Virginia student's column on bullying shot down by school's principal

VIRGINIA — A student’s column criticizing sexuality-based bullying was deemed inappropriate for her high school’s student newspaper by the principal, editors say.

Taylor Hankins, a senior at Abingdon High School and The Talon’s features editor, said she wrote the column, titled “The Social Epidemic: Slut Shaming” because it’s a problem many students in her school face. The column defines the term as “the guilt a girl feels from being humiliated over her sexuality, whether she’s sexually active or not.”

“It’s just another type of bullying,” Hankins said. “It’s shaming someone for something personal, that’s not anyone else’s business — whether it’s how many sexual partners they have, or what kind of clothing they wear. It’s no one else’s business.”

Hankins turned in a draft of the column last week. Her adviser, Vanessa McCall, showed it to the school’s principal to give him a heads-up and then relayed his thoughts back to the newspaper’s staff, Hankins said.

Jimmy King, the school’s principal, “did not approve,” Hankins said.

McCall declined to comment. Hankins met with King herself on Wednesday and said he told her the subject matter and some of the words she used were not appropriate. King did not like the words “slut,” “sexual desire,” “sexual” and “breast-feeding,” Hankins said.

“He said that pretty much, if this is the kind of subject matter we were going to have in the newspaper, he was going to reevaluate the class,” she said.

Hankins said she argued that her column would raise awareness of sexually based bullying on campus and elsewhere, but said that King told her he believed the column would offend students. He suggested she rewrite the column, Hankins said.

“But you can’t talk about sexual desire, you can’t mention assault, you can’t mention depression, you can’t mention the word ‘slut-shaming,’” Hankins said. “It really wouldn’t be the same.”

King said in an interview that he vetoed the column because there are several students at the school who have been sexually assaulted and who are dealing with depression.

“Personally, I have to do what’s best for our students,” King said. “I would hate if those students who are experiencing that would read that and think it was about them”

In Virginia, schools may censor student speech under the guidelines established in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. In that 1988 decision, the Supreme Court held that schools may censor student speech in a curricular activity, like a student newspaper produced as part of a class, if the censorship is “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”

Washington County Public Schools, where Abingdon High School is located, has a district policy on student publications that states that “while students have the right to express themselves freely by means of school publications, such expressions shall refrain from libel and obscenity.”

King said he based his decision on what he knew about the school community, not whether the piece was libelous or obscene.

“I just based it on the situation we have here,” he said. “I don’t want to see a situation where our paper intentionally hurts other people.”

Chris Waugaman, an adviser in Prince George County and director of the Virginia Association of Journalism Teachers and Advisers, said he hoped administrators at Abingdon would “stand by their district policy,” as it gives students more expansive rights than those provided in a Hazelwood state like Virginia.

Whether administrators act under Hazelwood or the district policy, Waugaman said he hoped the school would listen to the concerns raised by the students.

“Student journalists are very helpful in creating an aware student body,” he said. “Bullying is such an important topic to be discussing.”

Grace Scott, the Talon’s editor-in-chief, said that she plans to talk with the school district’s superintendent about appealing King’s decision but that the staff would not publish the column without permission from higher administrators.

The column was slated for the December issue. Hankins said that in its place, staff are debating publishing either an editorial about censorship or leaving the space blank and printing the First Amendment.

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