Endangered Species

Didi Farmer wanted her high school yearbook to reflect real life.

Editor Farmer and her staff did not shy away from covering controversialissues like teen sex in their school yearbook. In fact, they created atwo-page spread about it in the student life section, including a pictureof a box of condoms and an unmade bed.

But Roane County High School principal Jody McLoud did not like theyearbook’s depiction of reality. He thought the book was too controversialand misled readers. The result: Celia Simon, former Roane yearbook adviserhas a new job.

The scenario at this central Tennessee school reflects what some believeis a trend throughout the country. Yearbook staffs are increasingly coveringcontroversial issues, and administrators are trying to find ways to stopthem.

As a result, yearbook advisers, perhaps even more so than their newspapercounterparts, are seeing their jobs threatened because of what administratorsand parents call “inappropriate” coverage in school yearbooks.

“Yearbooks are doing a much better job than they used to do of reportingthe total picture,” said Ann Visser, yearbook adviser at Pella CommunityHigh School in Iowa. “[Yearbooks are] permanent, more likely to be read20 years from now. The reaction is [parents and administrators] don’t wanttheir kids to look back and remember that 75 percent of the senior classdrank. I think definitely it’s because it is a more permanent publication.”

Advisers are left with a dilemma. Should they encourage their studentsto report what high school life is like and risk facing consequences fromadministrators? Or do they focus on news that will put the school in apositive light?

Janet Bell decided her class would cover both the good and the not sogood.

Bell, the yearbook adviser at Central Regional High School in BerkeleyTownship, N.J., and her students devoted two pages of the yearbook to studentswho had tattoos and body piercings. The spread contained seven photographsof students and their piercings and tattoos and a small story discussingbody art’s growing popularity. Those two pages never made it to the printer.School officials censored them, saying the photographs would make the schoollook bad. Bell’s contract as adviser also was not renewed.

“The right of free speech and free expression in public schools pursuantto the First Amendment are not the same as the rights of adults in publicsettings,” the school board said in a statement.

Some yearbook experts attribute the censorship to administrators’ fearthat the yearbook will go unchecked. Because the yearbook is more permanentthan a newspaper, high school officials may be overly cautious about whatgoes down as history for their schools, said Laura Widmer, a college yearbookand newspaper adviser and former president of College Media Advisers.

“I just think administrators see a difference with age,” Widmer said.”They maybe feel threatened by the maturity of a 14- to 18-year-old inwhat would be published in a book that administrators tend to see moreas a public relations tool rather than a journalistic publication. I thinkthat’s the big difference between high school and college. Freedom of expressionmany times frightens high school administrators, and they see the yearbookas permanent and as an image builder for their school so any negative press-anynegative image-they tend to want to censor.”

Most high school free-press advocates say the best yearbooks recordall the events of the past year-not just the good ones.

H.L. Hall, a retired high school yearbook adviser and current presidentof the Journalism Education Association, said yearbook students would notbe doing their jobs if they did not get their hands dirty by covering uncomfortabletopics.

“[The yearbook is] a history book, and you should report the history,”Hall said. “I think if books are really doing that, then they are gettinginvolved in more controversial and sensitive topics. … The best yearbooksout there are making the attempt to really report the year as it happened-tobe a history book.

“There are still a lot of administrators out there who want the yearbookto be a [public relations] tool and an outstanding yearbook is not strictlyP.R.,” Hall said.

Sometimes news content is not at the heart of the controversy. At SylvanHills High School in Little Rock, Ark., school administrators asked studentsto rip out a page of the yearbook that featured a full-page advertisementpurchased by students. The advertisement showed several male students holdinga Confederate flag emblazoned with the words “The South Will Rise Again.”

Although the books that had already been distributed were not recalled,those students who had not yet received a book got one with the page rippedout. The yearbook adviser received a letter of reprimand.

John Bowen, JEA Scholastic Press Rights chairman, said high school yearbookcensorship is nothing new and has its roots in the 1986 U.S. Supreme Courtdecision Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, in which the Court ruled that schooladministrators have the right to censor school-sponsored publications incertain circumstances.

“I’m not sure it’s anything new, it is just the continued idea thatadministrators feel they have to put a good public image up and feel theycan control their publications because they think Hazelwood saidthey could,” Bowen said.

School administrators withheld all the yearbooks this year at RanchoVerde High School in Rancho Verde, Calif., because the books containedwhat they believed to be offensive and potentially libelous language.

The major area of concern for administrators was a photo in an advertisementpage that a group of girls had bought earlier in the year. Under the photoof the group of friends was the word “slut.” One of the girls complainedto the principal when she first saw the yearbook.

Incoming editor Sutte Hem said the word was not directed at one girlindividually but was a nickname the girls in the picture called each other.

However, the yearbook staff reluctantly agreed to place stickers overthe words.

Another area the staff placed stickers over was a caption for a picturein the sports section. The caption read: “We’d kick @$$ … who knew.”

While Hem admitted the symbols were a way of getting around writingthe actual words, yearbook adviser Gary Hubbling said the administrationmade a big deal out of nothing.

Hem said the thought of censoring their own publication was hard todeal with, but once the staff realized they could not stop it, they decidedto help.

“We were like, ‘No, we don’t want to do it, that’s stupid-that is likea slap in the face for us,'” Hem said. “Then [administrators] came andtalked to us and we talked to other students. So we were like, ‘It’s ouryearbook, and yeah, we don’t like the fact that you are censoring it, butwe’d rather do it and know what we’re doing than have someone else do it.'”

Hubbling said he thought school officials were hasty in their judgmentto censor the annuals.

“I think our administration and district office handled this whole thingatrociously,” Hubbling said. “I think their reactions to the yearbook wereknee-jerk ones, having their roots in the district’s attempts to post theTen Commandments in all of our schools last winter.

“I hear that a review panel of administrators, parents, students andteachers will be formed to look at the yearbook before it goes to pressin the future,” Hubbling said. “I don’t think I can work under those restrictions.”

Review panels are just one of the ways school districts can influencewhat goes in a school-sponsored publication. Visser, a former JEA secretary,said she has seen administrators’ perceptions change with time and is uncertainwhat lies ahead for high school journalists.

“As an adviser of almost 20 years, I wonder what the future will hold,”Visser said. “I’d like to think that our readers are getting more sophisticatedand are more accepting of the truth, but I wonder if we’re not going inthe opposite direction. That scares me sometimes because I think when wequit telling the entire story then we become public relations pieces ratherthan journalistic pieces.”

Many high school press experts say the key to changing the future isthrough education. Hall said yearbook staffs and advisers have a duty totalk with their administrators and explain the importance of a free highschool press.

“[The yearbook] is a history book for the school,” Hall said. “That’sthe purpose of a yearbook to begin with. [If you] record history and youleave some history out then you’re not really being honest with your readers-that’saccuracy. You leave out facts, and you’re not being accurate with yourreaders.”

One former high school yearbook adviser said she taught her studentsto cover the history of the school year. But Judy Babb got so fed up withadministrators’ concerns about the yearbook being too negative that sheleft high school and became a college yearbook adviser.

Babb, who was a high school adviser for 26 years, said high school administratorsand the high school media should work together and establish a relationshipwhere they can work together instead of against each other.

“I think in many ways we went through a period where we were much morefree and were able to cover a lot of things that were important to thestudents,” Babb said. “But I think we’ve taken a step backwards. It isnot unusual for a lot of [high school] administrators to feel that thestudent media are adversaries rather than somebody they can work with andthey treat them that way. I think it’s a lot more likely, especially onthe yearbook side, that they are going to say that they want yearbooksthat were like those in the 1950s.”