Va. high school paper confiscated following editorial about teacher arrested for having sex with student

Officials at a Virginia Beach high school confiscated the latestedition of the student newspaper because they feared a “backlash” from aneditorial about a teacher accused of having sex with a student, studentjournalists said.

School officials, however, said the Towne Crierwas seized because the newspaper’s adviser failed to follow the school’s priorreview policy.

Students are appealing the school’s decision to confiscatethe paper. Students said the school’s actions show a lack of respect for studentjournalists.

On Feb. 13, first-year Towne Crier adviser PaulBennet sent an e-mail to First Colonial High School faculty stating, “If any ofyou have any of the new issue of the Towne Crier. Please remove it anddiscard it immediately.” The e-mail did not explain why teachers should discardthe newspaper.

The editorial, which students claimed resulted in thepaper’s confiscation, was about a teacher whom police have charged with havingsex with a 17-year-old female student. When staffers learned about theallegations, it was too close to deadline to write a news story. Instead,staffers said they wanted to write an editorial in support of the teacher, whohas been suspended without pay.

“It delegitimizes our standing as anewspaper when we just write fluff,” said News Editor Ethan Guild. “When weignore issues like this, it does not make us look legitimate as anewspaper.”

Before writing the editorial, the staff sought PrincipalHazel Jessee’s permission. Jesse said the students could write the editorial aslong as it did not directly mention the allegations, said Editor in ChiefAdrianne Jeffries.

Students wrote a “fond farewell” editorial that didnot reference the allegations, but instead focused on how the teacher “wasliterally more than a teacher during his 11 years at FC; he was a friend todozens, a mentor to others and should always be remembered for his vibrantpersonality.” Students said the “beloved” teacher was popular among students, anaspect of the story they said the professional mediaoverlooked. 

Jeffries heard about the confiscation on Feb.14.

“I was furious and indignant because it just shows the blatant lackof respect that my school’s administration has for student journalism,” Jeffriessaid, noting that her adviser told her the “principal expected a backlash” fromthe editorial.

Nancy Soschia, public relations coordinator for VirginiaBeach City Public Schools, said the newspaper’s confiscation had nothing to dowith the paper’s content but was ordered because the principal had not reviewedthe newspaper prior to its publication.

“The paper was not censored,”Soschia said. She said that had the principal reviewed the paper, she may or maynot have approved the editorial.

Virginia Beach City Public Schoolspolicy mandates prior review, but does not specify that the reviewer must be anadministrator. According to Regulation 5-39.1, “The sponsor will review allmaterial to be published.”

Soschia said First Colonial High School has aseparate policy that requires the principal to review the newspaper beforepublication. When asked for a copy of the separate policy, Soschia said tosubmit a Virginia Freedom of Information Act request for it. She also said that”policy doesn’t necessarily cover everything.”

“Obviously, this was anissue where the teacher sponsor was not in compliance with school protocol onthe production of the newsletter,” Soschia said. “Prior to printing, a reviewcommittee reviews the actual publication. The editor is the schooladministration.”

Jeffries said she would rather resolve the conflictwithout taking legal action.

“I consider it a privilege to have my faithin the American system tested at such a tender young age,” Jeffries said. “Somepeople in education feel that free speech is dangerous to students and threatenstheir ability to learn and threatens their learning environment. I think that’ssad, wrong and unacademic.”

Jessee and Bennett did not respond to requestsfor comment.

SPLC View: Yet another oh-so-typical case of schoolofficials not only censoring a story, but of also subsequently trying towhitewash their reasons for doing so – and, of course, scapegoating a studentmedia adviser in the process. As the students here point out, there was a sideto this unfortunate story that outside media were ignoring and that perhaps onlya student newspaper – very often the sole voice of students – could suitablytell. Fortunately, the students at FCHS seem to have a grasp of American civicsand the role of a free press that has eluded their schooladministrators.