What do you get when your students win one hundred and seventy-five journalism awards in the span of a school year? If you’re teaching at Prosper High School, you get fired.
No one’s saying. But journalism teacher Lori Oglesbee has her suspicions.
“I had only been there for two years, so they could just say they didn’t want me back,” Oglesbee said. “Principal Burdett was only in my room one time, and that was with no students present. He never even saw me interact with them.”
Oglesbee preached the importance of the truth to her journalism congregation. No altering or filtering or twisting of facts. No fake news.
So, when principal John Burdett allegedly did, Eagle Nation Online, the school’s newspaper, witnessed firsthand the administration stifling the truth Oglesbee held in such high regard.
The controversy started with a story about the cancellation of an annual event — movie day. Each October, the grade raising the most money for breast cancer awareness is awarded a day at the movies. Last October, the seniors raised $4,000. They won, but they weren’t awarded.
So, they went to Burdett, who had been hired the previous March.
“What’s the deal with the movie tickets?” they wanted to know.
He said the former administration had failed to inform about him about the event.
“We sat down with Burdett and he said he’d found out that the central office had told the former administration that they couldn’t have a movie day anymore,” Oglesbee said. “Apparently, the former administration hadn’t passed that along to any of the assistants or him.”
So, Eagle Nation posted a story. Members of the past administration were quick to complain — Burdett’s story wasn’t true.
“And they were none too happy about it,” Oglesbee said.
Squeezed by conflicting information, the principal ordered Oglesbee to remove the story, and assigned an assistant principal to hover over her to make sure she did.
She’d been censored for the first time in her 35 years of teaching journalism and advising student publications — and she’d taught in Arkansas and Louisiana, not exactly hotbeds of intellectual progressivism.
To top it off, she’d been forbidden to talk to the media or anyone else about it.
From that point on, Oglesbee said, the relationship spiraled downwards. When the staff wrote an editorial about the sudden and unexplained banning of John Knowles’ classic coming-of-age novel, “A Separate Peace,” Burdett censored it. Again, no explanation, and no comment.
“At that point, I knew I wouldn’t get my contract renewed,” Oglesbee said.
“It’s not the end of the world,” she told herself. Fifty-five years old, her retirement is guaranteed. She had plenty of money. She knew she’d be OK.
But she wanted to make certain her students would be, too.
“I thought what the kids were learning and their rights were more important than keeping the teaching job,” Oglesbee said. “Information is more important than misinformation, and when you continue to pile on lies and cover-ups you get confused as to which one’s right.”
She offered as much help as she could since she needed to remain somewhat invisible. She refused interviews from local television stations and newspapers. She didn’t want to do anything to switch the conversation from state curriculum requirements to personnel matters.
Despite the toxic atmosphere and Burdett’s heavy-handed censorship, Oglesbee’s journalism students racked up 175 medals in various writing and publications competitions.
On March 22, Eagle Nation Online won the UIL district championship. On March 23, an assistant principal called Oglesbee into her office. She went in, and Burdett poked his head into the door. She thought it might have something to do with the awards. After all, her students were the primary force behind the school’s district UIL academic championship.
“We’d won 175 awards and I hadn’t gotten anything, we had won the district championship the night before,” Oglesbee said. “I was like, ‘Wow, is he going to congratulate me?’”
No. He wasn’t.
“Have a seat, Mrs. Oglesbee,” he told her. “This won’t take but a minute.”
She sat down, and he as well. “I won’t be sending your name in for UIL contract renewal. It’s for the best interest of the proper Dallas Independent School District. That’s all I have to say about it, and you can leave now,” Burdett said. “OK,” Leslie said. No more than OK.
“I knew it couldn’t be about me,” Oglesbee said. It had to be about the kids and the program’s future.”
Oglesbee told her students, much to their grief, but she insisted they focus on the future of the program. Questions arose about this future. Asked if he could guarantee the online newspaper course being offered in the fall of 2018, Burdett replied, “If enough kids sign up.”
More than enough did.
In the meantime, stories about Oglesbee’s release were published in the Texas Tribune, Texas Monitors, the Dallas Observer, WFAA and other Metroplex media outlets. She didn’t comment, but her students were more than willing to appear on programs like the Dallas Morning News to speak about the situation.
“The kids made it all about the program. They looked amazing, and they were so well spoken,” Oglesbee said. “I’d watch the interviews, and it would be as if I’m a ventriloquist controlling their comments. And when it wasn’t like that, their answers were even better.”
Asked what she learned from all of this, Oglesbee said, “You teach them, and you get out of the way, because you learn how to pick yourself up. Every kid on that staff now knows how to overcome adversity, and how to pick themselves up.”