Fight story pulled due to privacy laws

MINNESOTA — After The Pony Express at Stillwater High School published an article in December about an off-campus fight between students, administrators stepped in and confiscated all copies of the paper, citing the state’s Data Privacy Act.Andrew Wallmeyer, editor in chief of the paper, says the Data Privacy Act only applies to school officials, prohibiting them from releasing the educational records of students.All information for the story, written by Sarah Nelson, was gleaned from police reports and interviews with the victim and witnesses of the fight. According to Wallmeyer, none of the information in the story came from school officials.Wallmeyer decided not to print the names of the students involved, and met with the victim and the victim’s father before running the story.Still, the administration, claiming it feared an invasion of privacy lawsuit, removed all copies of the paper from teacher’s mailboxes and from The Pony Express office.Wallmeyer and his staff immediately wrote to the district’s school board demanding return of the issue and threatening to release statements to the local news media.”The administration had been pretty hands-off before this,” Wallmeyer said. “This sort of thing hadn’t been a common practice for dealing with sensitive stories in the past. If they had contacted us sooner, we could have worked this out, we could have explained to them why we were right on this.”When it became clear that the issue would not be resolved before the winter break, Wallmeyer faxed copies of the story to local newspapers. The St.Paul Pioneer Press ran the article in its entirety, effectively ending the controversy, and The Pony Express was distributed intact after the break.Principal Chuck Briscoe told the Associated Press that once the story had been printed elsewhere, “it didn’t make any sense in our little corner of the world to hold up those papers.”Briscoe said that he is still interested in finding out, for future reference, if the school was correct in holding the papers to protect the students’ privacy.”The administrators came out of this with a significant amount of egg on their faces,” Wallmeyer said. “We stuck to our guns on it. As for the future, well, we’re not shying away from controversial issues, that’s for sure.”Because of the delay in distribution of the paper, the district had to refund $65 to one advertiser whose ad was time-sensitive. The school is currently revising its policies for dealing with future sensitive stories in the paper.”We’re hoping to get these policies, as well as our own in-house policies, in writing for when these kinds of stories come up,” Wallmeyer said.