Reporting on school safety, students journalists add to national discussion

When a student at Henry W. Grady High School shot herself in the thigh in a school courtyard in February, the Georgia school’s student newspaper staff had to react fast.

A newspaper staff member who happened to be nearby took a quick picture of the handgun she left behind. The school went on lockdown, but the coverage was rolling.

Some members of The Southerner staff spent the lockdown in the newsroom, and they began reporting immediately, adviser Dave Winter said. Though the students couldn’t get out of the classroom for some time, they were able to get pictures of the ambulance from the newsroom window.

“We were just thinking about getting the news out there immediately, so it was a very real journalistic experience,” he said. “It’s kind of awful to think about the positive coming out of that, but once it became fairly certain that nobody was really at risk of being hurt, it was just a great opportunity for them to practice journalism in a very real way.”

The topic of school safety has been a frequent one in student newspapers in the past few months, prompted by incidents at student journalists’ own schools as well as the national discussion over school safety and gun control that followed December’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that killed 26 students and teachers.

Like the staff at The Southerner, student journalists have tried to explain events and also answer one question: How safe are their schools? Sometimes, that question has put student journalists at odds with administrators.

At Grady High, the staff posted multiple stories to The Southerner’s website the day the shooting happened, filling in the narrative of the shooting and covering a press conference that happened later that day. They gathered photos from contributors and posted some of their own.

It was the close-up photograph of the gun, snapped by staff member Joe Lavine before the lockdown was called, that concerned some administrators.

“They were talking to us about it as we were making the decision and they were concerned about the way that it would appear that students could be that close to the weapon,” Winter said. Administrators were also concerned the photo would make it look like there was a security problem created by the unattended gun, which was removed right after the photo was taken, he said.

But the administrators didn’t stand in the staff’s way, and the staff decided to publish it because of its news value, he said.

“They expressed that concern but then they let us decide what to do,” Winter said. “I think that’s rare.”

The photo got picked up by other news outlets, Winter said, and some viewers did question and gossip about how the photograph was taken. Lavine ended up writing a piece for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to explain his side.

“It wasn’t like [the photographer] was doing something like refusing what administration was telling him to do; it wasn’t like that,” Winter said. “He saw the student limping toward the nurse’s office and in that moment, he was there. … It’s like the ultimate journalistic instinct — he’s going to get the story. The truth is that he affected the way that professional journalists covered this because they were able to say things they wouldn’t have known if he hadn’t taken that picture.”

Over the next weeks, the newspaper staff continued with online coverage of meetings and reactions to the shooting. They held onto an issue that had been set to go to press that week, and added in coverage of the shooting.

Administrator reactions to safety coverage vary

In the past few months, student journalists have been responsible for uncovering a number of safety concerns through their reporting, from lax visitor access policies to outdated safety plans.

At Hastings High School in Nebraska, Principal Jay Opperman authorized Editor-in-Chief Shane Samuelson’s plan for an investigative school safety experiment and helped him carry it out. Opperman said he felt it would serve as a good drill and would also be valuable to the journalism curriculum.

Samuelson wanted to know how the campus would react to a stranger wandering around, so he found a volunteer to do so. Opperman met with the volunteer one evening, and watched him on camera with Samuelson the next day as he walked the campus for about an hour.

No one stopped the volunteer to question his presence, Samuelson said. But after The Tiger Cub published the results, people became more aware of who was around.

“I’m happy about the way it turned out because it was a way for us to test the school security and know how we would do,” Samuelson said. “People are now paying a little more attention in the hallways.”

Opperman said he wasn’t necessarily pleased with the outcome, but wasn’t surprised by it either, because with an ongoing construction project on campus, many unfamiliar faces had been around.

“Was the outcome what I wanted?” Opperman said. “No, not immediately, but on the backside, is the outcome positive? Yes, and both for students and staff.”

He said the experiment helped everyone on campus realize that they need to be aware of who is on school grounds, and Opperman said he is considering replicating the drill.

Although the outcome brought some “negative kickback” from the community, Opperman said he would encourage other principals to remember that “there may be a lot of positives that could come out of doing something like this.”

“I really think the benefits of how our staff and our students are reacting makes us a safer place,” Opperman said. “I think it’s had a positive after effect.”

The principal at Bear Creek High School in California reacted differently when The Bruin Voice identified safety concerns at the school, and briefly confiscated the newspaper over the staff’s front-page safety coverage. After researching the school’s safety plan, the staff found that it hadn’t been updated recently; an assistant principal told the paper she estimated that “about 20 percent of the information is outdated.”

Principal Shirley McNichols said the story, titled “Outdated safety plan leaves some wondering: How safe is BC?,” concerned her because she was afraid it might alarm students. She felt some parts of the story were misleading and that “inaccurate” quotes “from some employees who currently are unhappy in their positions for a variety of reasons ­… could cause fear on the campus,” she said.

Mikala Bussey, who wrote the story, said she took great care in checking her facts and quoting administrators and school staff accurately.

“Both myself and the rest of the staff work hard to make sure our information is as accurate as possible,” Bussey said. “We are exceptionally careful when it comes to quoting the administration to make sure that we do not misquote them.”

McNichols said she wanted to have the article checked out by other administrators before it was released, so she removed the papers from Adviser Kathi Duffel’s classroom.

She emailed Duffel to say the article was being checked over, and the newspaper staff responded with an email citing First Amendment court cases and refuting the idea that the article might alarm students.

Minutes later, McNichols relinquished the papers to the staff. In an interview, she said her supervisors told her to do so.

McNichols does not feel the papers were confiscated because they were still distributed on time, and she doesn’t feel the students’ rights were violated.

“The article was well-written, the kids do a great job; we certainly didn’t intend to throw a monkey wrench in what they were doing,” McNichols said. “I just wanted to make sure we were going to maintain a safe environment on campus.”

Duffel said she feels the incident was an example of “self-serving censorship,” and that she’s proud of the way her students stood up for their work.

“I am always amazed at how strong the students are, they don’t get rattled, they mobilize,” Duffel said, “If you lead them in that direction they will be very strong.”

The Bruin Voice confiscation came only a few months after a comparable incident at Missouri’s Troy Buchanan High School. Mojisola Oladehin, who advises the newsmagazine, TBHS Unleashed, said the students’ October issue provoked controversy because of their coverage of a school lockdown.

Oladehin said she felt it was a newsworthy topic that students had questions about, and she hoped their coverage might spark a “dialogue” about how the situation was handled.

Administrators were aware of the story ahead of time, but Oladehin said it wasn’t until the paper was being passed out that any issues were raised. She said administrators retrieved about a third of the papers by asking teachers and students to return their copies.

The attention turned the issue into a “hot commodity,” Oladehin said, but her students took it hard.

In their reporting, Oladehin said her students went to the police department to get the police report related to the incident, and interviewed an officer while there.

“I made sure we dotted our i’s and crossed our t’s,” she said. She recommends other students do the same, keeping thorough documentation and speaking with an expert.

“I don’t think student journalists should be so scared of the job that they’re doing that they decide not to write hard hitting news, whether that’s about school safety or anything else that’s impacting their community,” she said.

Putting school violence in context

Student journalists can help put a wide range of violence issues on the news agenda, Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, said. Those issues can include fights and dating violence, among other types of “routine” violence, he said.

“It’s a real role for student journalists to play, but that involves understanding the experience of victims, not just thinking about the dark perpetrator,” Shapiro said. “It involves saying ‘What kind of violence do people in our school experience every day and what does our school do about it, what should our school be doing about it, what should we as students be doing about it?’”

But when co