Students ask school board to decide if principal was right in not allowing story to print

ARIZONA — Two Arizona high school students are appealing anadministrator’s decision that the student newspaper could not print anarticle about the district’s teacher assessment testing.

Vaughn Hillyard — who was editor of the Challenge, the studentnewspaper of Thunderbird High School in Phoenix, Ariz., until recentlygraduating — said a Challenge reporter set out to get student andteacher reactions to the district-wide test.

But shortly before going to press, Principal Matt Belden told theChallenge staff their story would not run. The students appealed hisdecision to Superintendent Jennifer Johnson, who agreed with Belden and saidthe story was biased.

Hillyard and another staff member are now challenging Johnson’sdecision with an appeal to the district’s governing board. A date has notbeen set for the school board’s appeal hearing.

“We feel that there’s a great lack of respect toward studentswhen we’re trying to simply have a quality journalism class,”Hillyard said, adding the story was as neutral as possible with the reportingand information they acquired.

In the story, teachers expressed skepticism about the Performance BasedAssessment, which the district uses to rank teachers and determine whether theirstudents are learning the curriculum. From each classroom, four tests arerandomly selected and graded; those four scores are meant to show how effectivethe teacher had been that year.

Belden answered questions about the test during a monthly class pressconference and told the reporter to pursue the story. But Belden later refusedto comment further for the article. The reporter also contacted districtadministrators for interviews more than once but did not receive a response,Hillyard said.

“I’m just very disappointed in the way our school district hashandled the situation and for ignoring the reasons that they’re there forand that’s to educate and support their own students,” Hillyardsaid.

Hillyard said Belden came up with strange reasons to censor the story,including alleging the students were asked by teachers to publish a story with anegative light.

Kim Mesquita, the district’s community relations administrator, saidthe article was censored because some information was inaccurate.

“We have a district policy already about our student newspapers andunder that policy I would not consider it censorship,” Mesquitasaid.

Hillyard contends the story was fair and accurate and that administratorshave given little explanation for their action. He noted more than half ofapplicable teachers responded to their survey.

For the story, the Challenge distributed a short survey to everyteacher who administers the test at Thunderbird High School asking for opinions.They received responses from 30 teachers; 55 give the exam.

According to the most recent appeal, the district’s student newspaperpolicy explicitly states, “rules, regulations, and policies of the schoolor district may be discussed.”

Hillyard said the staff ran a blank space on the front page where the storywas set to run.

Prior to the test article, Hillyard said administrators, to his knowledge,had not previously censored the paper.

“We’ve decided we’re going to fight this until the end,” Hillyard said.