Confiscated of Georgia high school paper leads to very public debate

The new DeKalb County School System Superintendent might haveattempted to hush criticism by ordering the confiscation of additional copies ofa high school newspaper that included disparaging remarks on his record.

What Superintendent Johnny Brown’s alleged actions did instead wasspark an uproar among some students, parents and teachers at Chamblee CharterHigh School and debate in the editorial pages of the AtlantaJournal-Constitution.

The furor followed articles written inthe Blue and Gold student newspaper by students Alan Simpsonand J.C. Boyle, who raised questions about Brown’s districtpolicy changes, including a new dress code and a reading program.Brown’s record as the previous superintendent in the Birmingham, Ala.,school system — which the students said included Brown’sself-appointed pay raise and a subsequent teacher walkout — was also putunder a microscope.

The Blue and Gold was distributed to studentsand teachers at Chamblee Sept. 18. The remaining 87 copies, which weremeant to be distributed to other area schools and to advertisers, were removedSept. 20.

Brown’s executive assistant, Sterling Thomas, referredto the removal as an act of the superintendent’s office in theJournal-Constitution’s initial coverage of the incidentSept. 24.

“We didn’t confiscate papers. We took up papers thathadn’t been distributed yet. There’s a big difference,” Thomassaid.

Since then Brown has denied ordering that the papers be taken up.“I frankly was surprised that particular action had taken place,”Brown said in a Sept. 26 story in the Journal. Boyle said it was hard forstudents to believe that Chamblee Principal Cheryl Finke would have ordered thepapers confiscated.

“We showed the paper to her when it was firstprinted, and she thought it was good,” said Boyle. “When we askedher to return the copies that were taken, she said she would have to ask forpermission.”

Finke has declined comment.

In a Sept. 25“equal time” column in the Journal-Constitution,Brown said that factual errors in the paper should have been corrected priorto the newspaper’s publication.

Spencer Ragsdale, DeKalb CountySchool System’s press officer, said that the newspapers were removed“because they were wrong.” District spokespeople noted that Brownwas never contacted for an interview.

According to J.C. Boyle, therehave been some lessons learned from the experience.

“[I’velearned] the importance of checking sources, and to get more interviews,”he said. As for Brown, Boyle said, “maybe he’s learned to be calminstead of jumping to rash decisions that hurt people’srights.”