School censorship elevates Mich. students' message to the national stage

Blocked by school censors from sharing a thoughtful discussion of mental-health issues in the pages of the Community High School student newspaper, two Ann Arbor, Mich., teens were forced instead to settle for The New York Times and NPR’s “Weekend Edition.”

Proving once again that censorship is gasoline on the flame of a powerful idea, journalists Madeline Halpert and Eva Rosenfeld talked with NPR’s Scott Simon today about how they were prevented from publishing a column examining the effects of depression on teens and why it’s so hard for them to talk about.

Halpert was one of several students who agreed, with written parental permission, to be named in a story confronting the stigma surrounding mental illness that can, with tragic consequences, deter people struggling with depression from seeking professional help.

“Our intentions were to try and get the word out and say, ‘If you have mental illness, there’s no shame in that, and you can talk about it and we can be here for each other,” Halpert told NPR.

The school district told Simon it supports efforts to bring awareness to mental-health issues “but just not in the student newspaper.”

If a newspaper is not the place for young people to discuss pressing social issues of life-and-death importance, then where is the right place? At a table in Burger King? On an Ask.FM page?

By declaring the discussion off-limits, the school didn’t just undercut the good Halpert and Rosenfeld sought to achieve — it made the situation affirmatively worse. The message that students unmistakably will hear is that depression isn’t something you can admit to, and that you should keep it to yourself.

In recent months, student editors have been told that their publications are noplace for the discussion of homosexuality, of sexual assault, of medicinal marijuana or of school board controversies. In each instance, the topics were alleged to be unsuitable for discussion before a student audience.

Wake-up call to school administrators: Those discussions are happening.  They can happen in the balanced, accountable, adult-advised pages of a student publication — or they can happen underground, outside of adult earshot. Where adults can’t intervene and help.

Listen to the entire NPR piece — it’s just four-and-a-half minutes — and then decide whether these impressive student editors were capable of presenting a sensitive, thoughtful portrayal of an issue of particular concern to young women. An issue on which their perspectives might make all the difference, if schools will unplug their ears and listen.