District orders reprinting of yearbook after flirt superlative offends parent

CALIFORNIA — Calsbad Unified School District has ordered the reprinting of a middle school yearbook following a parent’s complaint about a “superlative” that she says is responsible for her daughter’s harassment.

Allegations of “inappropriate touching and groping” of an unidentified eighth-grade girl at Aviara Oaks Middle School in Carlsbad, Calif. required the school to “explore and investigate them,” said Peter Fagen, the district’s attorney.

Administrators maintain that the misconduct is connected with a distinction that the girl’s classmates had given her, “Biggest Flirt,” that was to appear among the yearbook’s superlatives. The class voted on superlatives earlier this semester.

Fagen said the school’s initial investigation showed that at least some of the allegations, which came from both the girl and her mother, were true, which prompted the school to order the book’s reprint. Fagen acknowledged the difficulty of tying the harassment directly to the yearbook.

“How do you prove one is related to the other? I don’t know that for a fact,” Fagen said. “Most districts would err on the side of student safety unless and until a court or higher authority directs it to do otherwise.”

But the timeline of events doesn’t add up, said yearbook adviser Cindy Standley. The yearbook hasn’t been released and won’t be until June 10, so students haven’t seen the superlatives yet, though many may have guessed the winner — the vote was 54-6.

Standley said she was informed by district officials last Friday that the girl’s mother had filed an official complaint with the state’s Department of Education alleging the school did not handle the allegations of harassment to her satisfaction. Standley said the district has not shown her the complaint.

When she spoke with the mother over the phone in early March, Standley said the mother didn’t make allegations of harassment. She said the girl’s mother, who called after hearing about her daughter’s superlative from another parent, seemed to misinterpret the meaning of “flirt.”

“She thinks the flirt is like ‘biggest slut,’” Standley said. “I don’t interpret it that way at all, and I don’t think our eighth graders do either. Think about it in context of these kids.”

Standley said the principal negotiated the cost of reprinting the book down to $600 with printing company Jostens. The company, which prints the yearbook in sections, had already printed the page with the photo in question, so about 30,000 pages were destroyed.

Standley said she understands the school wants to ensure student safety, but she’s concerned that removing the girl from the yearbook will create more of a problem.

“It wasn’t published — it was pulled,” she said. “Everyone’s gonna say, ‘where’s the girl?’ And I think it’s gonna draw more attention. I don’t see how that’s safer.”

Yearbook Editor-in-Chief Aaron Robins said the girl took pride in winning.

“We pulled her out of class, and she posed willingly,” he said. “We retook it twice until she liked it.”

Fagen said he believed the district had planned to include the students in any and all decision making, but he couldn’t say for certain whether they had followed through with their intent.

“The district office had a meeting without the consent of the class even though it was our publication,” Robins said. Other superlatives include “Cutest Couple,” “Best Hair” and “Most Likely To Make Their Teachers Retire Early.”

The “biggest flirt” category had been eliminated at other schools in the area because of similar incidents of harassment, Fagen said. “I’m not sure why it was still in existence,” he said.

Standley said students have elected the same eight categories since she became adviser eight years ago. Robins said the only way that he and the other students knew of the decision to pull the superlative was through Standley after the decision had already been made.

“We requested [administrators] come in to explain it to us but they never did,” Robins said, adding that he also wrote a formal letter of complaint and never got a response.

In that letter, sent March 29 to Arias and district officials, Robins refers to the girl as “Miss Jane Doe,” he writes that the title of “Biggest Flirt” is “not obscene or libelous … and is not breaking any federal or state laws.”

“This is a student publication put together by the student yearbook staff,” he wrote. “The categories are important to us because we look forward to winning and or voting for Eighth grade standouts.”

Under California state law, students have the legally protected right to choose what is published in student publications unless the material is obscene, defamatory, or likely to incite unlawful or disruptive activity.

Beatrice Motamedi, California state director for the Journalism Education Association and adviser at The Urban School of San Francisco, said in an email that the girl’s mother raises a “legitimate question for student editors and others to ponder” because superlatives, from a journalistic perspective, are “inherently flawed” and nothing more than popularity contests.

“My guess is that the parent is very concerned about her daughter being tagged as a ‘flirt’ for life, not just in a yearbook,” she said.

But the exclusion of students from this editorial conversation erases a valuable teaching moment as the school should be examining the use of gender-specific language like “flirt” or “stud,” Motamedi said.

“Students need to be part of the dialogue and ultimately they should make this decision — that’s not only scholastically correct but safer for the school legally,” she said.

The district has 60 days to respond to the mother’s complaint, Standley said district officials told her. Officials also told her although they understand they can’t legally eliminate the “Biggest Flirt” category, “if you choose to do it again, and a parent complains, we might be right back here.”

“[The students] been so hurt by these allegations that they’ve done something wrong,” she said. “They’re good kids. They followed the rules. We’ve done the yearbook like it’s always been done.”

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