N.M. school district weighs adding prior review policy to publication guidelines

NEW MEXICO — After operating under a less restrictive student publications policy during the past school year, Clovis High School’s Purple Press student newspaper once again faces the threat of prior review.

When Purple Press adviser Carol Singletary read a copy of the school district’s newly proposed policy manual, released in early May, she found the policy she wrote a year earlier. It was a policy based on the Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines, in which officials are allowed to censor only if the content of a student publication “materially disrupts class work or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others.”

But Singletary noticed her policy contained an addition.

She said district administrators added the line, “All student publications will be submitted to the principal for review prior to publication,” to the policy she had written for the Purple Press. Because the line reads “publications,” the high school yearbook and publications at the district’s middle schools and elementary schools would also be subject to the review of principals if the school board accepts the policy.

“When it came out I said, ‘Let me see what they did to my policy,’” she said. “I guess in a way I expected this to be inserted.”

The policy proposal continues a debate from early 2004 when three members of the Purple Press received in-school suspensions for protesting a renewed prior review policy. Although prior review existed for about a decade at the school, the school’s principal dropped the policy at Singletary’s request when she accepted the position as adviser in 2003.

At the beginning of the 2004-2005 school year the administration asked Singletary to write a set of guidelines for the newspaper. When the administration accepted her Tinker standard policy she said she was pleasantly surprised.

But the prospect of facing the issue all over again is disappointing to Singletary. She is puzzled as to why the administration seems so uncomfortable with her policy.

“My kids have never written anything controversial, nothing really out there on the edge,” Singletary said, adding the lack of controversy surprised her because many other student newspapers she read seemed to be filled with inflammatory material.

The students that fought the prior review policy in 2004 departed Clovis High School on May 19 knowing their newspaper was once again under fire, she said.

Complicating Singletary’s understanding of the proposal’s justification is the recent change of superintendents. Neil Nuttall, the superintendent serving when the three students received suspensions, resigned to accept another job in the middle of the school year and was replaced by an interim superintendent who never settled into the position, Singletary said.

On June 1, Rhonda Seidenwurm assumed the permanent position of Clovis superintendent.

Assistant Superintendent Jim McDaniels said the school district hired a consultant named Donn Williams to create a comprehensive school board policy manual, which includes guidelines for student publications.

McDaniels said he is unaware why Williams included the prior review proposal because there were no problems between the Purple Press and the administration during the past school year, but he believes Williams based the new Clovis policy on those of other school districts he researched.

“He came and asked lots of questions, put together a draft, went over all the policies with different folks and put together this draft [of the policy manual],” he said.

Mark Lansford, vice president of the Clovis School Board, said the proposed policy would be flawed in that it would move guidance of the publications to someone with “no expertise” in the matter.

“I think the [advisers] certainly know more about the law and publication rules than do building principals,” he said.

As for the inclusion of a revised publications policy in the manual, Lansford suggested the writer “slipped that in there trying to see if anybody would notice it.”

Although the administration wants the school board to pass the new policies before the summer ends, Lansford said he hopes the process will take much longer to ensure that the manual receives proper scrutiny.

The board will hold their first public meeting to discuss the manual sometime this month.

Lansford, who served as editor of the Clovis High School newspaper from 1974 to 1975, said although he does not agree with the proposed policy, he is uncertain how the rest of the board will vote.

“You might as well throw a dice on the floor and hope for a seven,” he said, adding that the more community members that voice their concern with the manual’s policy on student publications the more likely the board members are to alter it before approval.

Singletary said she plans to be among those lobbying against the policy.

“I’ll present to [the board members] why it’s important to go back to the Tinker standard,” she said.

–By Mike Hart

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