By Ken Krayeske • 11:00 AM EST
Burlington, CT – Free speech poster child Avery Doninger graduated from Burlington's Lewis Mills High School, Friday June 20, but Principal Karissa Niehoff apparently continues to flex the authoritarian grasp of the school on the internet ether.
In a stuffy, hot packed gymnasium, among the flower print dresses, the high heels, and the state cops with the german sheperd, Doninger's conspicuous absence from the program as class secretary seemed small compared to the privacy concerns that loomed large, especially in the minds of parents like John Talarski.
Talarski watched one of his daughters graduate with Doninger, while he has another heading to Mills as a ninth grader in the fall.
He lamented the lack of privacy students have. He said sometime in the past two weeks, Niehoff caught wind that students published pictures on the social networking site of themselves drinking alcohol. Talarski claimed Niehoff sent letters home to students, and those kids got punished.
"It's absurd," Talarski said. "Somebody got into Facebook. It's another episode where kids are drinking, but they opened it to the school. Someone turned in names."
The comparison with Doninger's situation is easy. Former superintendent Paula Schwartz's son googled his mom's name in Spring 2007, and discovered that Doninger called central office administrators "douchebags" on her website. Niehoff punished Doninger by removing her name from the ballot for class Secretary. Doninger won a write-in campaign, and Niehoff suppressed those votes.
Doninger sued for an injunction to be class secretary, the perk of which was giving an address at graduation. She lost in the Second District Federal Court of Appeals in New York City in May. The judges said the Niehoff could reasonably forecast that Doninger's comments would result in a material disruption of class. Doninger's separate First Amendment claim for damages will go to a full trial.
Shortly after Niehoff's court victory, Neihoff's boss, Region 10 Superintendent Alan Beitman, suspended Niehoff because she wrote e-mails to complete strangers revealing undocumented and unsubstantiated allegations about Doninger, in violation of federal privacy laws
Annie Nodwell, a long-time Burlington resident who sent daughters to Lewis Mills and Friday night sat in the stands waiting to watch her granddaughter graduate, said she normally trusts the federal courts. But after seeing them back the principal over the student, then to have the principal get punished is difficult.
"I want to have faith in the judicial branch," she said. "But when something like this happens, you wonder. You're trying to teach young people to be responsible, to speak their minds, then something like this happens and you take it away from them."
Doninger got a raw deal, Nodwell said.
"If Doninger made threats against [Niehoff], by God she should have been punished," Nodwell said. The spectre of the Lewis Mills' sophomore who was suspended for threatening other students Wednesday, June 18 loomed as part of her remarks.
"But Doninger was working on her own computer from her own home on her own time, talking about her feelings," Nodwell said. "What right do they have violating that?"
The school must respect students' need for privacy, Talarski said. Talarski has lived in Burlington for more than 20 years.
"That should be kept private," Talarski said. "What you say on the internet shouldn't come back to school. They have no right to go online and pluck off info to use against kids."
Two anonymous juniors who attended the ceremony but did not want to give their names for various reasons were torn about the problems with their school administration.
"Our principal is a good person," said the boy. "I have the most respect for her."
His female acquaintance, though, expressed frustration that she needed to read the Hartford Courant to learn that Superintendent Alan Beitman recently suspended Niehoff for two days for sending e-mails that violated Doninger's rights to privacy.
"It's on the DL here," she said. "You would've thought they would've informed us. They could've told the parents that the kids would be without a principal for two days."
The girl said she hoped Doninger's First Amendment tale ended up in the textbooks. Both students were concerned about the Facebook-drinking episode.
"It's not private anymore," the girl said. "Anyone can find anything."
Yet, she said, she won't change the way she communicates online. And if Niehoff's snooping keeps them safe, it may be okay.
"I don't have anything to hide," one of the students said. "It's mainly kids' stupidity that gets them in trouble."
The boy added that students who have a good reputation don't have anything to fear. The girl said she wasn't sure where to draw the line on where public school administrators should stop policing the internet.
"I think it depends on who you are," he said. "We're respected. Avery had a reputation for speaking out. Avery is one of those liberals."
But he acknowledged that if he had won a write-in election as class secretary and had it taken away from him, he would have been mad.
Both students went to last year's once-cancelled but reinstated Jamfest that led to Doninger's douchebag comment.
"It was a blast," the boy said of the Jamfest. "We had it in the old auditorium here. I can see why Avery was infuriated."
Yet there were no protests at the graduation this year. Neither valedictorian Sarah Grabauskas or saluditorian Rachel Considine referred to Doninger in their speeches. Many members of the graduating class had been together since kindergarten.
"We always support each other," Grabauskas said. "We are always here for each other. We struggled through rough times." Among those were administration changes in the last year. Grabauskas even mentioned Facebook, but not the drinking episode.
A careful listen to the words from Beitman, Niehoff or Chairman of the Board of Education Paul Omichinski revealed only potentially ironic messages about the Doninger fiasco that put Lewis Mills in the national spotlight.
Omichinski made seasoned reggae fans cringe when he stated Bob Marley was the eminent Caribbean philosopher who said "Don't worry, be happy." Actually, it was Bobby McFerrin. The Hartford Courant quoted Omichinski's mistake without correction.
Beitman, who grandmother Nodwell had praised, encouraged students to grow into leaders.
"In contemplation of the mystery we call life, the world is crying for intelligent, compassionate leaders," he said. "Please take your fair share of responsibility for healing the world."
He implored students to be known for their capacity for gentleness instead of anger.
"Never become complacent about the difference between what is and what should be," Beitman said. "You need to overcome the cynicism that one person cannot make a difference."
Neihoff's words beckoned the students to think of sitting in the same gym for their eighth grade graduation. She asked them to recall their first days as Spartans.
"We had a mission at Lewis Mills," she said. "Our mission statement was to become outstanding students and citizens. You've done both. You've demonstrated your potential to do so much more outside our walls.
"You show an understanding that more important than being in the public eye is being in the public heart," Niehoff said, and she offered students a heart felt congratulations on graduating.
The only interruptions in the ceremony were students batting around beach balls. The anonymous Mills junior said that's because people want to put the Doninger thing behind them.
"It happened a year ago," the female student said. "People are trying to push it away. An 'Avery' chant or something would've happened last year. She lost her momentum. Maybe if it happened more recently, there would have been more uproar."