Preventing yearbook vandalism

As spring delivery yearbooks begin to arrive on high school campuses across the country, there will be — as happens every year — a tiny few that include unpleasant surprises (and it is a very “tiny” number relative to the thousands of yearbooks that will arrive exactly as expected.)  That’s because every year, it’s discovered that someone snuck some prank entry into the yearbook files — often after the pages had been signed off on by editors but before being sent to the printer, but sometimes simply by being sneaky and slipping it past the editors.

Among those we’ve seen over the years: doctoring classmates’ names, substituting an unflattering photo, inserted “coded” messages or profanity, rewriting a student bio or adding racist comments.

Often the change is meant as a joke, but while their intent might have been to have some fun, there is nothing funny about the practice. Moreover, many of these vandals (frequently seniors on their way out the door) aren’t trying to be funny at all; they are inserting material that is malicious and mean-spirited — material that would never have passed the regular editorial process. Moreover, in the worst cases, it is material that may be unlawful, perhaps libeling or invading the privacy rights of the target.

The vandals can be yearbook staffers (a particularly tough thing for an adviser and the rest of the staff to accept), but very often they are students with no connection to student media, just a bone to pick and some way of gaining access to the yearbook files.

If this happens to you, the first thing to do is scour the rest of the book closely. Where there’s one change, there has clearly been a security breach (or some systemic editorial oversight) and there may be others. You’ll want to address the problem once, rather than have complaints trickle in.

Once satisfied you’ve caught all the changes, assess them. Do they fall into the “just funny or stupid” category that — while you should still be mad as heck — are likely to be shrugged off and soon forgotten? Or are they more serious, perhaps even posing potential legal problems?

If you think you might be looking at this second category, a quick call to the Student Press Law Center or another media law attorney is in order. They can help you obtain a more precise read of what you’re up against and what your next step and options might be. They can also help you navigate what can sometimes become a sticky conflict with administrators whose ideas about how to respond may conflict with yearbook staff. Certainly, if the change was noticed after delivery, but before distribution you’ll want to delay passing the books out until you’ve obtained solid advice.

In every case, you’ll want to start trying to track down the perpetrator. Contact your tech department and ask them to help you look at your computer user files and access records, which may provide some clues about when the changes occurred and who might be responsible. Also, ask around. Very often, the vandal is not going to be content until her work is discovered; she may be overheard pointing out her handiwork to others. You may also want to contact the police. Breaking into computer files without authorization and making changes to yearbook property is a crime — probably several crimes.

It is also an act that — if you can identify the culprit — can support a civil lawsuit to recover any monetary damages you have suffered. Property has been vandalized; the vandals are legally responsible for making things right, up to and including footing the bill for reprinting the books, if necessary, as well as paying for extra staff time, shipping costs and compensation to advertisers if their destructive acts require you to issue refunds. Any reasonable cost associated with making the yearbooks “right” is theirs to shoulder.

In the end, though, it’s still all a major pain, an embarrassment, a source of rage — and an unfair “black eye” to the yearbook and its staff who worked tirelessly for months towards one goal: putting out the best yearbook they could.

The best practice, therefore, is one of prevention. If you are fortunate to be the faculty adviser or editor for one of the 99 percent of yearbooks that was delivered just as it was supposed to be, first, thank the yearbook gods for watching over you — and then talk to your tech department about beefing up security with a stronger password system, keeping a comprehensive user log, and reviewing the user permission settings you’ve established. Talk with the maintenance folks about making sure your newsroom is secure and that you have filing cabinets or other storage capabilities that can be locked. And talk with the staff at the beginning of next year about the importance of consistently signing off of their accounts when they finish work on a file, protecting (i.e. never sharing) passwords, locking doors, reporting unauthorized visitors and other “weird stuff” they might notice. Also talk with them about the serious consequences of their making changes to the yearbook outside the normal editing process (including, it should not be understated, the consequences to the teacher’s job security as the person who, unfairly, will shoulder the public blame if the yearbook comes out imperfectly).

Yearbook vandalism is a remote, but potentially serious threat at every school. Knowing how to respond — but more importantly how to avoid the threat in the first place — is something all staffs need to know.