ILLINOIS — One of the more difficult events for a student journalist to cover is the unexpected death of a classmate.
Each year more than 30,000 Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 die, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, leaving many school communities to decide on appropriate tributes.
At a high school in suburban Chicago, three student journalists discovered that their definition of an appropriate tribute was different than that of school administrators.
In March, Scott Sims, a 17-year-old student at Homewood-Flossmoor High School, drowned during a trip to Hawaii.
Two weeks later, three student journalists were removed from the school’s broadcasting class and given a “W” for withdrawn — instead of a grade — for attempting to air a video tribute to Sims on the school’s student-run Viking Television, which had not operated under a policy of prior review.
The decision was made by Principal Von Mansfield, who told students they could not air the tribute because grief counselors said it would be harmful to students who were unfamiliar with the student, said David Thieman, the school’s spokesman. Counselors told students that friends of Sims might become upset and then be ridiculed by other students.
But for high school students, a video tribute would have been an appropriate way to remember the student, said Kenneth J. Doka, a professor of counseling at the College of New Rochelle and a senior consultant to Hospice Foundation of America, an organization that provides counseling services to individuals diagnosed with fatal diseases and their families.
“I think the fact that students are upset and grieving at the loss of their peer is appropriate,” he said. “I would suspect that more than any legitimate reason, [the censorship] reflects just the difficulty of the administration in coping with this loss.”
Administrators did not view the tribute before banning it, according to former station manager Heather MacLeod, who was one of the students removed from the class.
Because the station had been operating as a public forum, students argued that school administrators had to meet the Tinker standard before they could censor. That standard would have required administrators to show that the video tribute would have resulted in a material and substantial disruption of school activities or invaded the rights of others.
Doka said it was highly unlikely that the video could have caused any disruptions, and instead, it could have been used as a learning experience for teaching about death.
“To try to stifle that really makes no sense psychologically, but it really is a failure to educate people as to how people express grief and how people can support those who express grief,” he said.
MacLeod, who has since graduated, says she will look into legal action to remove the “W” off her transcript, regain credit for coursework already completed during the semester and stand up for the rights of the broadcast students at the school.
“It’s very important that we make [students’ rights] clear to the school, and [the] school needs to start respecting students,” MacLeod said.