Sacking news coverage

In 1974, veteran journalist Jack Nelson authored Captive Voices, a book produced by the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial about the state of high school journalism. The report argued that censorship was the ‘fundamental cause of the trivial and seemingly uniform nature of high school journalism.’ It resulted in the creation of the Student Press Law Center.

Student journalists in 2003 continue to face censorship when they attempt to break away from the ‘trivial’ and report hard news. Recently, administrators have censored articles that discussed rape, underage drinking, a fatal traffic accident and homosexuality.

But these students refused to allow their voices to be held captive. They told their stories to the local news media, and under the eye of public scrutiny, one of the school districts has backed down from its restrictive measures.

‘Students should be free to cover stories, to write what they find and to do it without any sort of censorship from either the administration or the faculty,’ said Nelson, now retired as Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.

Nelson said the most destructive form of censorship of student journalists is that practiced by school authorities.

In Michigan a seven-line article about a fatal accident was removed from the Grosse Pointe South High School student newspaper, marking the first time administrators have censored the paper in its 75-year history. Student editors fought back and say they will continue to report what they consider news.

In January Principal D. Allen Diver told Tower adviser Jeff Nardone to remove the story about a traffic accident involving a Grosse Pointe South student and the father of another student. The father died from injuries sustained when he was struck by the SUV the student was driving.

A statement released by the Grosse Pointe Public School System said the administration removed the story to avoid causing the families involved in the accident ‘considerable pain and suffering.’ It went on to say, ‘The administration also felt that publication of the story presented a serious risk of inflaming an already delicate situation.’

Managing editor Alex Lang said the article was based on an interview with the police and did not report names or list information sensitive to the investigation.

‘We felt we had a job to inform the student body of the accident,’ Lang said.

Principal Diver threatened to implement prior review of The Tower, but Lang said those plans dissolved after 150 Tower supporters attended a February school board meeting and staff members met with Superintendent Suzanne Klein.

A March issue of The Tower featured a column by Lang about the censorship, and Klein approved the original article to run in a sidebar.

Tower staffers are asking for the school board to clarify the wording of the district policy to state that newspaper advisers, not administrators, have the final word on what is printed in the student paper.

As the school board examines the policy, Lang said the staff is back focusing on reporting. ‘If it affects the student body and it’s news, we’re going to report it.’

Student reporters at Gig Harbor High School in Washington said they tried to report the news and inform students about an alleged rape for their safety. But administrators refused to let them cite information from a district hearing examiner’s report about the incident, leaving the article unprintable.

The article, which would have appeared in the December 2002 edition of The Sound, reported allegations made by a freshman girl who said that a freshman boy shoved her into a men’s restroom and forced her to perform oral sex on him.

The boy’s mother and Peninsula School District Superintendent Jim Coolican confirm that a district hearing examiner found ‘insufficient evidence’ of an assault but that the boy was suspended for sexually explicit notes he wrote. Editor in chief Hana Shipman was not allowed to report that in The Sound.

Coolican said the newspaper could not publish the material from the report, citing the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Under FERPA, a school can lose funding if it has a ‘policy or practice of permitting the release of [students’] education records’ without the written consent’ of the student involved.

Shipman said she obtained written permission from the boy and his mother to publish the information, but Coolican contends it was not sufficient because the girl did not also provide consent. ‘Even though the information was divulged by some of the people that were in the hearing,’ Coolican said, ‘my point was that that did not give me permission to break the law.’

The Department of Education has said that disclosure of disciplinary results by a student newspaper is not attributable to the school officials and thus cannot be considered FERPA violations. Moreover, FERPA only applies to personal identifiable material, and Shipman said she did not plan to use the name of the female student in her article.

Shipman said The Sound was also blocked from printing a second article, which reported that the boy would not return to Gig Harbor High School.

In response to the administration’s decision, students published an editorial that said, ‘The district may argue that they are trying to protect themselves from lawsuits, but by lack of disclosure they risk the safety of students.’

Shipman said The Sound staffers are making the best of the situation and are still working to report the news.

