For yearbooks, a diminished kind of free speech

Daydreams of summer vacations were replaced with concern about yearbookcontent for many school administrators as the final days of the school year cameto a close last spring. But while most students anxiously awaited thearrival of their school yearbook, student journalists on yearbook staffs oftenwere not included in decisions to alter the books because of “inappropriate”content, editing errors and “questionable” photographs. Instead, it was oftenadministrators who made the decisions to delay distribution, recall issues orplace stickers over content they found objectionable. Yearbooks oftenface greater pressure than other types of student media to present positivedepictions of schools because they are historical documents, said Judi Coolidge,a yearbook adviser at Bay High School in Ohio.“Yearbookshaven’t been taken seriously because they don’t all take themselvesseriously as being real historical documents that are referred to all of thetime,” said Coolidge, the Journalism Education Association’s 2002national high school yearbook adviser of the year.To help ensureyearbooks are respected as works of journalism and therefore less susceptible tocensorship, advisers and staff members must think of themselves as professionaljournalists, she said. This includes checking information and quotes foraccuracy, basing news coverage on student reactions and plenty of editing. Still, at several schools, content that was not reviewed by yearbookstaffs made its way into final editions. In others, student comment sectionscontained language some found offensive. And at one school, administrators evenobjected to the items a high school student included in his seniorportrait.Tyler Schultz, a recent graduate of Pewaukee High School inWisconsin, posed with a 12-guage shotgun and a Confederate battle flag inthe portrait he first submitted to yearbook staff members.Theself-proclaimed “country boy” has been a trap shooter for threeyears and is close with family members in the South. He said he chose the twoitems because the school had asked students to express their personalities intheir senior portraits for the yearbook. But when Principal Marty VanHulle saw the photo before an awards banquet, she said the photo could not bepublished in the yearbook unless the gun and flag were cropped out of theportrait.“As the yearbook is representative of the school and apublication of Pewaukee High School, it is by its very nature an extension ofthe school and school district, and therefore it is reasonable for us toregulate the message the school sends via our publications,”Superintendent JoAnn Sternke told GM Today, a commercial newspapercovering the Milwaukee area. “Weapons or images of this sort are notsomething we endorse or condone in the school environment.”Schultzand his mother, Tammy Ankomeus, said they were upset they were not told thephoto was a problem until late May even though they had submitted the photo toyearbook staff members in October. Schultz submitted an alternate photo thatappeared in the yearbook. When students at schools in New York andFlorida were told to write their own entries in yearbook commentsections, administrators did not always like what they received.AtPenfield High School in New York, students opened their yearbooks to findwhite stickers placed over blacked-out quotes that four students hadsubmitted.Administrators told members of the yearbook committee, whichis made up of five students and one teacher, to cover the entries, whichofficials described as inappropriate and containing sexual innuendos.Administrators said covering the entries in more than 1,000 books preventeddelays and additional costs of reprinting the page.One quote containedlyrics from the song “Milkshake” by rapper Kelis, a parent of aPenfield High School student told the Democrat and Chronicle.InFlorida’s Miami-Dade County, a comment in the Key BiscayneCommunity School “memory book” that upset several parents slipped byschool staff members who edited student entries.The morning after thebooks were distributed to students at the kindergarten through eighth-gradeschool, a parent called to tell school officials that one student had includedthe phrase “Death to Jews” in German. The student the remarkwas attributed to was suspended for the four remaining days of the school year,and the book was recalled so administrators could replace the page without theanti-Semitic comment.Though Miami-Dade school district policy says thatstudents should control the content of student publications, it is unclearwhether students or administrators produced the book. The policy, which isbroader than federal courts require, states “it is essential that schoolsprovide students effective avenues not only to participate in discussions inwhich points of views are explored but also to question, to inquire and tofreely express ideas including those that arecontroversial.”Another area of the student conduct code allowsstudents to “be free from anyone telling you what you can and cannot writeand read.”John Schuster, spokesman for Miami-Dade County PublicSchools, would not comment on reason the student was suspended, and the schoolprincipal did not respond to requests for comment.When students aregiven space to include their own messages in yearbooks, advisers and yearbookstaff members should be sure the entries are appropriate, said Marilyn Scoggins,a Columbia Scholastic Press Association Gold Key recipient and former yearbookadviser at Hooker High School in Oklahoma. “Have an editorialpolicy written, board-approved and printed in the colophon section of youryearbook stating what will not be considered for publication,” sheadvised. Even if a school has a policy on student submissions, theproblems students face when items slip past staff members range from the happyendings to passing the reprint bills to the offending students or delayingdistribution for weeks.Two students at Hudson High School inMassachusetts were relieved when Jostens, a yearbook publishing company,offered to reprint pages that contained altered biographies of them.Messages in Venessa Lopes’ and Jenn Geary’s biographies thatoriginally thanked family and friends were changed to say, “I am dumb andugly.” Another inserted remark made fun of Lopes’ Portugueseheritage.“Often with mistakes we put a label on,” toldJostens representative John Neister to the Town Online. “This is alittle different. We understand the feelings of the parents.”Theoriginal pages had to be cut from the books, new pages printed and thenhand-glued in books; however, the books were scheduled to arrive back at theschool before graduation.Principal John Stapelfeld is conducting aninvestigation into who was responsible for the changes. InMaryland, pranksters responsible for placing what school officialdescribed as a racial slur next to a yearbook photo could face a debt of $1,000to reprint the page without their unauthorized addition. Two Perry HallHigh School students who were not on the yearbook staff but were able to accessa computer it was produced on, told school officials that the remark was acommon nickname the two used, and neither were offended by the term.Still, Principal Brian Gonzalez recalled 450 of the books after theywere distributed to have the page with the comment reprinted.“Itappears as though this was a very unfortunate and inappropriate prank,”Baltimore County school spokesman Charles Herndon told the AssociatedPress. “Regardless of how the word was intended, it is a vile word andsimply cannot be tolerated.”At Rosemary Middle School in SouthCarolina, Principal Barbara Nesmith may have been monkeying around as shereviewed the yearbook proofs before sending them to the printer, but she wasserious about having them reprinted when she saw what got past her.Whenthe books arrived at the school, Nesmith told teachers not to distribute thembecause she had not originally noticed that cartoon monkeys had been put inplace of the photos of several students who were absent the day their pictureswere to be taken.The books were reprinted without the cartoons, but ittook several weeks until students received them.Nesmith said she had toprevent people from seeing them because the cartoons could have been insulting.“Even if we were just talking about one child that would be hurt,that would be too many,” she told the GeorgetownTimes.

Ways to ensure yearbook is treated asa journalistic publication:

  • Capture events that make the year unique
  • Basecoverage on the reactions and opinions of the student body
  • Use accurateinformation that is attributed
  • Check to make sure photo captions correctlyidentify students
  • Avoid hurtful statements that attack students’physical characteristics
  • Focus on merit-based honors rather than popularitycontests
  • Have a written editorial policy for student submissions

    Source:Marilyn Scoggins, former yearbook adviser