High school principal and yearbook editor battling over right to publish teen pregnancy photos

VIRGINIA — A high school yearbook spread with pictures of a pregnant teenager has launched a censorship battle at Mount Vernon High School.

Anderson Bonilla, the Surveyor’s editor-in-chief, said this is the first year the yearbook staff is venturing away from the traditional book with spreads limited to homecoming and football games.

“We wanted to do a more controversial book,” he said, to show what really goes on at Mount Vernon High — “not just some make-believe setting that every yearbook creates.”

The spread in question is titled, “The next generation,” and features pictures of female students posing with their children. There are also Instagram pictures chronicling one student’s growing stomach and quotes from students about the realities of teen pregnancy. “Having a baby is hard,” one student is quoted as saying. “Wait and focus on your education.”

On Nov. 20, interim principal Esther Manns told the yearbook editors that she had a problem with the section of Instagram pictures of the student who documented her growing pregnancy. Mann, according to Bonilla, refused any compromise and wanted it out of the yearbook, saying that the student would regret those pictures being published in the yearbook 10 years down the road.

On Nov. 23, Bonilla and his staff decided to appeal Mann’s decision on the basis of Fairfax County Public Schools Regulation 2612.7 that governs freedom of expression by students. The regulation grants students the right to exercise freedom of expression and to address policies and advocate for change in writing, visually or orally. It also tasks the principal with making sure the content of school-sponsored publications doesn’t violate the provisions of the regulation — including interfering with the rights of others or disrupting school activities. The principal’s decisions are subject to appeal.

On Dec. 3, according to Bonilla, Manns met with the yearbook editors again and said the pregnancy photos and spread did not violate the district’s code, so she did not need to give the yearbook staff a written statement of her reasonings. This has prevented the students from appealing her decision.

Instead, Manns cited the Hazelwood standard, which says that school officials can censor content from a school-sponsored publication if they demonstrate reasonable educational justification and if their censorship was viewpoint neutral.

The Hazelwood standard is a minimum level of free expression rights for students and districts can choose to set higher standards — as Fairfax did with Regulation 2612.7.

Manns has still not given the staff her written statement. She referred the Student Press Law Center’s requests for comment to the district public information officer, John Torre. Torre said in an email that Manns has not yet made any decisions regarding yearbook content.

She has raised concerns about the personal privacy of students, Torre said, and asked the yearbook staff and their adviser to verify that quotes were accurate and they had permission from students to use their pictures in the yearbook.

“This is a standard used in journalism and, as the syllabus states, journalism is a perfectionist’s business,” Torre said.

Bonilla said the students have all given permission for their photos and quotes to be used. Torre did not respond to questions about whether Manns would approve the content with the students’ permission.

At another point, Manns went to the female student whose contents of her baby bag was featured in the spread and asked if she was okay with the page, if her grandmother was okay with the page and whether all the facts were true. The student said yes to everything, but Manns said that the section about the baby bag would have to be pulled because “it was not anybody’s concern on what was in her bag,” Bonilla wrote in a summary of the events. He said later that Manns had not brought up the issue of the baby bag to the yearbook editors.

Torre said producing the yearbook is part of the photojournalism class curriculum at Mount Vernon High.

“The yearbook is not an extracurricular activity, and thus, it is not a public forum and never has been,” he said. “It has always been a part of the photojournalism class curriculum which takes place during the school day. We value our students right to exercise freedom of expression; however, the principal has the responsibility to act as the supervising administrator for the yearbook.”

The Fairfax Regulation 2612.7 specifically includes yearbooks and other student publications. School-sponsored publications are required to establish an “editorial policy that promotes responsible journalism and does not violate the prohibitions on written expressions contained in this regulation.” The principal’s job is to make sure the yearbook’s contents aren’t libelous, disruptive, advocating for criminal activity or endangering the health or safety of students.

Bonilla has now contacted the Student Press Law Center for legal assistance and is currently seeking legal representation before meeting with Manns. The meeting will probably not take place until January because of the school’s holiday break.

At this point, the spread has missed its deadline by about a month, Bonilla said.

“I was expecting [there to be controversy], but I wouldn’t expect it to be going down the way it is,” he said, pointing to the fact that Mann has refused to provide a written statement on her decision, which has made it impossible for the students to appeal.

Bonilla said his main goal with the spread is to bring awareness to what life is really like at Mount Vernon, so in addition to the teen pregnancy spread, the yearbook will also include pages on students’ religion and a spread on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students and their stories.

Bonilla said he already knows the religion spread will raise some eyebrows with administration — the yearbook staff had asked a couple students of various religions on their opinions on generalizations, like “all Muslims are terrorists.”

And in a spread about immigration, there was a section on the word “chent,” an ethnic slur against Hispanics. The yearbook asked both immigrant students and Hispanic students born in the United States about their feelings toward the word. Bonilla said Manns was concerned about printing the word, but eventually approved it.

But Torre said Manns has indicated that she has not yet okayed its use in the yearbook — she has concerns about “whether the yearbook is the proper forum for a discussion about a racial slur …. a slur that many would find objectionable and offensive,” he said.

Bonilla said he was “shocked” to learn that Manns might still prohibit that section from being published.

“This is further evidence that a written statement is necessary of Mrs. Manns’ ruling, as her position has changed several times over the past month,” he said in a follow-up email.

Bonilla said the situation has been stressful but eye-opening.

“Even though we are students, this whole situation has made us realize that we have our rights,” he said. “We understand the authority of a principal, and we respect her in all possible ways. This isn’t to undermine her or disrespect her. … This is more about us students being deprived of a certain justice we deserve.”

SPLC staff writer Madeline Will can be reached by email or at (202) 833-4614.

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