Thursday, August 17, 2006

Baxter School tries to ban Phoenix freelancer

Published in the Portland Phoenix

In response to our continued efforts to investigate conditions for students at the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf on Mackworth Island, the school has attempted to ban Portland Phoenix freelancer Rick Wormwood from the island, which is state-owned property, and part of which is a state park.

Wormwood has reported for the Phoenix about the school’s history of abuse (see “Why I Hate Mackworth Island”), and has continued to seek access to public records held by the school. He has previously been refused access to school grounds over the school’s objections to his reporting (see letter, “Past is Passed,” by Superintendent Larry Taub, June 18, 2004), and school officials have, as recently as last month, objected to Wormwood’s assignment to cover the school for the Phoenix.

An e-mail message, sent by Baxter Director of Business Operations Peter Gray to Wormwood on July 25, says, “you are no longer allowed access to Mackworth Island,” and says Gray made the decision “based on a long-standing history of confrontational outburts on the island,” alleging that one took place during Wormwood’s July 21 visit to hand-deliver a Freedom of Access request to the guardhouse on the island. The e-mail offers no specifics of the history.

In a surveillance-camera video recording of Wormwood’s July 21 visit to the island, shown to the Phoenix by Gray on July 24, Wormwood can be seen having a several-minute-long conversation with the guard. But the video, which has no accompanying audio, does not show Wormwood acting violent, threatening, or physically confrontational.

Wormwood replied to Gray’s e-mail in a letter seeking the formal legal grounds for the ban, in reply to which Gray wrote on July 27 that the school is seeking a restraining order.

Officials at the school, including Gray, Superintendent Larry Taub, and Director of Communications Jim Gemmell, did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.

Assistant Attorney General Sarah Forster, who represents the Baxter School, says state law gives the school and the Department of Conservation joint jurisdiction over access to the island — which she describes as an “unusual” use of state land — possibly without a restraining order, though she says, “someone who was unhappy with that could sue them.”