Okla. high school yearbook told to publish only ‘positive news’

Hooker High Schooladministrators are clamping down on “negative” commentary in the school yearbookafter a spread in last year’s edition characterized the school’s new paint jobas “institutional white,” students say.

“[The administrators] told us wehave to keep the yearbook positive,” said senior Sarah Heil, a yearbook staffmember. She said administrators informed the yearbook staff that coverageinvolving non-school related activities, news about administrative decisions notinvolving students and stories about school budget cuts areprohibited.

Heil said the controversy arose after administrators at theTexas County school reviewed the 2002-2003 yearbook that was distributed overthe summer. Among the many topics covered in the yearbook was a two-page spreadabout how the interior school walls were changed from royal blue to white. Thespread showed a before-and-after picture of a wall and used the adjective”institutional white” to describe the new color, Heilsaid.

“[‘Institutional white’] just described the color perfectly. Theadministration told us it was really negative,” Heil said.

Heil said thatmost Hooker High School students did not like the change in paint color and thatthe layout reflected the student body’s opinion. The yearbook is the onlystudent publication at the school.

The administration took offense at thespread because they said it did not reflect the school in a positive light, saidyearbook staff member Tabitha Brown. As a result, Superintendent Freida Burgessand Principal Chuck Karpe informed the yearbook staff that in this year’sedition, school officials would review each spread in the book’s publication,she said.

Burgess could not be reached for comment, and Karpe did notreturn phone calls seeking comment.

Over the years, the Hooker HighSchool yearbook has received numerous awards from the Columbia Scholastic PressAssociation, the Oklahoma Interscholastic Press Association and the NationalScholastic Press Association.

Although the school administration has notgiven the yearbook staff written guidelines outlining the topics that can andcannot be covered, the administration made it clear the spreads cannot be”negative,” Brown said. She said she attended the district’s school boardmeeting earlier this month where the yearbook was discussed during the publicforum session. School board members agreed that the yearbook should be more”positive,” she said.

Members of the school board did not return phonecalls seeking comment.

“We’re not going to let [the administration] tellus we can’t write something,” Heil said. “And when [the administration] tells us’No, you can’t do that,’ then we’re going to stand up for ourselves.”

Thenew guidelines have not affected the yearbook staff yet because they have notstarted layout work, Heil said. However, this fall, Marilyn Scoggins resigned asyearbook adviser after 17 years of service. Two other teachers took over theposition. Brown and Heil declined to speculate on why Scogginsresigned.

Heil said the yearbook staff approached the administrationabout creating a spread featuring Scoggins. The administration agreed to havethe spread but dictated the placement, length and possible content of thespread, she said.

Scoggins, who still teaches at Hooker High School, didnot return phone calls or e-mails seeking comment.

SPLC View:This is a sad, troubling story. Former adviser Marilyn Scoggins ran asuccessful, well-respected program that resulted in excellent journalism. Inshort, she did everything that we hope a good journalism adviser would do andthe publications her students produced and the success the program had atnational and regional conferences bore that out. But school officials do notappear to want a student yearbook filled with student news and views; they wouldprefer a rah-rah sheet with only “happy news.” But this battle is not over.Even in a Hazelwood environment, prohibiting students from discussing or evencovering, for example, school budget cuts would be unlikely to fly in court. Atleast one court has said that censoring a category or entire topic of speechwithout even seeing the story that is being written on the topic is not allowed.Moreover, allowing only “positive” news would clearly seem to violate a widelyaccepted requirement that any censorship be viewpoint neutral. The SPLC hopesthat Hooker school officials will wake up before they face a legal challenge.Sadly, much of the damage has already been done.