Standing Up to the Principal

updated 11/18/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/18/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

THE BATTLEGROUND: JUST SIX PAGES of the Keyhole, the yearbook at Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis. The issue: Who controls the publication's contents—its staff or the school's principal? That, at least, is how Marilyn Athmann, a Ben Davis English teacher who used to be the yearbook's adviser, defines a three-year controversy that is headed for federal district court in Indianapolis. "It is a First Amendment problem," she says.

The trouble started when the Ben Davis High football Giants won the state championship in their division in 1987. As Athmann recalls it, James Mifflin, principal of the 2,700-student school, argued the event was too important to be left to Athtmann's students to celebrate in print. Mifflin wanted Coach Dick Dullaghan and athletic director Bob Britt to be given control of Keyhole's football coverage. "I said," recalls Athmann, " 'the students can make that decision.' He got very angry and the veins in his neck stuck out."

The yearbook staff voted 32—0 to reject the order. A few weeks later Edward Bowes, the district superintendent, called a meeting with Athmann and Mifflin and backed the students' decision. After the meeting, Athmann says, Mifflin was livid. "He told me he didn't care how long it took," she says. "He was going to get me." The 1988 Keyhole, which was cited by the Indiana High School Press Association as the best yearbook in the state for the fourth year in a row, featured Mifflin holding the Giants' championship trophy. "The students hoped that would appease him," says Athmann.

It didn't. Instead, during the following year, Athmann says she was repeatedly called to her boss's office, where she faced a tribunal of Mifflin and six vice principals. "There would be this roomful of men and me," she says. "They kept asking me why I couldn't be a team player." The school officials complained that Athmann's yearbook staff roamed the halls without passes and had scrawled graffiti in a photo darkroom. "They kept telling me I had lost control of my students," Athmann says. She helped turn out one more yearbook, but in June 1989 she was relieved of her responsibilities as faculty supervisor.

In some respects, Athmann seemed decidedly ill-suited for conflict. Raised in rural Minnesota, the daughter of a car dealer and a house-wife, she was 18 when she joined a Benedictine convent in St. Joseph, Minn., where she earned her certification as a teacher. Growing restless with life as a nun after 13 years, she left to teach public school and joined the staff at Ben Davis in 1985. After being relieved as yearbook adviser, Athmann was at first reluctant to take legal action and instead sought to regain her position by going public with her grievance against school officials. But this spring the battle took an ugly turn: In a letter to the student newspaper, Coach Dullaghan wrote, "It is my sincere hope that our administration will take steps to force [Athmann] to 'put up or shut up.' "

Angered, she chose the former. In April Athmann filed suit against the school. She is not asking for any monetary damages. All she wants, she says, is to get back her yearbook job, which pays $1,200. Meanwhile, harassment has continued, says Athmann. "I'm watched constantly to make sure I'm on time for class, to make sure I return pencils to the library," she says.

For his part, Mifflin insists he never ordered Athmann to surrender six pages of the yearbook to the athletic department. "It didn't happen," he says. "There was no such conversation." Likewise Superintendent Bowes, originally a supporter of the yearbook staff, now maintains that Athmann is guilty of "fabrications" and was removed as yearbook adviser "because of her inability to get along with people."

Others say Mifflin and Bowes have selective memories. "Mifflin called me in early 1988 and asked me what I would have done about letting him control football coverage," says Gwenda Hiett, a former English teacher at Ben Davis. "I said, If you asked me to let the coach run my yearbook, I'd ask if he would run his football plays by me.' " Cheri Hull, whose daughter Wendy Hodapp worked on the Keyhole staff from 1987 to 1989, believes Athmann was the victim of a witch-hunt. "She was hung out to dry because some man's ego was threatened," Hull says.

Backed by a legal fund of nearly $20,000 raised by friends and supporters—plus another $3,000 she won as a 1990 recipient of the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award and a $5,000 donation from the Indiana High School Press Association—Athmann will be ready to "put up" when her case, not yet scheduled, comes to trial. But she remains incredulous that by standing up for a principle she could inspire so much ill will. "This scares me," she says. "It's very wrong what they did." For Marilyn's supporters the last word is engraved on a plaque she received from parents of former Keyhole staffers, which reads simply: IN APPRECIATION OF EXCELLENCE IN THE ART OF TEACHING AND GUIDANCE.

BILL SHAW in Indianapolis

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