‘Unfortunately high school is not about the Glee Club anymore. We write the news, we don’t make it,’ she said.

Although much has changed in schools since the 1974 release of Captive Voices, Nelson said it is still important for students to ‘attack’ news coverage. He said that despite the sensitivity of subject matter, students would be mistaken to not cover a topic and allow administrators to ‘sweep it under the rug.’

A student journalist at Myers Park High School in North Carolina was forced to rewrite an article about underage drinking after the principal set an ultimatum: edit the article or do not publish the paper.

Hoofprint Editor Sara Boatright agreed to drop any reference in her article to students who were suspended for having alcohol on a school-sponsored trip. She said the article was intended to highlight consequences that result from underage drinking.

Boatright said Principal Bill Anderson told the staff that ‘he didn’t want to embarrass the students involved any further.’

Anderson also explained his decision to a local newspaper, the Charlotte Rhinoceros Times, saying, ‘One of the responsibilities of a high school principal is to edit the content of a school-sponsored newspaper to insure that all writings are appropriate for students at different developmental levels.’

Boatright contends Anderson’s decision is not consistent with decisions made in the past. The Hoofprint was not censored for a story in November 2002 about a fight in the school parking lot that many alleged was gang-related or for an article about arson suspects.

Boatright says she hopes the Hoofprint staff will not let what happened with her article discourage them from reporting any story they feel is compelling.

‘I think that’s the most dangerous thing about any type of censorship,’ Boatright said. ‘When people see that this kind of thing can happen, they begin to self-censor.’

Nelson said that self-censorship is an obstacle student journalists must overcome.

‘One of the big problems for student journalists is that they often engage in self-censorship just because of the feeling that they’re going to be criticized or that they’re going to be in some way disciplined for covering stories.’

Student journalists at Satellite High School in Florida say the wide-range of censorship they have experienced has taken a toll on staff morale. Administrators have asked the staff to remove at least 20 articles, quotes, columns, letters to the editor and a cartoon from The Telstar this school year.

One of the most recently removed articles discussed students’ sexuality and homophobia on campus. The staff have appealed the decision made by Assistant Principal Doug Cook, who has ordered the revisions, to Principal Mark Elliott and school district officials.

Editor in chief Nancy Dyer said that Cook always tells her the material he wants removed will cause a ‘disruption’ in school.

‘The things they’re censoring won’t cause a disruption,’ she said. ‘[The administration does not] want the paper to reflect negative things about the school.’

Cook and Elliott declined to comment and referred questions to a spokesperson for Brevard County School District, Sara Stern. Elliott told the local newspaper, Florida Today, he was concerned the gay students quoted in the article might be harassed or even assaulted on campus.

Under school district policy, material that may ‘constitute a direct and substantial danger to the health of students’ can be prohibited from publication.

Stern said district officials were concerned that The Telstar had not asked for permission from the parents of the quoted students before publishing the material. ‘These students are below the age of 18, and with a topic with this sensitive nature, we stand the chance of being sued by the individual parents for violating the student’s rights by producing this material,’ Stern said.

However, the courts have said parental permission is not necessary if the minors are mature enough to appreciate the consequences of giving their consent.

Dyer said that The Telstar staff members work hard to be responsible in their reporting. Staff members are required to take a year-long journalism course to qualify to work on the student-run newspaper, which is funded completely by advertising revenue.

The Florida Scholastic Press Association has recognized The Telstar as one of the top student newspapers in the state, but staff member Taylor Stallings said a lot of students have ruled out journalism as a job or career because of this.

Dyer said it was time for the Telstar staffers to stand up for their rights. She arranged to speak with an attorney who she said is interested in taking her case.

‘I think that if [administrators] try to tell us what to write or try to tell us what not to write, our newspaper becomes fluff,’ Dyer said.

Nelson said student journalists should continue to push the envelope.

‘I think it’s too bad when the faculty or administrators of the school discourages students from exercising their rights,’ he said. ‘I mean that’s what the press is all about and I think that students need to learn that early and I think they need to practice it.’