MICHIGAN — In Port Hope, a tiny townon Michigan’s east coast, the one school has only 118 students. The mathteacher is the girls basketball coach and the journalism teacher. Thesuperintendent’s wife is an aide to the yearbook class.
Theschool district is grappling with some deeply divisive issues that the studentnewspaper does not dare to touch. By all accounts, the student newspaper at PortHope Community School is more of a newsletter that features school lunch menus,sports scores and, above all, strictly good news.
But several vocalcommunity members said they fear having a good-news-only rule for the studentnewspaper is denying the students a chance to practice realjournalism.
For a town that occupies only one square-mile, Port Hopeis tackling some big issues, including a lawsuit against the school districtdealing with an alleged sexual assault on a male student in the lockerroom.
“I never would have guessed that all this would behappening in Port Hope,” said Traci Weisenbach, a reporter with a localnewspaper, the Huron DailyTribune.
At a Feb. 10 Port Hope Community School Board ofEducation meeting, community member Mike Schave accused administrators ofcensoring the school newspaper, the StarGazer. He said a student informed him that Superintendent Scott Belt hadbeen telling students not to put certain things in the newspaper, such ascomments made by a controversial board member during a publicmeeting.
Sadie Kelley, an 11th grade student at Port Hope, said whenshe covered the Feb. 10 meeting,Belt told her to “just keep everything positive.” That meetinginvolved the board president telling board member Stan Shipp he was out of orderafter Shipp accused the superintendent of telling student journalists what notto include in the article.
“I was like, ‘ok, Iwon’t write anything bad, don’t worry,’” Kelley said.
Schave told the Student Press Law Center in a phone interview,“It looks like they’re hiding something when they tell the studentswhat is good and bad. As far as I’m concerned, you read the newspaper anddecide on your own.”
Belt denied ever telling students whatthey can put in the paper, but said it has been a long-standing practice to onlypublish “positive” stories in thepaper.
“There reallyhasn’t been any censorship,” he said. “The paper was formed toreally do positive publicity. It’s always been just to give a positiveoutlook and to be a PR-type tool for the school.”
Shipp said heworries the students enrolled in the journalism class are not getting a reallesson in journalism and will not be prepared for college journalismclasses.
“The As and Bs our students are earning aren’tthe same as the As and Bs other students are earning,” Shipp said.“They really don’t teach newspaper. They teachnewsletter.”
Journalism teacher Don Pitts, who declined tocomment on whether the newspaper is actually a newsletter, said the class is notgood training for a journalism career.
“I don’t see itas a tool to train kids to pursue a career,” Pitts said.
Beltsaid he thinks students can still get a good journalism foundation at Port Hopeand that no one has ever challenged the school to turn the paper into a vehiclefor hard news.
“I guess they have enough of the regular news inthe local newspaper,” Beltsaid.
SadieKelley, the student, said being advised to only write positive news iscensorship.
“I considered that censorship, but a lot of theother students said it’s always been that way,” shesaid.
A former journalism and yearbook teacher said the paper used tobe a “real newspaper” and was indeed censored byBelt.
Linda Shipp, who is Stan Shipp’swife, said when she was theStar Gazer adviser three years ago,Belt sometimes accessed rough drafts of stories from the journalism classcomputer hard drive before she had a chance to readthem.
“He’d get frustrated and tell the kids hedidn’t like the story,” Shipp said. “I was being censored andthe kids were being censored.”
Belt said those claims areunfounded. “I don’t think any faculty member even has access”to the hard drive, he said.
Shipp said she resigned over thecontinued censorship and because Belt expressed to her that only positive newscould run.
In a 2001 memo provided to the SPLC by Shipp, she wroteto Belt that she wanted to resign because she did not have state endorsement toteach journalism and thought a new teacher “could add various newdimensions to the journalism program… .”
Shipp said she hasbeen on Social Security-funded disability leave for the past twoyears.
Belt declined to discuss Port Hope personnel matters includingthe reasons behind Shipp’sresignation.
The newspaper is not the only publication facing somecontroversy. According to administrators, Don Pitts is the yearbook teacher andthe superintendent’s wife, Maureen Belt, is an aide to that class. But aPort Hope student and the Shipps said Belt is the one who teaches theclass.
“She is the teacher and she teaches computer classes,too,” Kelley said. “She’s real friendly and we like her alot.”
Clara Gust, a parent of a Port Hope student who is inthe yearbook class, said she is not concerned about how big a role Maureen Belt,who does not have a teacher certification or college degree, plays in teachingher daughter.
“Just because someone is a certified teacherdoesn’t mean there isn’t someone else on staff who is moreknowledgeable in a certain subject,” Gustsaid.
An ‘uproar that onlytime is going to cure’
Stan Shipp, the board member whoaccused the superintendent of censoring a student journalist, may not have hisposition for long. A recall election next week may remove him from the board.
Shipp has been outspoken about supporting a family whose son waskilled in a car accident after allegedly being assaulted in a locker room at theschool in 2004. A county prosecutor ruled the death accidental. The boy’s family is suing the district and several boardmembers, including Shipp, in federal court for failure to supervise the lockerroom and for failure to remedy the situation. The student newspaper did notcover the story.
Clara Gust, her husband Mark Gust and a number ofadministrators are quick to point out they think the Shipps have a personalvendetta against the school.
“These people are trying to bringpersonal things, personal problems they think someone has done against them.They are trying to do the best they can to discredit the school,” Beltsaid. “The community has been in an uproar that only time is going tocure.”
The Shipps said they have nothing to gain from helpingthe family of the Port Hope student who was allegedly assaulted in the lockerroom, nor do they have any motives in speaking about the practices of thestudent newspaper.
“They want us to shut up,” Linda Shippsaid. “They don’t want us talking about anything that goes on in thedistrict.”
Stan Shipp said that secretive mentality is to blamefor the administrators’ attempts to control content in theStar Gazer.
“Thereason they want to censor everything is they don’t want the public toknow anything that’s going on in the school,” he said. “Theyhave this fear that if anything gets out, it’s going to hurt theirreputation.”
Mike Schave, who is running for school board inthe spring, said leaving out important facts that may be interpreted to be“negative” is not doing anyone any good, least of all the journalismstudents at Port Hope.
“I believe the students should learn thefreedom of speech,” Schave said. “I believe the community should knowthe truth.”
—by EmilyWalker, SPLC staff writer