Minnesota teens fight school's ban on yearbook content

MINNESOTA — Students and parents are upset at a Minnesota high school that won’t let the school’s yearbook include a memorial page for a suicide victim or allow a senior to include her daughter in her senior picture.

For the last few weeks, students and administrators at Menagha High School have been battling with two separate issues relating to content in the school’s yearbook. The small town school’s issues become public earlier this month after a student shared her frustration with a local TV station.

Students say administrators aren’t listening to what they want to put in the yearbook; administrators say they’ve tried to make compromises. Monday, parents of students involved are bringing the issue to the Menagha school board.

The issue began when Stephanie Myers approached the yearbook adviser and asked if her self-submitted photo could be with her daughter. She was turned down because the adviser said it would promote teen pregnancy, said Caroline Nickerson, Myers’ aunt and guardian.

At Myers’ request, the adviser then asked the school principal and was told no, Myers said.

The yearbook doesn’t have guidelines for what can or cannot be included in the self-submitted photo, said Tayler Simi, a sophomore on the yearbook staff. All seniors can submit a photo for inclusion. In the past, the school has allowed some photos with props, but never people or pets.

The senior photos are about the senior only, said Mary Klamm, the Menagha school district’s superintendent. The school had a request for a picture of a student with a gun a few years back but did not allow it, she said.

After Myers told people that her photo wasn’t allowed, students began expressing concern that a memorial page for their classmate who committed suicide wouldn’t be included in the yearbook, either, Simi said. Kyle Kenyon committed suicide in January but would have been a senior this year.

The yearbook adviser told students in the yearbook class in the spring that there would not be a memorial page, Klamm said. Students in the yearbook class this semester have wanted to discuss reconsidering that decision, but have been afraid to bring it up, Simi said.

Simi and Myers originally planned a sit-in to protest the exclusion of Myers’ photo and had about 50 to 100 students who were going to sit in the hallways, not talk and not go to class, Myers said. When the school heard about the planned protest, the principal called Simi and told her she would be suspended if the protest happened, Simi said.

Klamm said the students wouldn’t have been suspended, but that they would have received unexcused absences and zeros on any work that would’ve been handed in that day.

After Simi and Myers cancelled the protest, another student decided to start a petition, the contents of which have been disputed.

Klamm and Myers said the student-submitted petition was only about the teen mom’s senior picture. Simi said she signed a piece of lined paper and was told the “petition” was only about the memorial page.

Some students came forward after the petition was submitted and said they did not feel comfortable signing it, Klamm said. Because of that, the principal decided to keep the petition when the students asked for it back.

Some students were scared about having signed the petition because of a rumor that they would not be able to walk at graduation if they signed the petition, Simi said. Klamm said this was not the case and students would be allowed to walk. She didn’t know where the rumor began, but said it didn’t come from the school’s administrators or teachers.

After the students internal efforts failed, Simi said she decided to share their story publicly. She knew there was only a month before the deadline to get the memorial page and Myers’ picture in the yearbook and decided to contact a local TV station on their Facebook page in order to get the student’s voices heard.

After she posted on the page, Klamm called Simi’s mother and said Simi would need to meet with the school counselor about Simi’s statements to the station. Later, Simi’s father was told that she would no longer be able to do the morning announcements because of “untruths” she told the TV station. The family says it was never told what was untrue.

Klamm said the school has honored Kenyon’s memory and was still considering other ways to honor him without harming other students when the media got involved. The school said no to the idea of a memorial page because they did not want to promote suicide as a way for students to gain attention, she said.

One idea includes putting pictures of Kenyon in the senior slideshow shown at graduation every year, Klamm said. The school also offered counseling to students after Kenyon’s death, and his class created a memory book themselves last spring with pictures and stories about Kenyon.

The senior class takes a picture outside every year to go in the yearbook. This year they took two, one of which was in front of Kenyon’s truck. Klamm said the seniors can chose to use the picture in front of Kenyon’s truck, but the truck will not be identified as his in the yearbook.

Many are still frustrated and feel that’s not enough, said Patricia Samuelson, a parent of a high school student who was close to Kenyon.

“They want their voice to be heard, and they want to have a say in what’s in their yearbook,” Samuelson said. She believes not including a memorial page disrespectful, and said parents decided to get involved because their students felt like they had no voice in the matter.

“Every child deserves to be remembered in the high school yearbook regardless of cause of death,” she said. “This community and the administration seems to be in the dark as far as what’s allowed or not allowed.”

A mom of three high school students, Vernone Anderson, said she didn’t think the school’s reasoning was justified.

“There shouldn’t be an approved list of how to die,” Anderson said. “Nobody wishes that he had committed suicide and nobody wishes for it to ever happen again. We’re not trying to glamorize it, we just want to use it as a learning experience, as a teaching tool.”

The school’s policy came from several sources of research that suggest memorializing a suicide could affect a child emotionally and this was the best practice, Klamm said. A crisis team developed the school district’s crisis management plans last fall. The policy was never written down, but the group agreed not to memorialize suicides, she said. The school doesn’t have a policy explaining what can or cannot be put in the yearbook.

Discussing suicide is healthy and important, said Adam Goldstein, an attorney with the Student Press Law Center. The school could hypothetically censor the memorial page though.

“When there isn’t a policy in place, hypothetically you could censor content for any legitimate educational reason and hypothetically you could argue that freshman are too immature to handle suicide but I don’t think you could have a categorical subject veto on any topic,” he said.

There is an appropriate way to handle any topic, Goldstein said.

“If Sesame Street can explain to kindergarteners the concept of death, then it is objectively untrue there is no pedagogically sound way to discuss suicide,” Goldstein said.

There are potential legal ramifications with the school’s policy, Goldstein said. In the 1988 Supreme Court ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kulhmeier, the court said schools could censor an official non-forum publication, as long as it was for legitimate educational reasons.

“But the word legitimate is an important part of that,” Goldstein said. “So the school’s core argument here seems to be, our legitimate educational reason is discussions about suicides of any nature encourage copycats.”

Monday, Kenyon’s mom plans to speak to the school board on behalf of the group of parents and students in support of the memorial page, Samuelson said. Samuelson said the group is considering presenting two Change.org petitions, one for Kenyon’s memorial page and one for the Myers’ picture.

Before the meeting, Klamm said the school plans to talk with the parents about alternatives.

In Myers’ case, she would be allowed to buy a senior memory space in the back of the book at either one-eighth or one-quarter of a page and include a picture of her daughter, Klamm said.

As far as the memorial page, there’s the possibility that students could go online and design up to four pages to be placed in their individual yearbook for a $15 fee. This means students could design a memorial page for Kenyon and share the design with friends for them to buy for their own book.

By Bailey McGowan, SPLC staff writer. Contact McGowan by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.