School newspapers taken after stories criticized superintendent

GEORGIA — The new DeKalb County School System Superintendent might have attempted to hush criticism by confiscating additional copies of a high school newspaper that included disparaging remarks on his record.

What Superintendent Johnny Brown’s actions did instead was spark an uproar among some students, parents and teachers at Chamblee Charter High School and debate in the editorial pages of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The furor followed articles written in the Blue and Gold student newspaper by Alan Simpson and J.C. Boyle, who raised questions about Brown’s district policy changes, including a new dress code and a reading program. In the news article written by Simpson and the editorial by Boyle, Brown’s record as the previous superintendent in the Birmingham, Ala., school system also was put under a microscope. The student journalists reported on what they described as Brown’s self-appointed pay raise and a subsequent teacher walkout.

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

Brown’s executive assistant, Sterling Thomas, referred to the removal as an act of the superintendent’s office in the Journal-Constitution‘s initial coverage of the incident Sept. 24.

“We didn’t confiscate papers. We took up papers that hadn’t been distributed yet. There’s a big difference,” Thomas said.

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-Constitution. Boyle said it was hard for students to believe that Chamblee Principal Cheryl Finke would have ordered the papers confiscated.

“We showed the paper to her when it was first printed, and she thought it was good,” said Boyle. “When we asked her to return the copies that were taken, she said she would have to ask for permission.” 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 prior to the newspaper’s publication.

“School newspapers produced as part of a ‘for credit’ class must be quality instructional tools,” he said, “and that means we should be teaching all aspects of journalism.”

Adviser Diane Shearer, who started the award-winning journalism class five years ago, said she is unsure why the papers were removed two days after most of them had already been distributed. “It makes no sense,” she said.

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

Bonnie Boyle, J.C.’s mother, said, as of this point, the students have yet to be informed of what was specifically wrong in the articles. “There’s a long tradition of asking for a correction or retraction when a newspaper gets something wrong. There shouldn’t be an exception for a student paper,” she said

According to the Journal, administrators have assured student journalists that they will not be subject to approval prior to publishing the paper in the future. Bonnie Boyle said she fears what the long-term fallout may be for student journalists in the DeKalb County School System.

“I’m afraid students will be afraid to write articles that are critical of the administration,” she said. “I’m afraid that it will be insidious, and that it will result in self-censorship on the part of the students.”

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

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