Schools block sex-related content

A cartoon showing stick figures in varying sexual positions, an articleabout sexually transmitted diseases and condoms and an article about the moralissue of virginity were censored by administrators who deemed them “toomature” for high school audiences this year.

On Jan. 28, the principalof Ithaca High School in New York removed Ben McKee’s cartoon fromthe Feb. 2 issue of the independent school newspaper, The Tattler,calling it “obscene and not suitable for immature audiences.” Thecartoon showed a teacher whose ruler pointed to a blackboard where eight stickfigures were shown in different sexual positions. The depictions were for a“Health 101” class. McKee’s cartoon was to accompany anarticle entitled, “How is sex being taught in our healthclasses?”

The principal, Joe Wilson, removed the cartoon a week afterhe issued new guidelines requiring the newspaper adviser, Stephanie Vinch, toreview the paper’s content prior to publication.

Robert Ochshorn,The Tattler’s editor in chief, said the staff thought the cartoonwas “pretty innocuous” and necessary to provide commentary to theaccompanying story. Ochshorn added that Wilson’s guidelines threatened toend the newspaper’s status as an open forum. The newspaper had operatedfor more than 100 years as an extracurricular publication.

Wilson’sguidelines were based on the 1988 Supreme Court case Hazelwood v.Kuhlmeier which limited high school students’ press freedoms in someschool-sponsored publications. Wilson’s prior review mandate gave Vinchthe right to “change, edit or remove content that would substantiallyinterfere with the [School] District’s work or impinge upon the rights ofother students; or is inconsistent with the legitimate pedogogical concerns ofthe District.”

Vinch resigned soon after, citing “personalreasons” for leaving.

Ochshorn appealed Wilson’s guidelines tothe Ithaca City School District on February 14, but was unsuccessful in hiseffort to persuade the school to reject them.

Ochshorn has started analternative newspaper, The Issue, which Wilson also said he must reviewbefore being distributed. Wilson denied the students’ distribution of theMarch issue because it contained McKee’s cartoon in a story about thecensorship incident, but the April issue was approved for distribution. Ochshornis in talks with attorney Raymond Schlather to pursue litigation against theschool district.

Steve Reese, the director of the Texas High SchoolJournalism Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, said he is notsurprised that sexual topics have been censored from school newspapers becauseadministrators believe students are not mature enough to deal with them. Reesesaid sex has become “politicized” as a health issue, and there isnow an added focus on whether administrators should teach students about birthcontrol and abstinence.

“Administrators are in the business ofcontrolling,” Reese said. “[Sexual] issues have become politicallycontroversial and any time there’s controversy, administrators tend toreact by controlling discussion.”

At Pomona High School inColorado, students Stephanie Siefried and Katie Bolson were preventedfrom publishing their articles about sexually transmitted diseases and birthcontrol in the February issue of their school newspaper, PomonaPerspective, after the newpaper adviser and journalism instructor, ToniFreeman, told them the administration objected to their articles.

Siefried,the feature editor, and Bolson, a co-editor in chief, discussed their topicideas with Freeman prior to writing the articles. In addition to writing aboutsexually transmitted diseases and birth control methods such as the pill andcondoms, the students wanted to survey their classmates about their sexualactivity. The article referred to abstinence as the only foolproof way to avoidsexually transmitted diseases.

After reading the students’ articles,Freeman met with the assistant principal, Victoria Kaye, to express her“discomfort” with the content. Kaye told Freeman that the studentsneeded to “balance” their articles to avoid offending“minor” students, according to Jefferson County School Districtspokesman Rick Kaufman. Freeman instead told Siefried and Bolson that theadministration opposed the articles and as a result, they were not published inFebruary’s issue of the newspaper, according to Kaufman.

PrincipalTerry LaValley, Kaye, Freeman and Superintendent Cindy Stevenson held a March 30meeting to discuss the situation, at which point they reached the conclusionthat the stories needed to not contain vulgar language or offensive content inorder to be published, according to Kaufman. Kaufman said the articles had notcontained vulgar language but could have been considered offensive because oftheir explanation on how to use condoms, diaphragms, andlubricants.

Colorado’s Student Free Expression Law prohibitsexpression in student media that is obscene, defamatory, creates a clear andpresent danger, causes a material or substantial disruption at the school, orviolates others’ rights to privacy. Student editors of school-sponsoredpublications are authorized to determine content.

According to a March 29article in the Denver Post, Siefried believed the articles should havebeen published because among teens, sexuality is “the happening thingright now.”

“This is when our sexuality develops,” Siefriedsaid. “We want to help people make the right decisions from thebeginning.”

LaValley reviewed the articles for the April issue, as partof the school’s prior review policy that requires the principal to reviewarticles before they go to press. The articles were published in the April 15edition of the newspaper.

Deborah Capaldi, a research scientist for theOregon Social Learning Center who studies adolescents, said high schoolteens–ages 14 to 18–are “old enough” to know the factsabout sexual topics and said there is no age when they are not mature“enough” to read about them in high school newspapers or be exposedto them.

“Given the amount of information [high school teens] haveaccess to these days with movies, television and the Internet, [they] areperhaps more sophisticated in ways than prior generations,” Capaldi said.

“Movies sometimes portray sex and the consequences quite sensitively,but a lot them don’t, Capaldi added. “It’s better to beexposed to something well-written about the overall picture [of sex] thansomething completely un-controlled like [what’s found in movies,television, or on the Internet].”

In Florida, Wellington HighSchool student Amanda Escamilla dealt with censorship when her Feb. 16 opinionarticle, “Let’s Talk About Sex” caused her principal, CherylAlligood, to confiscate issues of the school newspaper, the Wave.Alligood decided ninth-grade students “couldn’t handle” thearticle, she said.

Escamilla’s article featured two anonymousstudents’ opposing viewpoints about sex and the morality of it. The lastline of her article read, “Make sure, when the time comes, you truly wantto swipe your v-card, because this purchase is non-refundable.”

Escamilla said she told Alligood about her plans to write the article andthat her principal never told her not to write it.

Alligood ordered thatfour new pages be inserted to replace Escamilla’s column.

The staffdistributed the new paper, mixed with issues of the old that containedEscamilla’s column, but school officials confiscated and destroyed theissues, along with every other newspaper in the newsroom. Students were toldthey would be suspended if they were caught with the issue containingEscamilla’s column.

Escamilla chose not to pursuelitigation.

Barbara Knisely, the public relations manager for the AmericanAssociation of School Administrators, said when administrators censor topicsthey determine are “too mature” for school audiences, it is out ofconcern for community standards that Knisely said vary from place to place.Knisely added that a principal ultimately has to answer to his or her“boss”–the local community and school board.

“Youhave specific community standards that are established and the administrator isacting on behalf of that system,” Knisely said. “It’s not tosay that every decision made is necessarily the right one, but you have to lookat a leader in a position of making a decision, from the standpoint of‘What am I doing [that is] best for the students in this particular schoolsystem?’”

Reese said he believes administrators should not try toshield students from certain “hot-button” topics such as sex becausethey are exposed to them anyway.

“Administrators are defining‘too mature’ much more strictly than students,” Reese said.“Students are well aware of most of these issues to begin with andwouldn’t be surprised by anything they read in a high school paperthat’s already available to them on the Internet and elsewhere.”

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