Cruel & unusual punishments

Pop quiz: You’re a high school administrator or faculty member. You feel targeted by critical writers at your student newspaper.

Do you: a) collect nearly a hundred leftover copies of the paper to try to quiet your critics; b) tell the writer if he publishes a controversial story he will be punished ‘ when he posts it on a non-school sponsored Web site punish him anyway; or c) have the writer tackled by members of the football team?

Actually, they’re all right answers, at least if you ask school officials involved in three recent censorship cases.


Writer gets sacked

The public humiliation Jeremy Brinkerhoff suffered over a column he wrote for his student newspaper will not lead to public reparation, according to school officials in Utah.

Members of the football team who misinterpreted Brinkerhoff’s satirical jabs tackled the unsuspecting writer to the gym floor at a October school-wide pep assembly at Bear River High School in Tremonton.

Matthew Hyde, an assistant football coach, orchestrated the skit but said he had not intended for the football players to be as rough as they were. According to Brinkerhoff, Hyde handed him a football and told him to run through two football players who were acting as the defense.

Brinkerhoff came away with a bruised wrist and a scraped arm.

Hyde has said the skit, which took place in front of 1,000 students, along with teachers, coaches and Principal Dale Thomas, was meant to be a humorous way to diffuse tension.

Brinkerhoff’s column, published in The Searchlight student newspaper, condemned stereotypes and cliques that exist at school. The opening line quipped, ‘what is the difference between the football team and the band? Nothing, they both play bad.’ Brinkerhoff, who is a member of the marching band, insists he was being sarcastic, but the line was interpreted by many as an insult to the football team.

Since the pep rally, Brinkerhoff has said publicly in several newspapers he would like Thomas to address the student body about what occurred at the pep rally.

‘Students [told me] ‘you take what you get.’ The administration ought to do something to teach students it is unacceptable behavior. The principal is condoning a criminal act on campus,’ he said.

Administrators have said that, while they think the tackle was inappropriate, to address the issue with students might have a negative effect.

‘We are worried about the impact on students,’ said Superintendent Martell Menlove. He would not elaborate further.

The newspaper’s adviser, Heidi Jensen, refused a second Brinkerhoff column meant to clarify his first one because she said it sent the wrong message. Brinkerhoff submitted a shortened, less critical explanation as part of a column about respect, which was published.

Jensen, a second-year adviser, has since rewritten the editorial policy for The Searchlight to specify that articles must be turned in to her a week before production and should not touch on controversial topics.

‘[We] report news to students, promote stuff going on at school. We already have gangs and drugs at school, why promote more bad news?’ Jensen said.

Hyde wrote a letter of apology to Brinkerhoff for orchestrating the skit. He later offered his resignation to Thomas, but the principal turned it down.

Brinkerhoff’s father Kerry said Jeremy has decided not to continue writing for The Searchlight. He has made no plans to press charges against the school.


Principal pounces on ‘ambush interview’

Brian Leon, editor of the Leto High School student newspaper in Tampa, Florida, turned to the Internet when the school principal threatened to censor a story he was working on.

The story got out, but Leon lost his job.

Leto Principal Daniel Bonilla told Leon that a story he wrote about a teacher’s arrest record could not be printed in the Sept. 12 issue of the student paper, The Legend. Instead, Leon posted the story on his personal Web site and ran a front-page ad in the paper directing readers to the site. Leon used $14.53 he was owed for supplies for the paper to pay for the ad.

Bonilla responded by suspending him indefinitely from his duties as editor for what he called ‘poor judgment,’ Leon said. Mark Hart, spokesman for the School District of Hillsborough County, said the suspension was not in response to the story but rather for the ad and how Leon chose to pay for it.

The ad consisted of a box that read ‘censored due to unenlightened educators,’ and provided the address for the Web site, The Voice, a forum Leon created for Leto High School-related stories and opinions that are ‘free from censorship.’

The article was based on an interview with an unnamed special education teacher who was arrested in 1999 for battery and domestic assault. In it, Leon raised concerns about whether the school board should notify students about teachers’ criminal records. Leon provided links to the Hillsborough County sheriff’s office and clerk’s office, where arrest inquiries are handled and open records are filed.

After being interviewed by Leon, the teacher went to Bonilla to complain that Leon had led him to believe the interview would be for a profile. Bonilla called Leon into his office the next day.

‘He made it known that I should not try to publish the story in the paper,’ said Leon. ‘He thought it was bad press for [the school].’

Hart said in the school district’s estimation, the interview was unethical.

‘While we recognize the ‘ambush interview’ style is a part of modern journalism, it is inconsistent with the journalism curriculum that Leto High School wants to teach,’ he said.

Leon said that Bonilla told him that once they and adviser Concepcion Ledezma agreed on new editorial guidelines for The Legend, he could be reinstated as editor.

However, as of press time, Leon still did not have his job back. He also said Bonilla had substantially altered the guidelines the three had agreed on before he submitted them to the school board. Leon said Bonilla’s revisions allow him to view content before printing and restrict students from publishing material in the student newspaper on the Internet.

Leon said proper guidelines are ultimately more important to him than having the editor position back.

‘They’re going to use these guidelines as a basis for years to come, and I want student journalists who come behind me to be able to fight censorship,’ said Leon.


Administrators confiscate criticism

Student journalists at Chamblee Charter High School in Georgia this fall learned just how far new Superintendent Johnny Brown would go to quiet his critics.

Dekalb County School System administrators confiscated leftover copies of the first issue of the Blue and Gold, which included articles critical of Brown. Students and parents called the removal of the papers an overreaction, leading The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to publish an editorial criticizing the school’s actions.

A Blue and Gold news story examined Brown’s budget troubles as superintendent in Birmingham, Ala. An accompanying editorial questioned his proposals for a district-wide dress code and a high school reading program.

The 87 copies that administrators confiscated two days after the paper was distributed to students and staff were destined for other schools in the district and local businesses who had bought ads. They were later returned.

Administrators criticized Blue and Gold writers Alan Simpson and J.C. Boyle for what they called sloppy reporting and misrepresentation of facts.

‘It’s not about the stories about him, it’s about being fair and accurate and responsible,’ said Sterling Thomas, Brown’s executive assistant, in a Sept. 24 article in the Journal-Constitution.

Simpson’s story suggested Brown might have a difficult year in the school system ‘if people doubt his leadership.’ Boyle’s editorial said Brown circled the school’s running track on a motorcycle at the faculty rally, something that did not actually happen. He also said Brown had done nothing to improve the quality of education in DeKalb schools. ‘So far,’ he said, ‘his actions have simply been an exercise in ego.’

Both Thomas and school system press officer Spencer Ragsdale said Brown was not contacted by the paper for an interview.

Thomas had initially referred to the removal as an act of the superintendent’s office in the Journal-Constitution’s coverage of the incident on Sept. 24.

In a Sept. 26 story in the Journal-Constitution, however, Brown denied ordering that the papers be taken up.

‘I frankly was surprised that particular action had taken place,’ Brown said.

Ragsdale said the decision was that of Chamblee Principal Cheryl Finke. Boyle said it was hard for students to believe that 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.

Bonnie Boyle, J.C.’s mother, expressed a concern over the implications of the administrators’ harsh reaction to student journalists’ mistakes.

‘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.’

Finke has assured Blue and Gold staff members that they will not be subject to approval prior to publishing the paper in the future.

The paper’s second issue included a front-page correction of errors from Simpson and Boyle’s articles. Boyle said the Blue and Gold has no plans to change its coverage to avoid further controversy.