Md. student paper wins fight over article on allegations against principal

MARYLAND — The allegations against Richard MontgomeryHigh School’s principal already had appeared in local papers.

The Washington Post wrote in late March about parents who were upsetthat Principal Moreno Carrasco had bought an expensive golf cart to helpadministrators get around the campus. The Examiner in an April 7 articlehad raised questions about a consulting business the principal abruptly shutdown after speaking with the paper. The Montgomery County Public School systemwas investigating whether Carrasco’s side business might have violated thedistrict’s ethics policy or interfered with his duties, while a competingconsulting business was accusing Carrasco of having plagiarized some of theirmaterials. Carrasco has denied the ethics and plagiarism allegations, and saidhis business never interfered with his work at Richard Montgomery.

Staffers for the school’s student newspaper, The Tide, felt theyneeded to be covering the story as well.

“We decided it was an important story for our school because it was causingso much controversy,” said Amanda Yeager, one of the paper’s four editors inchief, adding that students had been spreading rumors about the allegations inthe hall.

The paper’s news editors, Upasana Kaku and Valerie Soon, began working onan article and had a draft ready April 17. At their adviser’s suggestion,Yeager, Kaku and Soon met that day with Assistant Principal Veronica McCall;Carrasco had taken medical leave, and McCall was the acting principal. Thestudent journalists showed McCall their draft, and McCall’s verdict was quick:The article could not run.

“She basically put her foot down,” Soon said. McCall told the reporters thearticle would be disruptive and distract students during exams, Soon said.

The Tide staffers immediately appealed, meeting that afternoon withSherry Liebes, the community superintendent with jurisdiction over RichardMontgomery.

Initially, Liebes said, “I just thought [the article] was going to bedistracting from teaching and learning.” The district’s regulation on “StudentRights and Responsibilities” bars school-sponsored publications from printingmaterial that “causes or might reasonably be predicted to cause substantialdisruption of or material interference with school activities.” Liebes said shebelieved, under the circumstances, the Tide article might run afoul ofthat provision, and she said she was inclined to back McCall’s decision.

But over that weekend, MCPS legal staffers concluded the Tidearticle did not violate district policy, Liebes said, and ultimately “ourconcern was that we did not in any way want to inhibit students’ right of freespeech.”

That Monday, McCall met with Kaku and Soon to inform them their articlecould run.

“She told us that she still didn’t like the fact that we would bepublishing [the article], but she would, of course, respect the decision of theboard and Dr. Liebes,” Kaku said.

McCall declined to speak with the Student Press Law Center for this story,but she told a local newspaper, the Gazette, that she remained opposed tothe Tide‘s article running. The papers were distributed April 25.

Kaku and Soon — who will be among the paper’s editors in chief nextyear — said almost all of the feedback they have gotten has beenpositive.

“Our main purpose was to provide a more objective source of information tothe RM community, and I think our article achieved that,” Soon said.

And the experience might have broader effects, as well.

“Hopefully,” Soon said, “it will make the administration more cautiousabout censorship.”