ARKANSAS –High school students in Little Rock are weighing their legal options after theirprincipal pulled an issue of the student newspaper over a feature concerningdrugs and gang activity.
TheGalaxy, the student newspaper at Wilber D. Mills University Studies HighSchool, was confiscated May 26 when principal Bill Barnes objected to a coverphoto of a gang member that accompanied stories investigating potential gang anddrug problems at the school.
The student newspaper adviser, KentSmith, said Barnes called him into his office just after the papers weredistributed.
”Barnes’ initial claim to us was that thiswas fabricated, this doesn’t occur in his school, which my staff memberstook great offense,” Smith said.
Barnes was unable to commentThursday, he said, due to end of the school year duties.
However,Barnes told the ArkansasDemocrat-Gazette he pulled the papers because he objected to the dominantfront-page photograph of an apparent gang member with a red bandana wrappedaround his face, leaving only his eyes visible.
”We think thatsomeone could figure out who it is,” Barnes toldthe Democrat-Gazette. ”It couldend up being a serious problem.”
But the newspaper’sdesign editor, Tiffany Summitt, said even if someone could identify the studenton the cover, it would not change much.
”Everyone knew who itwas,” she said. ”It’s not like [gang members] hide who theyare, they’re proud of it.”
Summitt said she was not inschool when the papers were distributed, but when she arrived, ”there waschaos” in reaction to the confiscation of thepaper.
”There were a lot of people planning walk-outs andsit-ins, it was insane,” Summitt said. ”Despite the fact that theytook up most of them they couldn’t take them if they were on astudent’s person. Many students put them under their clothes and severalpeople walked around with the front page pinned to theirshirts.”
The Democrat-Gazette reported that Barnessaid Smith should have paid closer attention to the students’ work. ButSmith said he is far from frivolous in his advising.
”Idon’t allow them to print something for shock value, they have to have agood reason for writing the story,” Smith said.
Smith saidThe Galaxy reports that, while thecommunity has gang activity, the school does not have a problem because thegangs largely consider the school a ”safe ground” and a ”placeof peace.” He also said the students darkened the photo to help protectthe gang member’s identity.
Smith said when he was firstcalled to Barnes’ office, he felt threatened.
”He said ‘this is possible grounds to be fired,”’ Smith said. ”Hewent on and said, ‘if something happens to a student that would be groundsfor firing.’ I didn’t get that because I was caught off guard.”
This is apparently the first time Barnes has taken anysteps to control the paper according to Smith and Allen Loibner, director of theArkansas Scholastic Press Association.
Loibner, who wasThe Galaxy’s adviser for two anda half years before Smith took the position, said Barnes has handled previouscontroversies regarding the paper well and was even awarded the ASPA’sadministrator of the year award in 2004.
”Half of me sayshe’s really concerned for student safety more than anything else,”Loibner said. ”I don’t think he’s protected to do what he did,but I think he’s truly concerned for studentsafety.”
Staff photographer Erica Torres said she would like tofile a lawsuit but that she is not sure quite how to go about filing one and howdoing so would improve the situation.
”We’re really notsure if we’re going to go through with [a lawsuit] or not,” Torressaid.
Arkansas state law is clear when it comes to the rights ofstudent journalists and their advisers. TheArkansas Student Publications Act,which became law in 1995, requires school districts to come up with studentpublications policy statements that protect student journalists and theiradvisers.
Loibner said thestudent publications policy forPulaski County Special School District, in which the high school resides, is oneof the strongest in the state.
”We have one of the mostiron-clad policies there are,” Loibner said. ”We go above and beyondstate law.”
Summitt, who will be co-editor of the newspapernext year, said she and her staff are not going to let the incident, or the factthat the school is facing turnover in administrators, change what theypublish.
”We’re not going to make our paper fluff becausethe principal got touchy with one of our subjects,” Summitt said.
”We’ll stay on the topics we have been doing. Now that we’reaware of our rights we’re not going to have them takenaway.”