When high school administrators confiscate student newspapers or force students to change what they’ve written, the explanation is almost invariably some variety of, “You’re making the school look bad.” But at Missouri’s Timberland High School, the most talented muckraker could not dredge up a bucket of sleaze muddying the school’s reputation more than its own administrators have.
- First, the school massively overreacted and stripped the staff of the Wolf’s Howl newspaper of their long-standing editorial independence over, of all things, the editors’ decision to accept a local church’s ad encouraging girls not to have abortions.
- Then, the school confiscated and refused to distribute an issue of the newspaper that violated Principal Winston Rogers’ “zero tolerance for tattoos” policy — because of a postage-stamp-sized image of a student’s breast-cancer ribbon tattoo, memorializing a cherished friend. The school was embarrassed into reversing that decision. But the degrading fights over every edition of the Wolf’s Howl drove its longtime faculty adviser, Cathy McCandless, to step down — just months after she and her staff celebrated a third-place national award for excellence, recognizing the pre-censorship version of the paper.
- And then, when parents showed up at a March 18 school board meeting to speak out against the destruction of their kids’ work and the loss of a valued teacher, they found the public-comment period stacked with school apologists. Tone-deaf board members could not make time for any of the pro-journalism parents to speak.
Timberland’s senseless insistence on maintaining a demonstrably failed regime of “prior review” is attracting growing national condemnation. Last Thursday, leaders of the Society of Professional Journalists wrote to Principal Rogers and to Superintendent Terry Adams, expressing concern for the students whose well-being has been subordinated to an administrative power trip gone out of control.
“A student newspaper needs to be a place where students can read about and discuss issues that are important to them even if those issues sometimes make people uncomfortable,” said the letter, signed by SPJ National President Kevin Smith and by Vice President Neil Ralston, a college journalism professor.
“Administrators at some schools prefer that their student ‘newspapers’ publish nothing controversial, that the student journalists report only on positive events,” SPJ’s letter said. “But those publications are not really newspapers, and they teach students nothing about journalism or the role that journalism plays in our society.”
So, to recap, the Wolf’s Howl brought Timberland High School national awards for cultivating one of the best journalism programs under one of the top advisers in the country. The school administration’s stubborn adherence to failed policies — and refusal to even give a courtesy hearing to contrary views — has resulted in a nationally publicized rebuke.
Remind us again, who’s making the school look bad?