Calif. parents complain to school district about sex articles in student newspaper

CALIFORNIA — Recent articles in Mountain View High School’s student newspaper, The Oracle, about sex have created controversy in the surrounding community, but school district administrators are backing the paper.

At the last Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District board of trustees meeting, parents complained to trustees about the infographic at the bottom of the two-page centerspread on “Sex & Relationships” that is titled, “What they teach you in health, and what you really need to know.” Written by staff writer by Abby Cunniff, the infographic looked at commonly discussed sex subjects.

Cunniff said that she did a lot of research for the infographic and wanted it to be relevant to students. She said she looked into teen pregnancy statistics and wanted to find out how to provide students with information on being sexually responsible. The infographic tells students how they can get birth control and discusses orgasms.

“My freshman year when I was reading The Oracle, I didn’t feel like it really applied to my life,” Cunniff said. “I wanted to write about things that were applicable to students’ lives.”

When the floor was open to the community to speak at the board meeting on Feb. 11, Nathan Sandland asked the board for “better adult supervision” and asked that Oracle articles be placed online “for parents to be able to review.” He cited a line from the article that reads, “Basically, don’t be upset plainly because you didn’t orgasm.”

“It implies to the youth that it’s perfectly normal that they are engaged in sexual activity,” Sandland told the board. “I feel that this is deeply inconsistent with and it counteracts my efforts as a parent to teach my daughter to be responsible and to have integrity.”

Other parents spoke at the board meeting, many were cut off by the buzzer at their two-minute mark, running over on time. One parent, Sarah Robinson, passed out copies of one of the articles that she found questionable.

“I just wanted to state here that we’re not here just to air concerns tonight,” Robinson told the board. “We are here because we want to see the board and administrators act.”

Efforts to reach parents who spoke at the meeting were unsuccessful.

Heather Boyle, a health teacher at the school, said that many of the topics discussed in the infographic are also discussed in health classes. She said that if a subject is conceivably a teaching tool to prevent sexual assault, sexually transmitted diseases, or a number of other health concerns, that the topic is not off-limits for discussion.

“There is a fine line, if you can justify what you’re teaching is supportive of those goals, they may be allowed to be covered,” Boyle said. “I totally support the students covering sexual relations topics and relationships. It shows insight into what students are thinking and feeling.”

Amy Beare, the paper’s adviser, said that she saw multiple drafts of the article and asked Cunniff to find sources to back up each of her points throughout the editing process. She said that this was a lesson in judgment for Cunniff.

One sentence in particular upset parents. Cunniff wrote, “Let your body feel the way it does, and you might feel perfectly fine after missing the climax (assuming you don’t have blue balls).”

Beare said that she discussed wording with Cunniff as the article was being written, but that Cunniff’s editorial decision was to stick with the wording as is, rather than using a medical term. Beare said that Cunniff felt using overly medical wording was “not one that would speak to a non-medical audience.”

Parents have raised concerns about other articles as well. A humor column that ran featuring a photo of four boys posing in the style of a Cosmopolitan magazine article was criticized because of the photo, which some parents said was obscene.

“It was sort of a tips for men column, but if you followed them you’d never get a woman,” said Beare. “The only way to defend a humor column is humor.”

Robinson told the board that she had contacted the California State Board of Education to make a formal complaint against the district “for not enforcing the behavioral guidelines and allowing articles promoting illegal and obscene behavior to repeatedly be printed in the school newspaper.”

Superintendent Barry Groves said in an interview that he has not received notice of a complaint. Groves said that he doesn’t anticipate the district making any policy changes related to the newspaper issue, citing California’s broad First Amendment laws concerning students.

“I believe that the Mountain View High School Oracle newspaper is an outstanding paper,” Groves said in an email. “The process of writing and publishing a student newspaper is one that includes education and learning. As students get feedback on issues, they take that information and create a better product. It is all part of learning.”

Since the board meeting took place, The Oracle staff has met with Groves as well as Paul Kandell and Ellen Austin, journalism teachers at Palo Alto High School. Beare said that “there’s an on-going discussion in our class” about the judgments made when writing a story.

“There are other things that need to be talked about that students feel like we really need to get out there,” said Beare.

At the school board meeting March 11, trustees will hear a report from the two high school journalism departments in the district on the value of their programs. The board will also take public comments.

“I am not planning to engage in the discussion,” Beare said. “I feel empowered by the administration. and I can let them fight my fight for me. I would like to teach my class. I think that what I’m trying to help my students see in all of this is that the free speech that we enjoy is the same free speech that they are taking advantage of.”

By Kaitlin Tipsword, SPLC staff writer. Contact Tipsword by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 119.