NEW JERSEY — Students at a New Jersey high school may return to school next fall to find their journalism classes no longer exists.
Pemberton Township High School Principal Ida Smith is not recommending the renewal of the journalism and advanced journalism courses for the fall semester. Even if the class continues, Smith is not recommending current teacher, Bill Gurden, to return as The Stinger’s adviser.
Her decision comes after multiple instances of administrative censorship during the past school year.
Gurden said Smith cited low enrollment numbers as the reason for possibly discontinuing the classes. But in previous years whenever there was low enrollment, the school opted to combine the two classes into one, he said. Right now, enrollment in the beginner class is at three, while enrollment in the advanced class is at six.
Although the school has held classes with small numbers before, the decision on whether to continue depends on the nature of the class, Superintendent Michael Gorman said.
“The decision is based on the needs of the particular department,” Gorman said. “If a department is overloaded, I can’t always spare a teacher.” Gorman said the school is expecting a larger incoming freshman class size next year.
The final decision of whether to continue the class will come by August, but even if the class is canceled, the newspaper will still operate as an after-school club, Gorman said.
Some of Gurden’s students presented their concerns with canceling the class and changing advisers at a school board meeting last week, Stinger Editor-in-Chief Sarah Daniscsack said.
“We’re just confused why the class would be cut when in previous years they combined the classes,” journalism student Kylie Sposato said. “So, this makes us think it’s personal.”
Gurden has advised the newspaper for five years and before teaching worked at The Burlington County Times as a sports writer and copy editor.
“I really hope this gets resolved soon because this is just a burden on everyone,” Sposato said. “Mr. Gurden is the most experienced person to be the adviser of The Stinger. No one is as qualified as him.”
Sposato wrote a column criticizing student smoking in school bathrooms last fall, but it was censored from the newspaper’s December edition by Smith. She then rewrote the column, incorporating additional reporting as well as suggested changes from school officials, and the piece eventually ran in a May edition.
In late January, Sposato was censored again, when she co-wrote a story about censorship in schools. Smith also vetoed that story, but it was eventually published later in the paper’s June edition.
“As journalists, we were upset,” Daniscsack said. “All we wanted to do was inform people.”
Smith could not be reached for comment.
The newspaper ran into problems with administrators again in May when Gurden began uploading editions of their publication to Issuu.com. The day after uploading the issues, Smith told Gurden it amounted to insubordination because he did not seek permission before publishing the newspaper online.
Under the Electronic Distribution of Student Publications policy of the PTSD manual, the adviser is not required to seek permission before publishing online. The policy states that “with oversight by the teacher or advisor, student publications may be distributed through electronic means. All such distributions must conform with established board policies including, but not limited to this policy and Acceptable Use of Internet.”
The Acceptable Use of Internet policy says that the superintendent, “with input from the Webmaster and the Technology Coordinator, are responsible for web page approval.”
Teachers have always had to seek permission from an administrator before publishing students’ work online, Gorman said. Gurden doesn’t think he broke the policy since the newspapers published on Issuu already been approved by the principal for the physical print edition, and the policy allows for the the student publications to be distributed electronically with oversight from the teacher, he said.
Journalism groups and professional media have supported the students’ efforts to fight the censorship. The Garden State Scholastic Press Association voted in March to support The Stinger, said past president John Tagliareni, who also serves on the Journalism Education Association’s Scholastic Press Rights Commission. Additionally, some local news organizations have covered the various censorship incidents at the school and voiced support for the students, Tagliareni said.
Smith was named one of the nine recipients of this year’s Jefferson Muzzle award. The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression gives the awards to bring attention to abridgements of free speech.
One of the keys to fighting censorship in schools is for the community to become more involved and support First Amendment rights, Tagliareni said.
“When a coach benches a kid for a sport, a lot of times a parent is going to show up…upset and ask ‘Why did my kid get benched?’” Tagliareni said. “I want to see the parents become more aggressive when it comes to saying ‘Well, you have no right to censor my kids.’”
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