Colo. principal fires adviser, shutters newspaper after coverage of student death

COLORADO — Overland High School’s student journalists are without an adviser or anewspaper after the principal overhauled the program days after a dispute overcontent.

The student editors scheduled a press conference for 2:30p.m. MDT Thursday.

Junior Jaclyn Gutierrez, opinions editor for The Overland Scout, said Principal Leon Lundietold the journalism class March 18 that “he didn’t like the direction the paperwas going and after this issue that’s all ready to go to press, we would bedone. We will no longer have a newspaper.”

Additionally, Gutierrez said the students’ adviser LauraSudik was called into a meeting with Lundie where she was removed as newspaperadviser on March 11. Sudik continues to teach speech, journalism and televisionproduction courses at the high school.

Gutierrez said beyond being told by Lundie that their classwould be reverted to a non-publishing class, the students don’t know what willbe happening with their journalism program in the future.

For the upcoming issue of The Overland Scout, the students were working on an article aboutsophomore Leibert Phillips, who died Jan. 1.

Junior Lori Schafer, editor in chief of The Overland Scout, interviewed Phillips’ mother Linda Kore, whotold Schafer the school did not notify her after her son twisted his ankleduring a wrestling tournament in December.

Kore later took him to the hospital where she found outPhillips’ ankle was fractured. He collapsed a few days later on New Year’s Dayand died. According to Phillips’ death certificate, he died after a blood clotin his right leg traveled to his lungs, causing a pulmonary embolism. Thecertificate says the clot was a result of complications from the right legfracture that occurred while wrestling Dec. 9 at Overland High School.

Gutierrez said Lundie told the student editors March 8 thatPhillips’ cause of death was wrong in the story and they couldn’t publish itbecause the facts were wrong. The students then obtained a copy of Phillips’death certificate March 10.

“Lori and I contacted the mother and we asked if we couldcome over and talk to her,” Gutierrez said. “We got the death certificate forMr. Lundie to prove to him that the cause of death was right. We went in whenwe didn’t have to be at school and highlighted everything that he had said waswrong in the paper. He told us that we were talking to a very emotional motherand this [issue] is too big for a high school paper.”

Gutierrez said Lundie is now allowing them to run the storyin their last regular issue. A senior issue will be published at the end of thesemester, but only seniors are allowed to work on that newspaper and it’smostly for remembrances, not new stories, she said.

Tustin Amole, spokeswoman for the Cherry Creek SchoolDistrict, said the administration did not censor the article, but merelysuggested changes to it.

“My understanding was that the article only contained aninterview with the mother of the child that died,” she said. “The suggestionwas made that they talk to the coach and others to create a more balancedarticle. I don’t know that the article was canceled.”

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate at the Student Press LawCenter, said the article consisted of memories of the student, with one lineabout the cause of death.

“Where’s the opportunity to balance that?” he said.“Anything you would add to contradict any of those things would be, at minimum,in poor taste and possibly factually incorrect when you’re talking about thecoroner’s report. The idea that there should be balance to a mother’s memoriesof her dead son is a little grotesque.”

For the newspaper class, Amole said March 16 that theprincipal “is planning a change in programming.”

“What universities in Colorado have done is change theirjournalism departments to communications, incorporating new media andtechnology,” she said. “He feels that someone different would be a better fitfor that particular kind of class.”

Amole said many of the schools in the district areconverting to online news only and no longer publish a printed newspaper.

However, Carrie Faust, president of the Colorado High SchoolPress Association and a teacher in the district, said as far as she knows noneof the other schools in the district have newspaper websites.

“If district newspapers have online presences it’s againstthe will of the district and it’s outside of the district servers,” Faust said.

According to one of the district’s acceptable use policies,the last names of students aren’t allowed to appear online. Faust also saidadministrators have told teachers they can’t publish online photos of students.

“In the past when we’ve pursued getting an online presence,they’ve said, ‘Well sure you can if you don’t name any students in yourarticles, and you don’t name any kids for the bylines of the articles,’” shesaid.

Gutierrez said this isn’t the first time the student newspaperhas had problems with the school’s administration.

“[Our] second issue came out, and it was, ‘This is toonegative, this is too graphic,’ basically [the administration] didn’t like it,”she said. “They didn’t like it but said it was nicely written. That was whenthey started prior reviewing us.”

The negative article was a student complaining about otherstudents “acting ghetto,” while the graphic article was from the perspective ofa student whose brother had committed suicide years earlier. She discussesseeing him in the casket, as well as his autopsy scars, and how it affectedher.

Colorado is one of seven states with extra protection ofstudent journalists. According to the Colorado Student Free Expression Law,student publications can only be restricted if they contain obscene ordefamatory information, or if they promote unlawful acts, the disruption ofschool or a violation of someone’s right to privacy.

Goldstein said the pattern of events with regard to thenewspaper at Overland High School doesn’t suggest the changes are due tocurriculum considerations.

“On Tuesday the students are told they have a fact wrong, onThursday they prove that they have that fact right, and on Friday thejournalism teacher is fired and the newspaper is canceled for the rest of theyear,” he said. “That doesn’t sound to me like a well thought-out, reasonedchange in the course of the program.”

The students have been consulting with the SPLC and theAmerican Civil Liberties Union of Colorado. Faust and ACLU of Colorado LegalDirector Mark Silverstein were scheduled to join student editors at Thursday’snews conference.

Laura Sudik declined to comment. Principal Leon Lundie andassistant principals Chris Denmark, Alicia Pray and Charla Rosenberry did notreturn phone calls.