Many of the 260 students at Queen Anne School have dressed in black mourning clothes for two weeks, staged walkouts between classes and posted protests on bulletin boards at the Episcopal preparatory school in southern Prince George's County.
Parents and faculty members also are stirred up and split into camps over the dismissal two weeks ago of journalism teacher Robert Weller by Headmaster Thomas Southard.
Weller, a popular teacher with nine years at Queen Anne, was fired after a complicated dispute over control of student publications. The dismissal has inspired a controversy that has taken on a life of its own, with one parent complaining that, as a result, students have lost weight, suffered headaches and performed poorly in class.
"It's still tense," said Deepti Kharod, 17, a senior at the school and editor of the student magazine, The Spectrum. She said students are afraid that Weller's dismissal will drive other teachers from the school. "I doubt this is going to die down."
Weller's firing was the culmination of disagreements he had with Southard, many of them over how much freedom student journalists should be allowed at the secondary school. Weller's supporters say he was dismissed because he refused to control what material appeared in the magazine put out by his journalism class and instead argued that responsibility should remain with the students.
The Queen Anne School administration and faculty have been grappling with the question of control of student publications since last spring, when the school's 1984 yearbook carried several sexual innuendos, to the dismay of many in the school establishment. Much of the tension between Southard and Weller rose out of attempts to establish publication guidelines.
But the clash between the two men also included differences over whether some of the guidelines were released to students, Southard said. There were also differences over some controversial material planned, but later pulled, by students in two issues of the school magazine, according to several sources who asked not to be named.
At special meeting with parents this week, Southard praised Weller's contributions to the school, but said his decision to fire him was based on disagreements, among them Weller's refusal to "be responsible . . . for keeping students from publishing something that might cause damage, legal or otherwise."
Southard said, "The situation did not occur because of student rights or freedom of expression," but because "it became apparent it was Bob Weller telling me what to do."
Weller declined to comment because, he said, Southard asked him to remain silent on the matter. His supporters, however, believe the teacher has been wronged. In a letter distributed at the parents' meeting, one parent, Theodore R. Dudley, described Weller as "certainly one of the finest, dynamic, brilliant, thoughtful and productive educators" in the school's 20-year history. Others have cited several awards won by publications produced under Weller's direction.
Kharod described the situation as a "clash of philosophies."
"Mr. Southard looks at it from the standpoint that he has responsibility for the school," said Kharod. Weller feels students "can hold their own for responsibility for their actions."
The controversy at the school is "unfortunately typical," said J. Marc Abrams, director of the Student Press Law Center, a national organization based in Washington that advocates First Amendment protection for student journalists.
Abrams, who has written to Southard in behalf of Weller, said the 400 inquiries on censorship he receives each year from student publications represent only a fraction of the actual number of conflicts. "Many administrators, public and private, are more concerned with control than with helping students mature and make choices," he said.
Southard has been backed in his dismissal of Weller by a number of parents and the school's board of overseers, an arm of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, with which the school is affiliated. But there has also been an outpouring of support for the teacher.
Other parents criticized the school for not affording Weller "due process" or not taking a lesser action.
As the school attempts to calm its current unrest, the issue of whether student journalists should be given a free hand remains unresolved. At Queen Anne and other private schools, students do not enjoy the same First Amendment rights as public school students, according to Abrams.
"If this were a public school, what they are doing would be clear-cut illegal," he said, referring to efforts to keep controversial material out of student publications. The First Amendment has been interpreted as prohibiting censorship by government-run schools, except under certain conditions, but does not cover private schools, he said.
Senior Michael Cardaci, who works on the school's literary magazine and yearbook, said he believes student journalists need some control. "Students as a whole are generally responsible," he said. "But a given student a given year . . . can really ruin a school's reputation."
Cardaci, 17, said he believes the school has hit "rock bottom" but will pull through its turmoil soon. "We've got to put it back together again. We've already had our revolution."