Nebraska school district to allow weapons in ‘tasteful’ senior portraits

NEBRASKA — Guns are OK to use as props in senior portraits as long as they’re portrayed tastefully, according to a new policy approved by a Nebraska school board.

The Broken Bow Public Schools board unanimously approved the new senior photographs policy Monday, which states high school seniors can pose with “an item that is ordinarily considered a weapon (rifle, shotgun, knife, etc).”

However, the policy says the photos must be “tasteful and appropriate.”

“We want to be sure that the picture is in no way, shape or form a threatening or intimidating picture,” Superintendent Mark Sievering said, “whereas the policy says the weapon, whether it be a gun or a bow or whatever it may be, is not going to be pointed at the camera and is not going to be held in a threatening or intimidating manner.”

Other limitations in the policy concerning the hunting props state that a “student should not submit a photograph of game shot by the student if the animal is in obvious distress.” According to the new policy, however, the policy says students cannot be photographed using drugs, alcohol or tobacco, and attire must comply with the school’s dress code.

Sievering said administrators decided to create the policy after administrators denied a photo last year of a student holding a firearm because he missed the deadline for it to go into the yearbook, not because of the firearm in the image. There had always been an unwritten policy that guns were not permitted in the photos, but after some questions were raised in last year’s incident, Sievering said the school board then began to discuss a policy.

“Being a rural community where these things are pretty common place, we have a number of students where that’s an important part of their lives, and I think they may want their senior picture with that,” Sievering said.

Sievering said the yearbook’s adviser, Lisa Phillips, will have initial discretion in whether the photograph is ‘tasteful.’

Mark Newton, president of the Journalism Education Association, said the policy to allow guns is “common sense” to him, seeing as how hunting is common in rural areas. But Newton said he has some concern with the policy’s definition on what is and isn’t tasteful. That definition, he said, should be left to both the yearbook staff and the adviser.

“If they can defend their decision and defend their choice, then I think we’ve won as teachers and I think they’ve won as students,” he said.

John Bowen, JEA’s director of Scholastic Press Rights Commission, said he’s concerned about why the board, seemingly without the help of students, developed the policy. He also questioned whether administrators could limit the type of firearm the student used.

“What would happen if someone came in with an assault rifle,” he said, “because that is what he/she really liked to learn about weaponry?”

Brian Baer, owner of Baer Photography, has done senior portraits for Broken Bow High School seniors and others in the area. In his time working with the students, Baer said he’s never had an issue with a student requesting to hold a gun or other form of hunting equipment in their photo.

“It’s definitely very common,” he said. “We photograph over 100 seniors every year and, probably, we see it once a week during our senior season.”

If a senior decides to use a gun, Baer said he always checks the weapon to make sure it is not loaded. And much like the district’s policy, Baer does not take photos if the weapon is pointed toward the camera or with any intent to harm another person.

“I feel like if someone is uncomfortable viewing a photograph, then I have probably failed as a photographer at that point because my goal is to show the person and their personality and their interests,” he said.

Contact SPLC staff writer Michael Bragg by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 119.