How's That for School Spirit

Robert Joffee, veteran journalist turned much-quoted pollster and civic activist, was on a tear. Determined to improve the quality of public education, he zeroed in on a school close to home -- Miami Springs Middle School.

From friends and neighbors he had heard chilling tales of hallway holdups, bathroom muggings, and salacious classroom shenanigans. One case even made it into the Miami Herald: A former gym teacher pled guilty to fondling a fourteen-year-old female student.

The anecdotes were bad enough. But when Joffee learned that worried parents allegedly had been rebuffed by the school principal, he decided to step in. Unresponsive bureaucrats were his specialty. As the political editor of the now-defunct Miami News, Joffee had relentlessly wrangled with the system for almost two decades. Now, as director of the Mason-Dixon Florida Poll, he relished using his journalistic expertise to directly effect change in his home town.

Joffee's first step was to help jump-start the moribund Parent Teacher Student Association at Miami Springs Middle. As his involvement increased, so did the stories he heard about principal Brenda Fuentes. Joffee became convinced that she was ignoring legitimate parental complaints, and he launched a campaign to remove her from her post. He wrote letters, met with school board administrators, and this past November 15 he leafletted the school.

The school's response: Joffee was arrested by school district police for trespassing, handcuffed, and booked into the Dade County Jail. Outraged, he assembled an exceptionally high-powered legal team that includes Gene Stearns, incorporation guru and the legal mastermind behind the movement to abolish Miami; Martin Burkett, one of Stearns's associates; and Elizabeth Ann Morgan, past president of the Dade County chapter of the Florida Association for Women Lawyers. They say Joffee's arrest was a clear violation of the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech.

"We tend to forget that the schools are part of our government and that they desperately need more citizen involvement," Stearns observes. "The notion that the school police would be used to arrest someone who is complaining about the quality of the school is very frightening."

School officials counter that the issue is not free speech but their right to monitor what is distributed at public schools. Fuentes, a former science teacher who has worked in the Dade County school district for 31 years, quotes verbatim from a school board rule that states anyone wishing to distribute to students material that is not a notice from the PTSA, youth character-building organizations, or community recreation programs must seek approval from the superintendent of schools. "My job is to follow school board policy," she says firmly, in explaining the rationale behind Joffee's arrest. (Fuentes herself was not on campus that day, but she endorses the action.)

On the morning of his arrest, Joffee had strategically positioned himself on a paved plaza that separates the Miami Springs Middle School's main office from a circular driveway. From his location he could effectively leaflet all parents and teachers entering the complex. (According to the police report, Joffee was not leafletting students, and thus the policy cited by Fuentes technically did not apply.)

Joffee wanted to make sure that they read a letter to the editor he had written, which had been published the day before in the River Cities Gazette, a local weekly. A scathing critique of Fuentes's performance, the letter identified the principal as "the chief impediment to reform." Joffee's handout included a copy of the letter, along with the telephone numbers of the school board office and the superintendent.

"Our school system no longer has any excuses," the 1000-word harangue stated. "Fuentes's incompetence now is underscored by abundant documentary evidence; and that evidence has been reviewed -- and, inexcusably, ignored -- by the officials who are responsible for monitoring and supervising the school."

Joffee specifically condemned Fuentes's response to allegations that a teacher had molested students in 1992. (According to court records, the teacher, Ronald Bach, pled guilty in April 1994 to two counts of lewd and lascivious behavior with a child.) Joffee claimed that documents filed in a pending civil lawsuit against the Dade County School Board and Fuentes allegedly show that the principal ignored signs that the teacher's behavior with female students was improper. "If you agree, share your opinion with the appropriate public officials," Joffee's handout exhorted. Fuentes says she cannot comment on any accusations made in the lawsuit prior to its resolution.

Elizabeth Ann Morgan maintains that his letter is political speech and thus is explicitly protected by the First Amendment. "There's no question," she says emphatically. "The Supreme Court has laid out precedent that shows that what Mr. Joffee did is every citizen's right. Leafletting is core political speech."

In the Supreme Court case to which Morgan refers, decided in April 1995, the justices upheld the right of an Ohio woman to distribute flyers opposing a proposed school tax to people attending a meeting at a middle school. "Handing out leaflets in advocacy of a politically controversial viewpoint is the essence of First Amendment expression," the opinion stated.

"Schools have the ability to reasonably regulate what occurs on their premises," Morgan adds, "but that is in order to protect health and safety, and those weren't issues that came into question at all in [Joffee's] situation."

A Miami Springs Middle School teacher who asked not to be identified reports that during election season, candidates for local government regularly hand out material to parents and teachers entering the school. "The school has allowed pamphleteering," Stearns declares. "This is the first time they decided to arrest someone. [Joffee's] crime was that he was being critical of the school administration."

"No one has an inherent right to distribute materials on school board properties," insists Henry Fraind, chief spokesman for Dade County Public Schools. "Our greater responsibility is to the students, and as long as the students are under our control, authority, and protection, there is no such thing as free distribution of materials." The same policy would apply to Joffee, a Bible salesman, or a pornographer, Fraind notes, adding that he is not aware of political candidates leafletting at the school. Principal Fuentes claims she knows of only one such incident and that she asked the candidate to stop.

The censorship powers of school officials have been challenged before in Dade and in other school districts around the nation. Commonly, the complaints concern material written by students -- a graduation speech, an article published in a student newspaper, or the appearance of an independent publication. Current school board policy explicitly grants Dade students the right to publish and distribute material that is not sponsored by the school as long as it does not disrupt school activities. Fuentes says her students are too young to conceive of publishing their own newspaper, but she would not allow it even if they did.

After spending nearly five hours in jail, Joffee was released on bond, and his case was subsequently scheduled for trial. But on the day the trial was to begin, Michael Band, chief assistant to Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, showed up in court and announced that the charges would be dropped.

Band, whose administrative responsibilities preclude him from trying many cases, much less misdemeanor trespassing cases, says he learned about Joffee's situation from one of the defendant's attorneys, and after mulling it over decided that Joffee had already been punished enough. "The most precious element a court has is its time," Band explains. "I think the officer had probable cause to make the arrest, but was it worth picking a jury? There was no real gain, considering Mr. Joffee's offense."

Fraind also continues to assert that the arrest was justified. "The principal has the authority to do whatever it takes to protect the safety and welfare of the students," he says.

"They still haven't gotten the point," Joffee retorts. "The main reason I was there was to try to show that parents could speak up and raise a little hell without their children suffering retribution, much less going to jail themselves.

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