Cutting Edge: Middle school yearbooks push boundaries

No topic is off limits for journalism students at Sierra Middle School.

The journalism program at the Parker, Colo., school, including an award-winning yearbook, has always had the support of its administration, said Jed Palmer, the school’s journalism adviser. And the principal has never asked to read a story beforehand.

“We haven’t had anything that students have wanted to cover that has caused issues,” Palmer said.

The publications at Sierra are among the many covering substantive issues even before student journalists enter high school.

Palmer said he does encourage students to avoid certain topics until they are ready to cover them well. He said he wants his students to be ready to write stories responsibly.

During the past school year, for example, several of Palmer’s students wanted to do a story on the school board budgeting process. He said he encouraged the students to slow down on the story because he didn’t feel they understood the process well enough at the time.

“It was not to tell them not to do the story,” he said, “but to take their time with it.”

The school’s yearbook has been nationally recognized in recent years. In 2011, the yearbook, Fusion, won first place for “best in show” at the National High School Journalism Convention in Seattle. The yearbook also won a Gold Crown from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association for its 2011 and 2012 editions.

But even with a legacy of excellence, each year’s staff isn’t expected to live up to any standards set by students in years before, Palmer said.

“My goal for them — for the students every year — is that they can do the best they can do,” he said.

In addition to the yearbook, Sierra’s journalism program has online components for video and writing.

Different challenges, skills

Palmer said middle school students differ from high school students in their ability to handle deadline pressures. That’s where the advantages of online publishing come in.

“By going online, we can publish when a story is ready,” he said.

Another major difference: Transportation. Many high school students can drive themselves or ride with friends to cover an event, like an away basketball game, but middle school students often depend entirely on their parents or the school for transportation.

Laura Zhu, the yearbook adviser at Toby Johnson Middle School in Elk Grove, Calif., said energy is one characteristic that sets her students apart from older students.

While high school journalists sometimes come down with the “good enough” syndrome, Zhu said, middle school students are extremely passionate about their work. They have no fear and are motivated to be on the cutting edge and try new ideas in the yearbook. She said incoming students are more and more tech-savvy each year.

“They want you to teach it to them and then let them run free,” Zhu said.

Elk Grove, like Sierra, is an award-winning yearbook program. The 2011 yearbook won a Pacemaker from the National Scholastic Press Association and the 2010 and 2011 yearbooks won Gold Crowns from CSPA.

Zhu said when she first began advising the yearbook, she tried to be overly involved in the publishing process. Then she came to realize how capable her students are.

“In my first few years of doing this, I kept my finger in the pot a lot more than I needed to,” Zhu said.

One of the biggest events that middle students like to cover is lunch, Zhu said, because that’s their time to socialize. Toby Johnson’s latest yearbook had six pages dedicated to lunch alone.

Zhu said her students cover both positive and negative stories throughout the year, because the yearbook is “a snapshot of a year and years aren’t perfect.”

Kathy Zwiebel, a journalism adviser and judge for the Columbia Scholastic Press Association, said middle school yearbooks don’t generally have much controversy, partly because they lack the space to include both the positive and the negative.

Zhu said Toby Johnson’s yearbook has fewer pages than what a high school yearbook would have. That prevents students from being able to cover as many sides of a given topic.

“We tend to focus on the positive,” Zhu said, “but we don’t want it to be this happy newsletter-y type of thing either.”

She said the issues her middle school students cover aren’t always as tough as what would be found in a high school yearbook — students who sleep in class, for instance, compared with students with tattoos or piercings or who must be the head of a household.

“[Students] kind of have easier lives in middle school,” she said, “so our books don’t have to be as intense.”

Carina Qurioz, a graduate of Toby Johnson, was editor in chief of the yearbook in 2011. She said the students tried to have everyone in the school — about 1,500 students — in the yearbook at least three times. To get so many students into the book, the staff had to interview people outside of their circle of friends.

Qurioz said that “took a lot of people outside of their comfort zones.”

Legal standards

Middle schools tend to be more conservative than high schools when it comes to pushing boundaries, said Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center. And many schools may try to limit their students’ speech because they are younger.

“They’ll justify it on the grounds of age,” he said.

Two main Supreme Court free speech decisions that are familiar to high school students — Tinker and Hazelwood — apply to middle schools as well, he said.

“The age of a student is a factor in the level of free expression you’re given,” Goldstein said, “regardless of the standard applied.”

In Tinker, the justices said students don’t lose their free speech protections at the schoolhouse gate, but speech can be restricted if it would cause a “material and substantial disruption” of school. Hazelwood allows school officials to limit “school-sponsored” speech if they have a legitimate educational reason.

But those standards apply on somewhat of a sliding scale, as something that would be “disruptive” at a middle school might not be at a high school. Similarly, a school’s acceptable educational justifications are different depending on the maturity of the students. The Supreme Court itself observed in Hazelwood that topics such as “the existence of Santa Claus” could be restricted in a school-sponsored publication at an elementary school – whereas that probably would not be a legitimate justification with older students.

Applying these standards, high schools are usually less restrictive than middle schools, and middle schools are less restrictive than elementary schools, Goldstein said.

“It’s a tough topic — middle school speech,” he said.

It’s also one that continues to be litigated in the courts. Perhaps the biggest First Amendment issue for younger students in recent years has been distributing religious materials at school. One case, decided in 2011 after nine years of litigation, centered on a Texas third-grader who wanted to distribute candy cane pens at a winter party at school. A federal appeals court ultimately ruled that the law of elementary school speech was unclear and gave administrators immunity from the student’s lawsuit. A similar case is pending before a different appeals court in Pennsylvania, stemming from a student who wanted to pass out invitations to a Christmas party.

While the legal standards for middle school journalism may be set by the familiar cases of Tinker and Hazelwood, applying those standards to younger students remains a murky area. And whether administrators can censor a particular story may not be an easy question to answer.

Lasting legacy

Where expression is encouraged, middle school students can produce journalism that rivals that done in high schools.

Zwiebel has judged many middle school yearbooks over the years and said some that enter competitions now are just as good as high school entries.

She said the rise of quality middle school publications has encouraged journalism judges to evaluate the way they look at middle school entries because they see the work students are capable of producing.

And while the rise of social media may have created greater competition for yearbook audiences, Zwiebel said she recently read a quote that matches her sentiments.

“The print yearbook is the only technology that’s guaranteed to open 20 years from now,” she said. 

By Taylor Moak, SPLC staff writer.