Principal censors school violence story

ILLINOIS — The Devils’ Advocate had been quietly turning out stories\nabout teenage concerns like binge drinking and homosexuality,\na measure of a committed staff and an experienced adviser.

But it was not until the principal at Hinsdale Central High\nSchool decided to nix an issue of the paper that they received\nnational attention and thousands of readers-one fortunate outcome\nof the paper’s first incident of censorship in more than 30 years\nas a highly respected school newspaper.

Nearing the second anniversary of the shooting at Columbine\nHigh School in Littleton, Colo., the Advocate staff compiled student,\nstaff and community feelings about school violence. Editors planned\nto distribute the paper, including the violence spread, on the\nanniversary of the shooting because it would likely be a topic\nfor discussion.

Before the distribution, a school custodian took a copy from\nthe press run and gave it to school officials. Principal James\nFerguson immediately seized the papers, calling the spread an\nexample of "yellow journalism."

"I thought that the content was inflammatory and would\nhave an adverse affect on the student body," Ferguson said.\n"To me, its whole purpose was to inflame students."

That is not what longtime adviser Linda Kennedy thought of\nher students’ work. She said the story and its presentation were\nwell produced to inform students.

"I don’t think they were inappropriate," Kennedy\nsaid. "They worked very hard on what they did and they had\na real serious reason for wanting to cover it."

The main story contained more than a dozen student, parent\nand faculty reflections on school shootings and the potential\nfor violence at Hinsdale. Ironically, the most potentially disturbing\nquotes were from Ferguson himself, saying he could not do much\nto stop a deranged student.

"If someone wanted to start shooting here, a metal detector\nwouldn’t make them think twice," Ferguson told the Devils’\nAdvocate. "They’d barge right through it blazing. In 10 minutes,\nit’d be over."

Ferguson objected to the publication of that quote in the story.\nAlthough he admitted saying it, he insisted it was not reflective\nof what he said throughout the interview. He was also quoted as\nsaying, "There’s nothing to stop someone-student, teacher\nor anyone-from bringing a gun to school and using it."

Editors refused to change the story, opting instead to publish\nthe story on the Internet, despite threats by Ferguson that there\nwould be "consequences" if the issue were reproduced.\nAfter the incident received significant media attention, a local\nweekly paper, The Doings, volunteered to print the students’ story\nin its regular edition.

"A lot of people were very surprised that the kids had\ndone such a good job reporting the issue," said Jim Slonoff,\npublisher of The Doings. "It shocked most of them that the\nprincipal had such a problem with it."

Advocate editor Patrick Ashby said although the article’s purpose\nwas not to pick a fight with administrators, he was pleased by\nthe extra media attention because it got the paper’s message to\na wider audience.

"Instead of 2,000 people reading about it and forgetting\nabout it a day later, a lot more people read it, and it turned\ninto a much bigger issue," Ashby said.

For the story’s lead reporter, Annie Gilsdorf, the aim of the\narticle was to open a dialogue about violence and its causes.\nShe said educating students about the issue is a much better way\nto stop violence than the alternative of denying kids the information\nas Ferguson did.

"If we’ve learned anything from the past several years,\nit’s that any school has the possibility of having a tragedy like\nColumbine occurring in it," Gilsdorf said. "The best\nway we could help improve the school environment was by educating\nstudents."

Gilsdorf, who will succeed Ashby as editor in chief in the\nfall, said the experience has not shaken her confidence in journalism.\nShe pledged to continue writing about issues that are important\nto students, which she said is the paper’s mission.

The reaction from Ferguson may be different, though, as he\nsaid he may insist on reviewing the paper prior to publication\nin the future.

"I am absolutely comfortable doing that prior review if\nI think I needed to," he said.

Kennedy said the paper will continue as before and hopes that\nthe censorship was just a one-time occurrence. Before this year,\nshe said, the paper had never been censored since she started\nat the school in 1968.

"I’ve been there a long time, and we never had anything\nlike this," she said.