Taking the high road

When administrators at Upland High School in California  instituted prior review of the annual student-run literary magazine, adviser Alan Berman said he stepped down from his position in protest.

Principal Guy Roubian halted distribution of the Tapestry and decided to start taking a closer look at students’ work in the future after parents complained about vulgar language and dark content. 

Berman said Roubian also might force him to censor his students’ work in his creative writing class, where some of Tapestry’s submissions were written. Recently honored as the school’s Teacher of the Year, Berman said he does not know whether or not he will teach the class if restrictions are put into place.

“I agreed that we had a difference of opinion,” Berman said. “[Roubian] was not going to change. I respect him, but under those conditions I could not be comfortable with him having prior approval. I just figured we would go back to how we used to be where the students were censoring their work, so we ended up with bland, beautiful magazines.”

Each year, advisers must choose between acting as a student publication’s censor and protecting their students’ rights. Advisers who choose the latter may risk their role with the student publication. Although Berman resigned, two other advisers say their free-press stance led to their removal from their school papers and, in one case, the deletion of the journalism program.

Administrators said they wanted to take their student publications in a different direction because the advisers were inappropriately influencing content. 

The battle between high school newspaper advisers and administrators is ongoing, said Jeff Burkhead, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, a professional newspaper group in the state.

“Whenever you have administrators who like to control things and are not comfortable with the content that is being printed, then they may try to shut things down or control the content of student publications,” Burkhead said. “If a way to do that is to affect the duties of the newspaper adviser, then that is a form of censorship by reassigning the adviser or seeking to dictate how they do their job.”

Mary Ann Niemann, an educator at Oskaloosa High School in Kansas for more than 20 years, said school officials have taken away her duties as newspaper and yearbook adviser for simply doing her job.

According to Niemann, administrators stated that they relieved her of the adviser position at the OHS Insider student newspaperin early April because of budget cuts. However, after a subsequent controversy over an Insider article that criticized the school principal, Niemann said she believes the administration may have had ulterior motives.

The article, written by Insider Assistant Editor Lacey Hanson, addressed certain teachers’ work reassignments at Oskaloosa, including Niemanns’. Principal Brad Reed, citing inaccuracies in reporting, deleted entire paragraphs and rephrased direct quotes, which cut out three-fourth of the 2,000-word article, said Hanson.

Reed told Niemann in a letter that she would have to allow him to prior review content in the current and future editions of the paper. According to Niemann, Reed told her the letter was not to be shared with any staff member, student, parent or community member of the school district and if she failed to comply with its directions, it would be considered professional insubordination.

Niemann said the administration has objected to other article topics in the past, including abortion, eating disorders and suicide.

Superintendent Loren Lutes later said the article could be published with a few suggested alterations, Hanson said. After the changes were made, the paper was distributed on May 13, five days after its planned publication date.

In another letter to the adviser, Lutes said Niemann manipulated student writers to trumpet her personal dissatisfaction with her job reassignment, a claim Niemann calls outlandish.

Lutes said that Niemann’s involvement in Hanson’s article was “unrelated” to the administration’s decision to reassign her because it occurred before the article’s publication in May. 

The school hired a teacher new to the district to take over the yearbook and newspaper duties. Niemann will be teaching computer classes this fall.

Niemann said she fears eliminating her from the position opens the door to a more malleable adviser, who will stifle student voices.

“I think [Reed] would rather have somebody there that he could control,” she said.

Lily Kober, UniServ director for the Kansas National Education Association, said the administration’s decision to reassign Niemann has more to do with their own egos than her performance as an adviser.

Kober said that Niemann’s rights as an adviser were violated under the Kansas Student Publications Act. The statute states that journalism advisers are not to be terminated from employment, transferred or relieved of duties for refusing to abridge their students’ rights under the state law. 

Hanson, the student writer, said she could not imagine the journalism program without “student press laws’ biggest advocate.”

“A lot of teachers would have just given in because they would not want to upset the principal or risk their jobs,” Hanson said. “But she stood behind me and the First Amendment 100 percent, and now she is not teaching journalism because of that.”

At California’s San Marin High School, veteran adviser Ronnie Campagna said she never thought administrators would cut the journalism as a way to silence her.

But that is exactly what Campagna said happened when the school board for the Novato Unified School District voted in May to eliminate the journalism classes where the 35-year old Pony Express is published. The district attributed the cuts to the sweeping statewide budget shortfall of $38.2 billion that forced the school district to cut $3 million in spending. 

District officials said an after-school club will be formed to publish the student newspaper. They estimate the paper will produce only two or three issues a year, compared to the 10 issues the journalism class published over the school year.

