Photos of condom-wrapped banana, hookah prompt prior review debate at Michigan high school

MICHIGAN — When the student newspaper at a Michigan high school printed a photo of a condom-wrapped banana to accompany an article about the school’s sex education program, the staff thought the decision was provocative, but tasteful.

Pervasive in advertisements, television shows and movies, condom-sheathed bananas have become synonymous with high school sex education.

But administrators at Rochester High School disagreed. Starting in February, the interim principal has enforced a prior review policy over The Talon after a parent complained about the November issue and a photograph of a student smoking a hookah pen alarmed administrators. Now, members of the student newspaper staff are fighting back.

The existing Rochester Community School Board policy affirms student publications’ First Amendment rights, but leaves it to “professional staff to define the limits of responsible journalism and speech.”

In addition to the banana photo in November’s issue, the editorial board ran on the cover a close-up photo of hands tearing open a condom package and a graphic illustrating methods of birth control. The issue also featured an opinion piece about the pros and cons of teaching contraceptive education and coverage of a sexting scandal at a nearby high school.

Newspaper staff heard positive feedback from students about the issue, particularly the contraceptive education article, said Danielle Kullmann, The Talon’s editor in chief. But two days after the November issue’s publication, a parent who found the paper’s sexual topics inappropriate, complained to school administrators.

In its January issue, The Talon published a photo of an 18-year-old student smoking a hookah pen. Interim Principal Neil DeLuca said the photo violated the student code of conduct, Kullmann said, even though the picture was not taken on school grounds.

In a February meeting with The Talon‘s adviser, the district’s secondary school executive director of curriculum and instruction, Carrie Lawler, said the photo violated the student code of conduct, Kullmann said, even though the picture was not taken on school grounds. 

As a result of the two photos, Lawler told the adviser that DeLuca would prior review subsequent issues of the paper, Kullmann said, beginning with the February edition. 

DeLuca took the job as interim principal in January after the early retirement of former Principal Charles Rowland.

The hookah photo, Kullmann said, “evidently promoted illegal activity.”

In the February issue, Kullman said DeLuca objected to a photo of students using the “OK” hand gesture, which he said can also be used to mean “asshole,” as well as an advertisement from Crossroads Pregnancy Center, the organization that operates the school’s contraceptive education program, Kullmann said.

“It’s an ad that all three high schools in our district have been publishing for years,” she said.

The district’s school newspapers are meant to teach students “responsible journalism,” said Lori Grein, a Rochester Community Schools spokeswoman.

“Because student journalists are still engaged in the learning process, school administrators and advisors provide rational guidance to ensure content is appropriate and not offensive to other students, parents and the community,” Grein said.

Kullmann said she and two other newspaper staff members met with the principal to discuss the prior review, which DeLuca said protects the school community — including the newspaper staff.

“It shows that there’s a lot of misinformation about prior review within the administration,” Kullmann said.

Kullmann said she also got the impression the pressure to prior review may be coming from the superintendent’s office, specifically the district’s secondary school executive director of curriculum and instruction, Carrie Lawler. Kullmann said she has scheduled a Wednesday meeting with Lawler in hopes of persuading her to change her perspective.

Lawler, who said in an email she considered the situation “more of a personnel issue than a censorship issue,” declined to comment further.

In the meantime, Kullmann said she’s encouraging Talon staff members’ parents to speak up. She sent an email to parents last week asking them to write to the principal, superintendent and curriculum director.

The Talon staff is also trying to raise awareness by publishing a piece about the prior review, Kullmann said. A staff writer interviewed the curriculum director for the story, who expressed support for the prior review as a way to keep the newspaper’s content positive.

“She ended up telling our staff writer that she’d rather our paper report on all of the good things going on in the school,” Kullmann said, “rather than like, be a journalism class.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Katherine Schaeffer by email or at (202) 974-5451.

Corrections (3/16/2015, 11:00 p.m.): This article initially contained multiple errors. Only one parent complained about the condom-wrapped banana photo. Interim Principal Neil DeLuca began to prior review the newspaper in February after it ran a photograph of a student smoking a hookah pen, which alarmed administrators. Carrie Lawler, the district’s secondary school executive director of curriculum and instruction, said the hookah photo violated the student code of conduct. The article has been updated to reflect these corrections.