Ga. administrators confiscate newspapers, cite FERPA

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been modified from its original version.]

GEORGIA — A high school newspaper is now under prior reviewafter its January issue was confiscated by administrators last week.

A spokeswoman confirmed that principal Pam Spalla will now require the staff to submit the newspaper to her before itgoes to press and that she will also read over the printed product before it isavailable for students to pick up.

Administrators told the Messengerstaff to retrieve all copies of the paper after they had started distributingthem. They were able to get back about 738 of the 750 copies.

Fulton County Schools spokeswoman Susan Hale said theadministration discovered there was a story that contained “confidentialinformation about a student.”

“The reason was that there is a story in the edition that …discloses information about whether or not they live in the correct attendancezone, and our understanding is that that information is protected by FERPA,”she said. “The student did willingly give an interview to the newspaper, but asa minor, he would have needed to get his parents’ consent to have provided thattype of confidential information.”

The article discusses eligibility rules for high schoolstudent athletes, and gives an example of a student who lost his eligibility towrestle because he had to transfer schools. According to the Messenger, the student was told he wasineligible to compete for Northview because his father moved just outside theschool district boundaries.

“If we had allowed that story to continue production wewould have been violating FERPA,” Hale said. “… And so we as a school systemhave a higher duty to protect the student from revealing information abouthimself, even though the student gave a willing interview.”

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press LawCenter, said publishing the interview would not have violated FERPA.

“Minors can give consent to interviews when they understandthe nature and probable consequences of that consent,” he said. “In this case,if the student understood what a newspaper is, that student had the ability togive legal consent.”

Goldstein said FERPA does not apply to students writingarticles about other students for the newspaper.

“FERPA imposes limits on what school employees do,” he said.“Student editors aren’t school employees. For some reason, schools have a realhard time understanding that just because the federal government says a schoolcan’t do it doesn’t mean a student can’t do it.”

The most recent printing bill for the Messenger was $900, Hale said.

“Students do sell advertising as well as copiesof the paper to help fund the paper’s production,” she said in an e-mail.“However, the journalism class in which the paper is produced is notindependently supported by advertising and paper sales. The school funds thenewspaper adviser’s salary as well as the materials, equipment, etc., thatsupport the class. Please keep in mind that the goal of the class is to learnjournalism skills, with the added benefit of being able to produce a schoolnewspaper.”

While the issue contained a satirical staff editorial aboutretiring Superintendent Cindy Loe, Hale maintains that the editorial was not the issue and that Loedidn’t know about it.

Another article focused on a mice problem within the highschool. The beginning of the article said, “Hundreds of these tiny animals …have made their home in the nooks and crannies of Northview — storage rooms andclosets, hallways and ceilings.” The writer of the article talked to threestudents, a teacher and the librarian for the story.

“There were concerns with several of the articles that muchof the information was not fact-based, it was opinion-based,” Hale said. “Therecould have been more reporting done on the students’ side.”

“As for the ‘prior review,’ that came as a result of thismost recent situation,” Hale said. “The principal previously did not ask thestudents or newspaper adviser to share content before publication.”