High school principal closes open-forum publication over sex survey

VIRGINIA — A sexsurvey published in the student newspaper at Midlothian High School has led theprincipal of that school to challenge the paper’s claim to open-forumstatus.

The Trojan Times reported in February the findings of a survey, conducted by the paper’sstaff, which asked students at each grade level to define somerelationship-related terms, as well as give their opinions on topics such ascasual sex and cheating.

The survey, which was taken anonymously,included questions such as: ”Is being intoxicated an excuse forcheating?” ”Who falls harder, boys or girls?” and ”Howlong do you believe in waiting before introducing sexual activity with yourpartner?”

The newspaper’s sports editor, Caitlin Davis,said the survey was meant to indirectly show flaws in the school’sabstinence-based health curriculum, known as ”family life,” and wasin no way meant to advocate sex.

”We wanted to give everyone awakeup call as to what was going on, because our family life program was notworking,” Davis said.

Tiffany Gibson, a graduating senior andeditor in chief of the paper, said they have not published an issue sinceFebruary, after Midlothian High School Principal Christine Wilson told her andother staff members they had to change their editorial policy prior topublishing again.

”We had our early-April issue ready to go andthen she said we have to change the policy before we print it,” Gibsonsaid. ”We told her we didn’t want to and that’s when it allstarted.”

Wilson deferred repeated requests for comment toMichael Packer, an attorney with Chesterfield County PublicSchools.

Packer said that Wilson found the survey articleinappropriate because she felt many of the survey responses advocated casual sexand underage alcohol consumption.

”I think that the surveybrought to the attention of the principal that the editorial policy, as writtenin the paper, is different from the practice,” Packer said. ”That iswhat caused the principal to want to make the change in the written policy inthe paper.”

The paper’s written editorial policy, as ofFebruary, states: ”The Trojan Times is an open forum for student expression and the discussion ofissues of concern to its audience.” It further states: ”Schoolofficials will not be responsible for the content of the publication;consequently the Trojan Times will notbe reviewed, restrained or withheld from distribution by schoolofficials.”

In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down adecision in Hazelwood School District v.Kuhlmeier restricting high school students’ free press rights byallowing certain circumstances under which a high school newspaper may becensored.

In its decision, the Court ruled that if either ”bypolicy or by practice” a student paper has been opened as a forum forstudent expression, and student editors have control over content, anadministrator’s ability to interfere with the newspaper islimited.

Packer said the TrojanTimes was never an open forum to begin with, and therefore Wilson’sdecision is not changing policy, but rather updating the policy printed in thenewspaper to reflect the actual policy in practice.

”Myunderstanding is when the sponsor was concerned about a particular article, shewould bring it to the attention of the principal but did not do a review ofevery article of every issue,” Packer said. ”She felt the writing inthe paper should conform with past practices of reviewingarticles.”

Gibson, the newspaper’s editor, and adviserWendy Spanier each dispute Packer’s interpretation of the policy inpractice. They say the written policy does reflect what is being practiced andthat the newspaper is an open forum consistent with Hazelwood.

Spanier describedthe editorial policy, which she said has remained the same since she took thejob in 1999, as ”autonomous,” saying the few times she approachedWilson prior to a paper’s publication were not a matter of policy but,”out of professional deference and when I felt she would be personallyaffected.”

She stressed, however, that she never showed Wilsonan article prior to publication, nor did she ever pull an article atWilson’s request.

Although Spanier said she enjoys teachingjournalism, she said she will not advise the student newspaper next year. Shewill, however, continue teaching English.

”I didn’t wantto give up teaching journalism, but under the circumstances I feel it would becareer suicide,” Spanier said.

Spanier said she could notopenly discuss the conditions that led her to such a conclusion. Packer said hecould not comment on personnel matters and referred any questions regardingSpanier to her.

An open records request filed by Trojan Times back-page editor SkylerPollard for ”all documents regarding change in the editorial policy of theTrojan Times … issued by Mrs.Wilson” resulted in the withholding of one document.

A similarrequest for records by the Student Press Law Center is currently beingprocessed.

In the letter responding to Pollard’s request,Wilson justifies withholding the document, saying, ”it is a personnelrecord containing information concerning identifiableindividuals.”

Gibson said she and the other students weredisappointed with Wilson’s decision to withhold the document and suspectedthe withheld document held the answers to the motive behind the policy change,or possibly a reason for Spanier’s stepping down asadviser.

”It shocked us that they were withholding and tryingto protect something,” Gibson said.

Although both aregraduating on June 14, Gibson and Davis each said they are not going to leavetheir dispute with Wilson unsettled. Both expressed interest in meeting withWilson as a staff to sort out their differences.

”We stillreally want to have a meeting with her so we can talk with her back andforth,” Gibson said. ”We want to settle this outside of the courts — that would be really messy.”

Packer said Wilson”hopes to work it out with the newspaper staff,” and said he knowsshe has talked to students individually. Gibson and Davis each said that Wilsonhas never spoken to the class as a whole.

Gibson said that despitethe staff’s desire to keep the issue out of the courts, they are notruling out the legal option.

”[Wilson] has really blown it outof proportion,” Gibson said. ”So it might have to go thatfar.”