TEXAS — What began as censorship of a high school newspaper for articles on sex has escalated into an open meetings lawsuit filed by a local newspaper over an alleged violation by the district’s school board.
The Danbury Independent School District held its regular school board meeting on March 19 to hear appeals made by three high school students to permit their newspaper’s December issue to be distributed. The board went into executive session to question the students and then took a public vote of 5-1 against the distribution of the newspapers.
The Brazosport Facts, a Clute, Texas newspaper that has been covering the censorship, filed a lawsuit on March 21 that challenges the legality of the board’s executive session.
The D-Town Press, the student newspaper, printed an issue in December 2006 devoted to stories that discussed teenage sexuality, teenage mothers and sexually transmitted diseases. Principal Christopher Kocurek withheld distribution of the newspapers, stating that some of the material was not age-appropriate and violated district policy, according to Press Adviser Kristi Piper.
The newspaper was later told by school officials that the newspaper violated a district policy on prior review, Piper said.
According to the district’s policy, “All [school] publications…shall be part of the instructional program, under the supervision of a faculty sponsor, and shall be carefully edited to reflect the ideals and expectations of the citizens of the District of their schools.” Piper said that the policy does not require an administrator to review the publication and that she has never been required to submit the publication for review in the eight years she has taught journalism in the district.
Students appealed the decision according to school protocol, leading up to the March 19 school board meeting at which the students were permitted to read their statements. Piper said that prior to the meeting, those in attendance were asked to leave the room for the board to “set up.” Shortly thereafter, Junior Class President Ryan Davenport and Press writer Katie Stephens were permitted to reenter into a closed-session meeting to read their appeals, Piper said. Another student also filed an appeal, but was unable to attend the meeting.
The school board claimed the executive session was supported by Section 551-074 of the Texas Open Meetings Act, which deals with personnel issues, according to the Facts.
Facts Editor and Publisher Bill Cornwell said the newspaper decided to pursue legal action after attempting to inform the board that the meeting did not qualify under the specified section.
“Our open meetings laws are very narrow in the state of Texas,” Cornwell said. “You can only go into executive session if you’re discussing some type of legal action, personnel matter or property issue. We feel like that what they did was…well, they broke the law.”
Superintendent Eric Grimmett and Kocurek did not return phone calls for comment before press time.
But Grimmett did submit a statement to the Facts following the lawsuit that said, “We believe the district acted in accordance with the law in all respects. In light of pending litigation, no further comment is appropriate.”
Cornwell also said that the closed meeting might not have given the students a fair chance in their appeal.
“We don’t know if they intimidated the students, threatened them or intimidated the students by threatening the student’s sponsor,” Cornwell said. “We don’t know if they tried to strike a deal with the students.”
Piper said she is discouraged with the status of the situation and believes that if the newspaper had been distributed, there would have been “no consequence.”
“I regret that it came to this,” Piper said. “There was nothing offensive in the paper.”
Davenport said some of the journalism students are hoping to reprint a portion of the December issue articles, according to the Facts.
“A lot of people say that [the censoring is] based on policy, so let’s see if we can make it in the next newspaper and see if it’ll pass the review,” Davenport said.
The open meetings lawsuit is pending in the Brazoria County District Court.
By Erica Hudock, SPLC staff writer