and in her resignation cited her intention to find a teaching position in another school district, Ingram Dean at the SPLC told the Tracker.
Justin Graham, the general counsel for Katy ISD, told the Tracker in an email that Moreno resigned “unilaterally and voluntarily” from her job at Seven Lakes.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Jeff Stocks as superintendent of Katy Independent School District. Stocks is assistant superintendent.