Policy gives administrators editorship of Va. high school newspaper

VIRGINIA — Student editors at Fauquier High School came backfrom summer break to find their positions as editors revoked by way of a newpolicy enacted by the school board that declares the principal and adviser asco-editors and the students as assistants.

The policy was adopted July 13 by the Fauquier County Public School Boardwithout the consultation of the adviser or the students, said William Wilcox,former editor-in-chief of Fauquier High’s The Falconer. Itspecifies that student publications are not intended to provide a public forumfor students or the general public, and that the school board will be thepublishers, the principal the editor and the adviser co-editor. Studentsappointed by the adviser can serve as assistant editors or reporters.

“What the policy is trying to make us into is a newsletter and amouthpiece for the school board … our opinions are not valued and we have tobe controlled,” Wilcox said.

The principal now has prior review privileges and is instructed to censorany items that “may be considered controversial by some members of theschool community,” according to the policy.

The students were informed of the policy Sept. 17, the same day adviserMarie Miller found out it was adopted when she attended an adviser’smeeting and a fellow adviser just happened to come across it on theInternet.

“One of the advisers had been poking around on the Web siteand came across this policy,” Miller said. “It’s verydemoralizing.”

Miler said if this policy remains in place, she is apprehensive of whetherstudents will want to continue working on this paper.

“They won’t go out and seek controversy,” Miller said. “Over time, I could see this making them look over theirshoulders.”

The district based its policy on one distributed by the Virginia SchoolBoard Association (VSBA). The VSBA develops policies and sends them around tostate schools, but it’s up to the individual school district to adopt thepolicy.

Assistant Superintendent for Student Services and Special Education Frank withFauquier County Public Schools Frank Finn receives a list of proposed new policies orrevisions of existing policies from the VSBA. This particular policy, said Finn,came up as a recommended VSBA policy, which is why he introduced it.

“Just in a general way, any VSBA recommended policy we are going toreview and consider,” Finn said. “We are going to adopt most of thepolicies based on recommendation if we agree with them. That’s not justthis policy, that’s any policy.”

Finn said since this policy is consistent with the Supreme Court ruling inthe Hazelwood School District v.Kuhlmeier case, it was clear that the policy should be enforced. Hesaid the ruling gave schools the responsibility for supervision and ensuringthat sound journalistic practices are being taught.

But the Hazelwood ruling does not mandate school policy, said FrankLoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. He said theprecedent set by Hazelwood did not require schools to govern theirpublications with strict administrative control, and that it left open theoption of keeping their publications run as public forums, and it said nothingabout responsibility for supervision.

“Even under Hazelwood, it goes way too far to declare theprincipal editor,” LoMonte said. “Hazelwood allows the schoolto step in if the content violates certain standards, but not to contol everydiscretionary detail.”

Wilcox, Miller and other Falconer staff members disagree with thepolicy and are ready to take action. Wilcox has started a petition with almost200 signatures, and is protesting the policy publicly through socialmedia Web sites. He is getting as many people as possible to write to the schoolboard and he plans to attend the Oct. 12 school board meeting.