Ind. principal orders student journalists to request permission for interviews

INDIANA — The staff of the student newspaper at Fort Wayne’s South Side High School will face a new hurdle during the upcoming school year: A new policy introduced by the school’s principal states that the students must receive his permission to call employees of the school district for interviews.

The policy directive was given to adviser Gregory C. Jones in May after South Side Times student reporter Jonathan Batuello wrote a story about district plans to change one of its middle schools into a magnet school.

Batuello said he attempted to interview Superintendent Wendy Robinson for the story but the first message he left with the district’s public information officer was returned days letter stating Robinson said she did not wish to speak with the media.

Batuello conferred with then-editor Mike Sanserino, who suggested calling back and explaining the nature of the questions he wanted to ask of Robinson. After calling Robinson’s office for the second time and receiving the same response from the public information officer, he questioned why she would not speak with a reporter from the school newspaper after already speaking with other Fort Wayne media organizations about the subject. Sanserino said several news organizations in the town reported on the story with Robinson as a source.

The students ran the story without comments from Robinson and soon after Principal Tom Smith sent a letter to Jones presenting the policy. The students said they believe the policy stemmed from lingering resentment Robinson has toward the paper for a story it published on athletic recruitment that exposed the district to negative press earlier in the year.

Smith denied that the policy was aimed at the students.

“This is coming off as a student issue and it is not a student issue,” Smith said. “I did not stop them from calling any person that needed to be called.”

Smith said the policy was introduced because of “personnel issues” involving Jones and said his position as the adviser was “up in the air” for the coming school year. He would not elaborate further on the “personnel issues.”

Jones, who served his first year as the adviser of the paper, would not comment on the incident, saying the administration had forbidden him from talking to the press.

Smith said he received a complaint that one of Batuello’s phone calls to the superintendent had been disrespectful and this increased the need for the policy.

“I wanted to make sure that I knew who they were calling and I wanted to make sure that when they made the calls they were making the call in a respectful, reasonable manner,” Smith said.

Sanserino denied that either of Batuello’s phone calls had been disrespectful. While Smith had been generally supportive of the paper, the paper’s increased coverage of more controversial stories during the past year has changed the paper’s relationship with the school and the district, Sanserino said.

“It seems like the administration, both in and out of the school, would rather us not cover difficult topics,” he said. “They would rather us stick to in-school activities and clubs and just being an informative piece of propaganda that supports the school.”

Stephen Key, an attorney at the Hoosier State Press Association in Indianapolis, said he does not believe the censorship is justified by the standard set in the Supreme Court’s 1988 decision in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. Under Hazelwood, high school administrators can censor many school-sponsored student publications simply by showing they have a legitimate educational reason for doing so.

“For the life of me, I can’t see any kind of educational reason to tell the student journalists that they can’t even contact somebody,” Key said.

Batuello, who replaces Sanserino as the editor of the South Side Times this school year, said he respects Smith but will not allow the policy to hinder the paper’s coverage of stories.

“I told him, ‘If there comes up a story where I really need to talk to someone and you’re saying no, I’m not going to hesitate to call them and I’ll take whatever punishment you hand to me,’” Batuello said.

A representative from the district was not available for comment.

–Mike Hart