High school journalists are out-of-control monsters, bad citizens whose goal is to promote drug abuse and promiscuous sex, to undermine respect for decent American values, and to destroy the reputation of their school and everyone in it. Right? That is, after all, the way schools often treat them.
Try telling that to Walter Woo of Palos Verdes, Calif. — if you dare, since he’s a three-sport athlete who can break you in half, a 4.46-GPA honor student who can argue circles around you, and about to be a professionally trained fighting machine as a West Point military cadet. And he’s a student newspaper editor.
Or see how well that description fits Shelby Shepperly of Bolivar, Mo. She’ll be going to Evangel University this fall on a church-underwritten scholarship, on the strength of a resume including president of the senior class, vice president of the honor society, organizer of a church camp for housing-project kids, youth minister to the homeless — and editor of her newspaper. Definitely sounds like the kind of menacing kid that needs constant second-guessing so she doesn’t bring discredit on her school.
These are not isolated instances. Here’s a top graduate from Augusta, ME, who leaves high school having published two novels — and she’s editor-in-chief of her newspaper. Here is a Princeton-bound Indiana valedictorian with a 4.0 average who will spend the summer doing youth ministry work in Honduras — and is editor-in-chief of his newspaper. Here is a California “renaissance man” named graduate-of-the-year at his school, who’ll be attending college this fall on a National Merit Scholarship — and is editor-in-chief of his newspaper. Here is an Arizona scholarship winner with an eye-popping 4.67 grade-point average who in her spare time advocates against genocide in Darfur — and is editor-in-chief of her newspaper. Here is a Michigan Catholic-school valedictorian who can call-and-raise that GPA (4.86), who founded his school’s debate team, has his sights set on medical school — and is co-editor of his high school newspaper. Here is a Stanford-bound Eagle Scout from Louisiana, who notched a perfect score on the ACT exam — and is editor-in-chief of his newspaper. And here is a two-sport varsity athlete from Kingstown, R.I., who just won a statewide award for civic leadership — and is editor-in-chief of his newspaper. And so on, and so on.
Journalists are high-achieving students, leaders and citizens. They are the antithesis of “problem kids.” And yet they are, in many schools, told that they have no judgment, are untrustworthy, and are out to discredit the school.
Every one of these students, and so many more like them whose achievements go unremarked, is a credit to his or her school. That they sometimes disagree with school policies or seek to improve school conditions does not make them “disloyal” or “unpatriotic.” To the contrary, it is part of what makes them independent thinkers capable of great works of creativity.
It is, regrettably, fashionable for adults to stigmatize young people as entitled, violent and willful. One Pennsylvania teacher became momentarily famous, and earned an outpouring of public sympathy, when she was exposed as the unnamed author of a blog trashing her own students as “lazy whiners” whose best hope was to get hired as garbage collectors. The venom spilled on online comment boards lionizing this teacher’s dim view of young people — “God forbid ANYONE these days speak the TRUTH about today’s lazy, spoiled, violent, rude and ignorant messes that these ‘parents’ don’t even try to raise!!” was typical of the rants — exemplifies the mentality that drives education policymaking in many districts.
It is this mentality that has given rise to “lowest-common-denominator” censorship rules, under which government officials feel free to treat the opinions of even the most demonstrably brilliant and civically engaged citizens — and yes, kids are citizens — as worthless.
“Censor-at-will” policies are as much in step with reality as a “no dipping pigtails in the inkwells” rule. The few truly dangerous, out-of-control kids that adults fear — and for whom strict disciplinary rules may be a proper fit — are not editing the student newspaper. When we enact policies that assume the worst about student journalists, we are putting a ceiling on the achievement of students who have demonstrated, again and again, that their potential has no limit.