Yearbook staffs and advisers guard against the potential for hoaxes

For many students, the day they receive their yearbook is spent pouring over the glossy pages, trying to find photos of themselves and their friends as they remember the past year. Some, though, are shocked to discover pranks in the yearbook — intentional or not, these incidents happen every year and can have unexpected consequences.

This year, local news reports shared stories about yearbook incidents from New York to California. At Hoosic Valley High School in New York, individuals pictured in a track team photo were identified as “Isolation kid” and “Creepy smile kid.” A similar misnomer appeared in Georgia’s South Paulding High School’s yearbook — a student’s last name was changed to “Freak” — and in Texas’s Irving High School’s yearbook, where a cheerleader was identified as “Ugly Hoe.”

The misprints are not limited to misnomers. At University City High School in California, sexually explicit quotes appeared beneath the yearbook photos of three seniors, and at Irving Middle School in Nebraska, the letters “WTF” were Photoshopped onto a student’s class portrait.

Perhaps the most widely publicized recent incident, took place in May at Hickman High School in Columbia, Mo., when Kaitlyn Booth, a junior on the yearbook staff, was arrested for felony property damage after it was discovered that she was responsible for changing a student’s last name from “Mastain” to “Masturbate” in the yearbook.

The property damage was initially estimated to be $41,000 — the cost for reprinting all of the yearbooks — but the school ultimately chose to correct the last name with strong adhesive stickers, which cost around $120. Booth wasn’t formally charged with the felony, but instead was charged with the misdemeanor of tampering with computer data.

Natalie Hull, the public attorney working to defend Booth, said she finds it interesting that this case was taken to the criminal court and that it represents “new territory” for everyone involved.

“It’s an extreme action to take, and I’m not sure why it went to the criminal court system,” Hull said. “It might be due to pressure from the school or the community because it’s been given so much attention.

Hull noted that she hasn’t heard of a case similar to this because disciplinary action is usually kept within the school or the civil court system.

“The case was exciting to me, and it’s worth watching, because of its potential to set a precedent for students who do something similar,” she said. “It has the power to set the path for the rest of a student’s life.”

Booth is pleading not guilty to the charge, and a court date had not been set at time of publication.

Even though most yearbook hoaxes don’t end in criminal charges, yearbook advisers and staff take pains to prevent mistakes that could potentially hurt students’ feelings or their publication’s reputation.

Veteran advisers say it’s crucial to have a system in place that sets out who has access to pages, as well as a good system for proof-reading.

Brenda Slatton, the adviser for the yearbook at Lee High School in San Antonio, Texas, said she understands the importance of checking over the pages, and although she trusts her staff of nearly 50 students, she double-checks every page before it is sent.

“What my students are allowed to do versus what I am allowed to do is different,” Slatton said. “Students have the freedom of speech, but I have a job and an employer to answer to. I know that’s not pretty, but that’s how it is.”

Slatton said she thinks the recent popularity of online, proofless yearbooks is something that contributes to the misprinting problems yearbook staffs face. To add an additional step to the editing process, she said she prints out her own copies of the proofs to check over the pages.

Holly Soboroff, the yearbook adviser at Washington High School in Iowa, said she shares stories of yearbook vandalism with her staff to “show them that this is not okay.”

“They’re always pretty horrified when they hear the stories,” Soboroff said. “When I hear of other yearbook’s situations it’s always a ‘There but for the grace of God go I’ kind of moment.”

Soboroff also said that she trusts her student editors and thinks making unintentional mistakes is inherent to student publications.

“I’m all about student freedom, I really believe in that, but they also need advice,” Soboroff said. “It’s one thing to look foolish, but it’s another thing to hurt people’s feelings.”

She said the yearbook company her book uses (Herff Jones) provides software that has three levels of access to pages, which is helpful in securing the editing process

“At the very least, with our settings, I don’t think anyone can physically send pages without me,” said Soboroff, who has the highest level of access. “I am the last person to look at them.”

A good system isn’t always enough, though. Kim Acopolis, Hickman High School’s yearbook adviser, said she changed the editing process at the beginning of last year to limit students’ access because she didn’t feel she could trust the staff as much as she had in past years.

Acopolis said she was called into the principal’s office in April, when the staff was making final edits to the yearbook, after a student complained about Acopolis’ decision to restrict editorial access. Administrators asked her to give students more access to the pages.

Access logs showed that it was after this conversation that Mastain’s name was changed on a page that had already been edited, Acopolis said.

“There’s a real lack of understanding of how publishing works — the idea that every kid gets everything the same is what bit me in the butt in the end,” Acopolis said. “I should have just stuck with what I know, but I also should have invited the principal in and shared what we were doing.”

Acopolis said it was hard to deal with the attention the hoax received, for her and for the students involved.

“The most frustrating part for an adviser in this situation were the comments that were made, saying things like no one edited the pages, and the cruelty, because people were taking mean jabs at the kids,” she said. “You just want to tell people that these are kids, and you don’t know the whole story.”

Lori Oglesbee, who has been a yearbook adviser for 30 years and currently advises the staff at McKinney High School in Texas, said the legacy of the yearbook is what motivates her students.

“I tell my kids that yearbooks make you eternal,” Oglesbee said. “One hundred years from now, when we’re all dead, yearbooks will still be here, and that’s what makes them so important.”

By Allison Russell, SPLC staff writer.