Schools' restrictions on posting photos and other identifying information online can leave a hole in high school student journalists' reporting

With the increasing move toward online journalism, high schools across the country are struggling to find a balance between teaching journalism for the Web while also responding to parents’ safety concerns.

When the staff of The Eye at Palm Harbor University High School in Florida posts news to its website, it does so without pictures — in fear of violating the Pinellas County School District’s policy on posting students’ information online.

The district’s Web page guidelines prevent a student’s name and picture from being displayed together and only allow a student’s name to be published on a district website if a parent or guardian signs a media release form.

The policy has caused some concern about the impact on teaching journalism among advisers, including Judy Cannaday at Palm Harbor High.

”If we teach them not to put pictures on the Internet, or to put pictures with just a first name, or ‘a group of students attend a field trip to the zoo,’ we’re not teaching them to be responsible journalists who get all the information and get it all accurately,” Cannaday said.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said the issue is a growing problem as more schools try to teach students online journalism.

”We’re certainly hearing dozens and dozens of complaints from all over the country that schools are requiring that online newspapers be filled with anonymous stories and faceless photographs,” he said.

The district’s policy is more out of safety concerns than any legal obligation, said Allen Mortimer, director of planning and policy for Pinellas County Schools.

”We probably legally could just put students’ names on the website,” he said. ”But when it comes to the Internet, we want to be as cautious as we can.”

The guidelines state that, ”No web page content should allow people accessing the page to contact any student directly.”

LoMonte said the fact that students’ names and pictures regularly appear in professional newspapers demonstrates the myth behind the safety risks.

”Open the website of the typical community newspaper and you will see people playing high school sports, performing in school concerts and otherwise doing identifiable things,” he said. ”If predators were swooping down and grabbing up kids because they appeared on news websites, we would know that by now.”

Cannaday said student journalists should be able to report on their schools’ activities too.

”I have mixed feelings about it, because I certainly don’t want to be the person who puts a student in trouble,” she said.

But Cannaday called the policy ”paranoid” — its language even prohibits file names of documents or photos uploaded to the website from including a student’s name, in case someone could trace it. She said it is unclear whether it even applies to websites run by student journalists instead of the district.

Her staff at The Eye puts their stories online — with students’ names — but does not post pictures. The school’s administration told Cannaday that would require getting permission from parents.

The lack of clarity has left the policy up to interpretation by administrators at different schools within the district.

At Lakewood High School, another school in the Pinellas County School District, journalism students have to get permission for every name or picture they post online.

The school relaunched its journalism program last year as part of the Journeys in Journalism program with the St. Petersburg Times, and adviser Kathleen Tobin said they knew they wanted a big online presence, which would be a first for Lakewood High.

”And we knew that this would be a difficulty,” she said, referring to the Web page guidelines. ”Basically what they told us is we would need to have media release forms signed for every person we mentioned or took a picture of.”

So before the staff posts a story online or sends an issue of the newspaper to be printed, they highlight every name and check it with their database, Tobin said. If they don’t have a release form for a student, they rush them a form and ask them to return it as soon as possible.

Mortimer acknowledged that the policy is unclear and difficult to enforce in a consistent way.

”There’s so many opportunities for students’ names for the awards, athletics and so on, that I’m not sure that we actually avoid putting any students’ names online,” he said. ”And I think in general, even though the policy is probably blanket K-12, I think we’re more concerned about younger grades than high school grades.”

Wendy Wallace, director of the Poynter Institute’s high school journalism program, said she hopes to bring the district and the advisers together to come up with a solution that is clear and works for both sides.

”It’s just a situation that just can’t be right. There has to be another solution than what we’re currently doing,” she said. ”You can’t do journalism if you can’t write about students, take pictures of students or show students’ faces.”

The current policy is impractical with the need for timeliness on the Web, Cannaday said.

”It could take a week to get a kid to take a form home and get his mom or dad to sign it saying it’s OK for us to run a picture, and by then it’s old news,” she said.

Cannaday said she has followed a discussion on the Journalism Education Association listserv among advisers across the nation on whether schools require the opt-in permission forms or an opt-out form, where names and photos can be published unless a parent or guardian asks for them not to be.

”This problem is all across the country,” she said. ” From what I’ve read, many places have the opt-in form. They have to get a permission form from the students’ parents in order to put the picture online, which is the policy that my district has. And it’s very challenging to get all this paperwork in.”

Tobin said she thinks the opt-out policy would be easier for student journalists while still allowing parents to make the decision about the safety of their child.

The staff at Lakewood High has gotten roughly half of the school’s 1,400 students to return a form, she said. Of those, only about six parents have asked for their child’s information not to be put online.

An opt-out system is the system specified in the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. FERPA enables parents to prevent schools from publishing ”directory information,” such as names and photos, about their children.

Cannaday said the process of collecting opt-in forms is discouraging for student journalists.

”It’s hard to teach the kids how to do the right thing, how to be responsible journalists,” she said. ”They don’t really want to make the effort when they don’t think it’s going to get published. So they don’t try.”

It is a typical reaction for schools to shy away from something new when there are questions about students’ safety, Cannaday said.

”But we have to realize that that’s the way the world is now,” she said. ”The world is changing; journalism and social networking are changing. As teachers we have to first of all figure out what the right thing to do is and then teach our students to do it correctly.”

By Josh Moore, SPLC staff writer