The Elephant in the Corner

Stories about oral sex, pornography, teenage “hook-ups,” sexual orientation, sexually transmitted diseases, teenage parents and abortion made headlines in student media this school year.

Student journalists, seeking to accurately cover the wide range of concerns facing their readers, argue that sex is a topic that can and should be discussed in a school-sponsored publication.     

But in many communities, the fact that student media publish such headlines is the headline. 

Student journalists who write about sex often find themselves caught up in the culture wars, exploring the divide between those who think student newspapers should be free to discuss sex and sexuality and those who think it is inappropriate for a student publication to publish such material. 

Unfortunately for many student journalists, countless high school administrators — the people who most often assert editorial control over student publications — side with those who think student publications should not freely discuss sex. But many experts, including teen psychologists, say high school administrators should consider the benefits of allowing the student media to cover sex and sexuality before they feel the impulse to censor student journalists. 

In February, the administrators at a high school in Kansas must have felt that impulse when a student newspaper published articles on the increase in local porn shops, the pros and cons of certain sexual behaviors and whether students consider oral sex “sex.”

Student journalist Brenna Hawley explained why the student newspaper at Salina Central High School published articles about teenage sexuality in its February edition. “Teen sex is huge. There’s a day care outside our school [for students who have children]. Every high school student is either going to think about or have sex,” said Hawley, co-editor of The Pylon

The Pylon’s coverage sparked passionate community protests. Some Salina residents defended the students, but most called on the school administration to punish students for publishing the stories. 

The debate dominated local news media, making the front page of the town newspaper, the Salina Journal, for four straight days, and serving as fodder for television news spots and as a hot topic on local talk radio. Community members called the newspaper’s adviser, Jenny Acree, a bad mother and questioned her morals. Others branded the student journalists “bad apples [who] ruin everyone” and promote sexual promiscuity.

The story that elicited the most negative response was about a Pylon survey that found that 88 percent of respondents had engaged in sexual intercourse. The story did not say how many students were surveyed, but Hawley conceded that the number should have been higher to provide a more accurate picture of the rate of sexual activity among Salina Central High School students. 

Kristi Montgomery, a Salina YWCA youth outreach director who develops initiatives to reduce teen pregnancy in Saline County, argued that the survey gave students the false impression that everyone was having sex, which adds to the pressure to be sexually active. 

Some Salina residents, however, seemed unaware that student journalists in Kansas have a legal right to write about controversial subjects such as teen sex. Kansas is one of six states that has student free expression laws, which grant student journalists greater press freedoms than students in other states. 

Hawley said school administrators, who at first seemed intent on sanctioning the newspaper because of the articles, never took disciplinary action. The controversy, however, prompted Acree to resign from her position at the school after she was placed on paid leave pending a school board review of The Pylon’s coverage and the school district’s student publications policy.  

The number of articles on sex appearing in student publications — and the high rate at which those articles are censored — is nothing new. 

Tom Rolnicki, executive director of the National Scholastic Press Association, said he has observed a steady increase in sex coverage since the mid-1980s, coinciding with the rise of the AIDS crisis. After reading high school newspaper coverage of a 1986 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that upheld anti-sodomy laws, Rolnicki said he concluded there were no more taboos left for the high school press. 

Many times, Rolnicki said, student journalists are in a unique position to provide readers with valuable information that they might not otherwise pay attention to. Students are sometimes more likely to listen to their peers when emotional subjects such as sexuality are discussed, he said.  

Because high school and junior high students often define who they are and how they act based on peer influence, high school journalists can influence how their peers view sexuality in ways that parents and educators cannot, said Alayne Yates, director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the University of Hawaii and author of Sex Without Shame: Encouraging the Child’s Healthy Sexual Development. Yates added that amid all the mixed messages on sexuality bombarding teens, student journalists can use their influence to either inform (with mature, fact-based discussions of sex) or misinform (with articles published just for shock value). 

Regardless of what adults believe teenagers know or do not know about sex, students are not immune to peer pressure and pop culture’s use of sexually provocative images. Most students already know something about sex from watching television and movies and some are already having sex by the time they enter high school, Yates said. 

A recent study found that 80 percent of middle school students learned about pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases in school, according to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. According to recent studies conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, which promotes abstinence, one out of five teens has had sex before his or her 15th birthday.

Although most teens are exposed to sexuality before entering high school, administrators know that some community members prefer to believe otherwise, said Larry Smith, assistant superintendent for Bryant Public Schools in Bryant, Ark. 

Some community members do not believe schools should educate students about sex, much less allow a student publication to write about it, Smith said. Last year, before Smith worked for the district, a Bryant High School student attempted to write about sexual orientation in the student newspaper, and school administrators censored the article. Administrators preferred not to deal with what they saw as an “unnecessary” controversy, Smith said.  

Avoiding potential controversy by censoring school-sponsored and independent student media can raise First Amendment concerns. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that government censorship of an unpopular or controversial viewpoint simply because that view is unpopular or controversial is typically unconstitutional. But in the 1998 Hazelwood case, the Court allowed a public school to censor stories about teen pregnancy in a school-sponsored student newspaper that included students’ “frank talk” about their sexual histories and their use of birth control. State laws providing students with free press protections further complicate the legal landscape. 

Although student publications may have a legal right to write about sex, not everyone believes that a student publication is the best source for such discussions. 

