New Jersey school board proposes new publications policies following principal's censorship

NEW JERSEY — Under new policies and regulations proposed last week, student publications at Northern Highlands Regional High School could be barred from using anonymous sources and from appealing censorship — a year after the student newspaper published an investigation into a conflict between a former superintendent and administrators.

According to the proposed policy, the Northern Highlands Regional High School District “may exercise editorial control over the style and content of student expression in school-sponsored publications.” The policy, which the board approved the first reading Sept. 22, maintains the district’s current requirement that the Highland Fling newspaper be reviewed by the principal, but also adds a requirement that the journalism adviser review and “proofread” each issue. The board will meet next on Oct. 6.

The proposed revision would also require publications to “foster a wholesome school spirit and support the best traditions of the school,” train students in journalism and “assist with the district’s public information program.”

Under the proposed policy, before students may use an anonymous source, the adviser must get the source’s name and contact information and evaluate the source for motive and credibility.

“The biggest problem with this is now it puts the adviser in the position of having to answer to the board of education directly or administration directly,” said John Tagliareni, past president and current board member of the Garden State Scholastic Press Association, who is also a member of the Journalism Education Association’s Scholastic Press Rights Commission.

The prior review period for administrators would also be extended to five days, instead of two days under the current policy. The proposed policy would apply to the student newspaper, yearbook and all material produced during class or school-sponsored events intended for distribution.

In March 2014, Highland Fling reporter Adelina Colaku submitted a story — using multiple anonymous sources — alleging that after administrators filed grievances last year against superintendent John Keenan, his wife pressured the school’s principal to withdraw the administrators’ complaints and apologize. Keenan resigned from his position on May 19 and took a superintendent’s job at another New Jersey district.

After his prior review of Colaku’s article, Principal Joseph Occhino spiked the article because it included “confidential personnel information,” used anonymous sources, and was not “balanced” because the board members declined to comment. Colaku appealed the principal’s decision to the school board and submitted two revisions that addressed the principal’s concerns.

Colaku met with the superintendent and the board president and was able to get comment from them. Colaku also asked her anonymous sources to print their names, and one source agreed. The school board approved the article’s publication on June 9 contingent on the principal’s approval, who approved the story’s publication on June 12.

Current school board policy gives students an absolute right to appeal censorship decisions to the superintendent and board. But the new proposal states that the board may discretionarily choose to accept an appeal “if it deems such review necessary or desirable.”

Occhino and John Kaminski, the Highland Fling’s adviser, did not return phone and email messages for comment. Interim Superintendent John Petrelli, board president Barbara Garand and the Fling’s current editor-in-chief Alison Peebles declined to comment on the proposed changes.

“There’s no question in my mind that what happened last year with Adelina’s article is what prompted this obvious way of making a broad based policy that overreaches what it should be doing,” said Tagliareni. “What Adelina did last year was within what, certainly, journalism is all about.”

The administrators and board probably didn’t expect a student to have such “fortitude,” “investigative spirit” and “persistence” to pursue a story that turned out to be embarrassing to the district, Tagliareni said.

Colaku, who is now a freshman at Bard College in New York, said the Highland Fling was operated as a public forum when she was there, giving students and not the adviser discretion over what to publish.

“It’s extremely discouraging to me that after the long, hard fight that we had as a staff collectively last year,” she said, “that this is the result that we see.”

SPLC staff writer Anna Schiffbauer can be reached by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.