Some members of the John Carroll School community are upset over the mid-year removal, for reasons that haven’t been disclosed, of the moderator of The Patriot, the school’s award-winning student newspaper.
Mark Ionescu, the faculty member formerly in charge of the school newspaper, was given the option to continue teaching at the private Catholic school in Bel Air after he was removed from the advisory position for reasons that school officials will only say are not related to the newspaper’s content. School officials say it was a “personnel issue.”
Ionescu said in an email Monday he is still teaching at John Carroll, but could not discuss the situation further. He is a 1995 John Carroll graduate, according to The Patriot’s website.
“It’s a human resources decision that I’m really not at liberty to discuss,” John Carroll President Stephen Di’Biagio said Monday afternoon. “Out of respect for the people involved, we don’t discuss internal personnel issues.”
In a letter to John Carroll parents and guardians, Principal Tom Durkin announced that Ionescu would not be moderator of the newspaper beginning with the second semester of this school year.
“The decision to make a change in the moderator position was not about journalism, free speech, or the content of the newspaper. It is a personnel issue, which we are not at liberty to discuss, legally or ethically,” Durkin wrote. “This was a decision that required significant discernment and research, and I am going to ask that you trust us that the decision was made with the students' best interest as the singular driving focus.”
The new moderator is Allison Hall, a 1989 John Carroll graduate, who was an editor of The Patriot when she was a student, according to Durkin’s letter. A newspaper moderator at another high school, Hall has taught journalism, creative writing and yearbook. She was also the managing editor for her college newspaper.
“We have no doubt that the journalism course and The Patriot will continue to thrive under Ms. Hall’s tutelage,” Durkin wrote.
An adviser, or moderator as the position is called at John Carroll, is someone who teaches students the skill sets they need to produce a publication, according to Laura Widmer, executive director of the National Scholastic Press Association. They challenge reporters on stories and teach about media law, she said.
“In public school, the adviser teaches and advises on that print product. It’s not the adviser’s job to make sure it is all happy news for the school district. It’s to seek the truth and tell it,” Widmer said.
Many public high schools no longer have advisers or moderators, Widmer said.
“You’re just not ensuring the students of their First Amendment rights, their freedom of the press rights. So that’s not a perfect situation that an adviser really wants to work in,” Widmer said. “A journalist wants to have First Amendment rights given to us and an adviser wants to train those students in right from wrong and trust them to do their job well, and accurately.”
It’s a different story in private schools, she said.
“In private schools, the school can dictate the rules with what they want, things you agree with to attend that school,” Widmer said. “There’s just different rules if it’s public schools, which are funded by the taxpayers or if you go to private school where you’re funded by those who attend that school.”
It is not up to the moderator to seek prior review, when a story would be read by a school’s administration before it goes to publication, Widmer said.
“That’s not how we do journalism in the United States. We believe students have the approval and rights to make those decisions,” she said. “It’s OK if a student asks the teacher to read a story for print, but it’s not the adviser’s decision whether to approve it for print or not.”
In today’s society, she said, “with everything going on with fake news … it is even more important that students understand that their sources have to be solid and rarely should anything be off the record.”
The Patriot hasn’t shied from provocative topics. In late 2017, it addressed sexual harassment and abuse, using an anonymous student survey, and had reported on artwork depicting gay love.
Ionescu’s removal from the newspaper position isn’t sitting well with some former students.
Caroline Cooney, a 2017 John Carroll graduate, who studied at Harford Community College, posted a letter titled “Mark Ionescu removed from moderator of The Patriot after 17 years” on her Facebook page and wrote: “The time to act is now, spread this as much as you can, to every social media platform.”
Also a former editor-in-chief of The Patriot, Cooney said on Tuesday there has long been strain between The Patriot and the school’s administration.
“There has always just been tension between the administration and The Patriot because The Patriot has always written what we thought was the right thing to write about,” Cooney said.
When she was on the staff, the newspaper did not shy away from controversial subjects and articles that could make the school look bad, or bring it negative publicity, she said.
Martha Schick, former editor of The Patriot, who graduated from John Carroll in 2013 and Emerson College in December 2016, said Ionescu had a tremendous impact on her as a student.
During college she got a part-time job at the Boston Globe, upon the recommendation of an editor who gave her an editing test her first week of college.
That allowed her to be hired as an assistant news editor, a position seldom given to new students.
“That’s because I was being taught journalism at a college level from the time I was 15,” Schick, who was hired as a part-time Globe reporter and web producer, and freelancer. “That can be directly traced back to the fact that Mark taught me how to be a journalist as a teenager.”
She’s a 22-year-old graduate with a job in print journalism at a time it’s really difficult, she said.
“Without hesitation, I can say it was because I was in Mark Ionescu’s class and I worked for The Patriot.
Outside of her family, no one has had as much of an influence on her as Ionescu, Schick said.
“It would be a shame and disservice to future students at John Carroll if they’re not afforded the same opportunity I was to have him as a teacher,” she said.
Last spring under Ionescu, The Patriot won the Online Pacemaker Award from the National Scholastic Press Association.
"This award is the highest, and most competitive, award that a newspaper can win — it's the newspaper equivalent of winning the national championships," Ionescu was quoted at the time on the school’s website.
"When you get something that reflects on everyone, every picture that they took, every story that they wrote, and all that factors into it, it's really special. It’s thrilling to see them get recognized for all their hard work by a group as exclusive as the NSPA," he said.