Leslee Unruh, president and founder of the Abstinence Clearinghouse, an educational organization that promotes sexual abstinence, said that if student journalists write about sex, they should include the fact that abstinence is the only foolproof way to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. She said she believes some topics are inappropriate for student publications. 

“For high school students to write about oral sex, that’s a little in your face,” Unruh said. “We need to keep what’s private private. High school kids writing about sex can be offensive unless talking about abstaining. [Teens are] getting information forced on them.” 

But administrative censorship creates a “chilling effect” that discourages serious reporting and investigation, said Rolnicki of the National Scholastic Press Association. Newspaper content should not be limited to what adults think students should write about, he said.

The victims of censorship are not only student journalists; a publication’s readership is also at risk when administrators blacklist teenage sexuality from the student media. 

A consequence of censoring coverage of teenage sexuality is that teens learn about sex from other ill-informed teens, rumors, television and other less-than-reliable sources, said Judith Levine, author of Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex. Ignoring teenage sexuality leaves teens vulnerable to exploitation, heartbreak and disease. Articles about sexuality — as long as they are mature and fact-based — makes sex less scary and keeps teenagers informed of risks, Levine said.  

According to a study done by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, educating teens about contraceptives does not cause teens to engage in sexual activity, but adults and administrators seem to believe that when student journalists write about sex, teens will automatically engage in behavior they otherwise would have avoided, said The Pylon’s Hawley. 

Although no data exists on the influence of student media coverage of sex, anything that encourages open discussion is good because that is how people learn, said Hannah Bruckner, an assistant professor of sociology at Yale University and co-author of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescents Health.  If sex is not discussed, it puts teens at risk of engaging in unsafe sex. 

Censoring articles on where to access contraceptives or articles on abortion, for example, will not prevent teens from engaging in sexual activity, she said.

Adolescence is often a time for risk-taking, said Samuel L. Judice, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and clinical instructor at the University of California at San Francisco. It is important to encourage teens to take healthy risks, he said. When adolescents are not provided accurate information about sexuality, they engage in riskier sexual practices, he said.  

Censorship also denies student journalists the opportunity to counteract stereotypes about teenage sexuality.

“Talking about [sexual] behaviors in student magazines helps diffuse the [myth] that everyone’s having sex,” said Linda Klepacki, manager of abstinence programming at Focus on the Family, a national Christian group advocating traditional family values. “Not to discuss it would probably be ignoring a large part of who they are as teens.” 

Klepacki stressed the importance of educating teens about the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual risks of sexual behavior. 

The idea among many teens that “everyone is doing it” is a myth. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of teenagers engaging in sexual intercourse declined from 1991 to 2001. 

National statistics, however, might not reflect local behaviors and attitudes. Students at Lodi High School, in Lodi, Mo., conducted a school-wide teen sexual attitudes survey in March for an article on sex in the May issue of the Advocate. The 29-question survey included questions about virginity and whether students know where to access birth control and contraceptives. 

Editor JoAnna Marx said the survey was done to make the article more relevant to the readership and to eliminate a “that’s not us” attitude that students might have when reading about national statistics or trends.  

Marx said it makes sense to write about sex in the student newspaper because students talk about it. She said her staff would not have written about sex unless the reporting and writing was done in a professional manner, noting that the issue, which included stories about homosexuality, teen parenting and parents’ views on sex, does not encourage teens to have sex. 

“I hope kids and parents talk more openly about sex and kids know the facts and [how to] get help. [Our] survey results [show that] some kids don’t know where they can get contraceptives and help if they get pregnant,” Marx said. 

Because many parents also read student publications, student newspapers have the opportunity to inform parents about the reality of teenage behavior. Administrators and the newspaper adviser at a high school in Pennsylvania recognized that, and allowed the student newspaper to cover teen sex without censorship. 

When Indiana Area Junior High School student journalist Lizzie Stein told Crimson Arrow adviser Kaye Bird that she wanted to write about the “friends with benefits” phenomenon — behavior she observed among peers who were sexually active outside of a relationship — the eighth-year adviser said she was reluctant to allow it. But the reporter insisted that the behavior was a reality for some students and that parents needed to be informed about what was really going on with their children. 

“At some point [in the editing process], the article was turning into something I would write instead of something she would write,” Bird said. “I had to back off and say this is a ninth-grade girl’s article. I want her voice to come through.”

Although the front-page article acknowledged that some students “won’t leave ‘home plate’” and “should be respected,” Bird said she wished the article had elaborated on teens who abstain from having sex. 

Like so many other student publications, the Crimson Arrow — and school officials who chose not to censor it — were targets of heated community backlash for the paper’s sex coverage.

The paper included a photo illustration of two boys ogling a girl bending over a water fountain, which upset community members. A month after the newspaper was published, people continued to write letters to the editor about the controversy in the local commercial newspaper, The Indiana Gazette

“The article should have been entitled ‘School District Administrators, where’s your moral conviction in education?’ The reader could imply from the [article and photograph] that child pornography and sex for free prostitution are rampant in the school,” Michael Shanshala III, an Indiana, Pa., resident, wrote in the Feb. 27 issue of The Gazette

The controversy prompted Indiana Area School District Superintendent Kathleen Kelley to write a letter in support of the Crimson Arrow and explain why she did not censor the newspaper.

Kelley perhaps best summed up the main reason why schools should not censor student journalists’ coverage of sex.

Kelley acknowledged that she could have censored the publication, “but what would that have taught? That free expression guaranteed under our Constitution is all right, as long as the subject is agreeable?”