NJ School Airbrushed Trump, Feminism — and Wheelchair — From Yearbook, Lawsuits Says
WALL — A former high school yearbook advisor said she was made to take the fall after references to President Donald Trump were removed from students' photos and pages in the yearbook, sparking public backlash in 2017.
A Superior Court lawsuit filed by Susan Parsons, who says that the district violated her First Amendment rights by preventing her from defending herself pubicly, said the school also made other questionable edits to the yearbooks during her six years as advisor.
In 2015, a student's wheelchair was edited out in what Parsons said administrators thought would be a "nice" gesture. In another case, a blue bow worn by a boy was airbrushed out of his hair, she said. She said she was told to edit out a feminist sticker on a student's laptop that read “feminism is the radical notion that women are people."
In her complaint, Parsons said that each page of the yearbook was required to be reviewed and approved by the school. Principal Rosaleen Sirchio delegated much of her yearbook duties to her secretary, Cindy McChesney, along with assistant principals Kevin Davis and Kirsten Scott, the lawsuit says.
In 2017, Grant Berardo, then a junior, said that the "Trump: Make America Great Again" slogan on the T-shirt he wore in his yearbook photo was edited out. The initial release of the yearbook showed him wearing a blank dark T-shirt instead.
Parsons said that its was McChesney who told her that Berardo's T-shirt "has to go."
Then-freshman class president Montana Fago said her quote from the president was edited out while a "Trump" logo was removed from her brother Wyatt's shirt.
Schools superintendent Cheryl Dyer at the time said there was no policy prohibiting students from displaying a political view or supporting a candidate.
Dyer decided to re-issue the yearbook with the Trump T-shirts and quotes intact. Berardo's father was one of several people who picked up the cost of the re-issue. Other donors remained anonymous.
Parsons says in the lawsuit that as the case drew narional media attention, the district administration laid blame on her for "distorting" the editing process of the yearbook. Parsons said that after she spoke to the New York Post, officials reminded her of policy prohibiting her from speaking to the media without permission. Parsons said the policy was a violation of her First Amendment rights.
As a result, Parsons said she could not defend herself and received hate mail and threatening messages from people who thought she made the edits. Her business, the Shore2Shore swimming school, also received many 1-star ratings and negative reviews.
Parson said she voted for Trump in the 2016 presidential election. Trump carried Monmouth County over Hillary Clinton with 63% of the vote.
Parsons was suspended with pay during the controversy.
According to the lawsuit, Parsons kept her job but a scheduled pay increase for the 2017-18 school year was withheld and a letter of reprimand was placed in her file. She still works in the district.
Parsons's lawsuit wants the district to allow her to speak with the media and seeks an unspecified amount in compensation for damages to her reputation and career development as well as attorney's fees.