“I have been teaching journalism for 18 years,” said Campagna. “Because the administration is conservative, they do not like a liberal, New York Jew like myself being the adviser. They do not believe the kids should have First Amendment rights. They insultingly believe that I choose the story ideas, and I write for the paper.”

Campagna said the administration has not voiced their disapproval of her job performance to her personally. She said she has heard their objections through the rumor mill about articles critical of the school or that pertained to sex and drugs.

District officials would not comment on their views of the school paper, and Principal Loeta Andersen did not return several phone calls or an e-mail requesting comment about the elimination of the journalism program.

School board President Perry Newman told the Marin Independent Journal that the district has asked Campagna to act as the club’s adviser, but she declined. 

“She wants to have the journalism class to herself,” Newman said.

District spokesperson Dianne Pavia said that in a fiscal crisis, selecting where to make the cuts and what classes to eliminate is a difficult one choice.

“Nobody wants to cut classes that are obviously great for kids,” said Pavia, who has since left the district. “We have had to do some significant layoffs, but there is a hope that we will be able to bring back some of these classes in the fall.”Between the two district high schools, Novato and San Marin, about $250,000 or four teachers were eliminated due to budget cuts, according to school board member Roger Collins. He said the district saved about $15,000 by cutting the journalism program, which is the cost to employ a teacher for the elective.

Campagna said that eliminating the journalism program does not save the district any money because she is still being paid to teach English next year. She said the 45 students that signed up for a journalism class are still required to enroll in another class during the journalism time slot.  

In June, through an Emergency Education Fund, a group of Novato parents raised more than $420,000 to fund electives removed due to the fiscal crisis. However, Principal Andersen decided to bring back leadership and architectural design for the fall, instead of journalism and yearbook electives, Campagna said. 

Campagna said the students and parents attended weekly school board meetings to devise solutions for funding the journalism program so it will not be forced into a club format.

In August, parents announced they would raise $20,000 in an attempt to bring the program back. The money would cover the teacher’s salary and the cost to publish the newspaper. By press time, the district had not decided  whether to take the money.

Niki Kid, former Pony Express editor in chief for the 2002-2003 school year, said that she is planning to pursue a degree in communications this fall because of her experience with the journalism program at San Marin. 

“It kind of tears me up inside to think that someone five years younger than me might not have that experience and maybe will pick a different career that will not make them as happy in life as journalism may have.” 

Alyssa Pomponio, senior and Pony Express staff member, said she would join efforts to publish an underground paper. She said, however, it is unfortunate that students are forced to consider it as an alternative.

“If there are any hard feelings between [Campagna and the administration] I do not think they should take it out on the class just because she is the teacher,” Pomponio said.

Journalism experts agree that an educated adviser is the best defense against administrative control. Advisers can protect themselves by maintaining open lines of communication between the newsroom and the principal’s office. 

Journalism Education Association President Ann Visser said she believes the best administrators are the ones willing to talk with their students. 

Visser is a longtime adviser of the Pelladium at Iowa’s Pella Community High School. She said at the start of each school year, the entire Pelladium staff meets with the superintendent, curriculum director and principal to talk about what they think the publication should include.

Christie Gold, adviser to the Revolution at Freedom High School in Florida, said principals should make an effort to understand student press law.

“It just takes a strong principal to understand that covering controversial issues that might not necessarily reflect positively on the school, in the long run is a good thing for the school,” Gold said.

Anne Whitt, Florida JEA state director, said in most cases, administrators come off as unreasonable because they are embarrassed that they do not know what is going on in their own school. 

Lily Kober, who supported Niemann, said making administrators aware of sensitive material is half the battle for journalism advisers. In doing so, the adviser is not asking the administrator for permission to publish the article but bringing the administrator up to speed, said Kober.

Visser and Kober agree that advisers should push for a strong publication policy. Kober said the best publication policy includes the wording, “the views expressed in this publication are not necessarily the views of the administration of this school.”

Visser said administrators can use this line as a way to evade responsibility for controversial material.

Ultimately, it is the duty of advisers to educate administrators about the First Amendment and press freedom, particularly in states with student free-expression laws, a process Gold refers to as “paper training.” 

Burkhead, who is with the Kansas Press Association, said cases of administrators acting irrationally make an adviser’s role more precarious. But he insists that advisers should not be deterred by adversity. 

“It’s an ongoing educational process,” Burkhead said. “The newspaper adviser is in a position where they serve as a buffer between the administration and the student reporters in order to create an environment for students to have the freedom to do their jobs.”