Student journalists, adviser at Beverly Hills High School allege censorship

CALIFORNIA — When celebrity activistErin Brockovich rolled into Beverly Hills High School last year on a crusade toexpose on-campus oil wells that she said were leaking dangerous carcinogens andmaking people sick, student journalists began asking questions. Now itappears that the students’ questions and coverage of the controversy has led tonegative reactions and censorship by the school administration, studentjournalists and newspaper adviser Jennifer Moulton said. Moulton saidthe school has chosen not to renew her teaching contract next year and thereason why, she suspects, is that she refused to censor her students’ coverageof the oil well controversy. Also, the school principal denied a student’srequest to distribute his underground newspaper on campus, its publisher said. Moulton said she was surprised that her contract was not renewed becauseshe received only positive evaluations in her two years at the school. InCalifornia, a teacher’s first two years are considered “probationary” andschools give no explanation when contracts are not renewed, Moulton said.Principal Dan Stepenosky said he could not discuss why Moulton’scontract was not renewed. He said his inability to discuss the matter has causedpeople to fabricate conspiracy theories. “What’s disturbing to me isthere’s this sense that because a principal makes a personnel decision thatthat’s censorship,” Stepenosky said. “Nothing further could be from the truth.[That’s a] deplorable connection.”In February and March 2003 –before Stepenosky was principal — the Highlights staff wrote aboutthe environmental concerns at the school. Moulton said at the time anadministrator asked her to censor the newspaper, but she said she explained thatthe California Student Free Expression Law requires that students, not advisersor administrators, control the content of the newspaper. “I explained[that] if I did what he wanted me to do, I would be breaking state law,” Moultonsaid. Highlights co-editor Brittany Darwell reported on the oilwell controversy last school year and said a former administrator warned her to”be careful” with her story. She said her school counselor gave her the samewarning this February when she wrote about the school’s decision not to renewMoulton’s contract. “They don’t want us to talk about controversialissues,” Darwell said. “[The oil well story] was going to be a straight newsstory. We don’t want to write for the school, pro the school.”No schooladministrator reviews Highlights before it is published and Darwell saidadministrators have not directly censored the newspaper, but she said thewarnings make the school look suspicious.”[It] makes me feel they havesomething to hide,” she said. “I don’t see a reason why I shouldn’t cover arelease of a teacher or cancer allegations. [We] get facts to inform theschool.”While the official student newspaper has not been censored,Stepenosky has not allowed the distribution of an underground newspaper becausehe felt it was inaccurate and unjust, junior Zack Anderson said.Anderson, publisher of Beverly Underground, which also coveredthe oil well controversy, said he asked permission March 9 to distribute aone-page print version of his online publication. Anderson said he submitted acopy of the paper to Stepenosky, as required by school policy. Anderson thenspoke with Stepenosky the following week to discuss its distribution.Stepenosky did not allow distribution. “[He] said it was unjustand inaccurate,” Anderson said. “I checked all the facts. He couldn’t come upwith a concrete reason [why it was inaccurate] because there isn’t one. Hewasn’t happy with the truth being in the public eye.”Anderson wrote aletter to Stepenosky asking him to reconsider, but has not heard back from him.He plans to appeal the decision to the school board. He said he might considerlegal action. Stepenosky said he only read the online version ofBeverly Underground and that he only spoke with Anderson about the paperfor about a minute while he was on his way to a meeting. Though Stepenosky saidthe writing on Anderson’s site is excellent, he said it is unbalanced andinaccurate.Because of the high number of flier distribution requests theschool receives, Beverly Hills High does not allow students to pass out fliersor other publications as a matter of policy, Stepenosky said, noting thatAnderson is free to distribute his paper off school grounds. TheCalifornia Student Free Expression Law gives students the right to distributeunderground publications at school as long as the publication could notreasonably be expected to substantially disrupt the school environment. The U.S.Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which has jurisdiction over Californiaand eight other Western states, has ruled that a school policy requiring priorapproval of independent student publications, such as an underground newspaper,is unconstitutional. Prompted by the allegations made by ErinBrockovich-Ellis (she has remarried since the incidents depicted in the moviebased on her life), Los Angeles County prosecutors are investigating possiblecriminal environmental violations involving the oil wells at Beverly Hills HighSchool.

View the latest issue of the Highlights here.

View the Beverly Underground here.