Students limit distribution of high school prom supplement in shootings' wake

In many circumstances, student speech that can potentially be dubbed “violent” does not make national headlines. Sometimes, it does not even make it to the superintendent’s desk. Objectionable material does not always come to light when students exercise their own judgment to decide what speech might not be appropriate. Some student publications, including a high school newspaper in Maple Park, Ill. , have tried to avoid controversy by deciding for themselves what is fit to print. A prom supplement that appeared in the April issue of Kaneland High School’s student newspaper, the Kaneland Krier, gave a nod to the school’s James Bond-themed dance. The supplement carried the headline “Achieving the Bond’ Look for Prom” and included two variations on cover art: one with a picture of a boy in a tuxedo pointing a water gun at the reader against the backdrop of a martini glass, and the other showed a girl in formal wear holding a stage prop pistol. Newspaper adviser Laurie Erdmann said the newspaper was distributed to the school on April 5, but the student staff decided not to release the paper to the greater community two weeks later as planned after the Virginia Tech shooting. The students took a formal vote and decided unanimously not to publish the supplement covers online either. They did not want the paper to be perceived as insensitive or encouraging of violence, said Erdmann, who has served as adviser for 33 years. “We as a staff made the decision not to send them out,” said Amanda Smith, 18, the newspaper’s outgoing copy editor in chief. But word of the prom supplement nevertheless leaked to the community, and the student newspaper received complaints from a parent and an elementary school teacher who objected to the portrayal of gun violence. Heather Lyons, the parent who issued a complaint, said while she has heard the school say the newspaper cannot be restricted, she thinks it should be the school’s responsibility to discourage students from glorifying guns and violence, especially in the wake of Virginia Tech. “Why are they allowed to glamorize violence?” Lyons said. Kaneland High School has not signaled it will take any disciplinary action or implement any new student publications policy in response to the complaints. Students said the situation died down after Lyons published her complaint on the newspaper’s editorial section. Erdmann said she was pleased with her students’ effort to exercise sound editorial judgment. She said although the students were initially defensive about their work, the conflict provided them with an apt learning experience about press rights and journalistic integrity. “They tried to put themselves in the shoes of a parent,” Erdmann said. “We really learned a lot about the power of visual messages. The school has stood behind the Krier throughout the conflict.” Charles McCormick, the Kaneland School District superintendent, said while it was unfortunate that the prom message was interpreted by some as an exhibition of violence, he intends to uphold the school’s long history of having student editorial control. “They aren’t always going to show what the principal and I think are exactly the right principles, but that is the learning process,” he said. “I think this whole situation proves that we have a very responsible editorial staff.”Randy Swikle, a former adviser to an Illinois high school student newspaper, said more school officials should take that attitude, focusing on teaching students about the rights afforded by the First Amendment instead of cracking down on them for stretching its limitations. “Schools can’t use the First Amendment in an autocratic way,” Swikle said. “They need to start teaching students to ask themselves, I know I have the right to say this, but is it right that I do say it?”