High school paper’s article on bell schedule results in censorship, threats to cut journalism program

ILLINOIS — High school reporters at Steinmetz College Prep had spent weeks working on a story about a change in the school bell schedule, even sifting through hundreds of surveys. Little did they know their story would initially be censored, even resulting in a threat from Steinmetz Principal Stephen Ngo to eliminate the 81-year-old school paper entirely.

“I kind of felt like all of our work was going to waste,” said McKenzie Lacefield, a reporter for the Steinmetz Star, which has a storied history as the alma mater of Playboy editor-in-chief Hugh Hefner, whose ongoing donations cover the cost of printing.

Now, following public outcry, two meetings between Ngo and the journalism class and some adjustments to the original story draft, the story is set to run in the January-February edition of the Steinmetz Star.

The new bell schedule, implemented this school year, pushed the school start time back an hour to 9 a.m. The article addresses the effects of the new bell schedule and includes data from a survey students conducted. In total, the student reporters received nearly 1,400 responses from students, parents and staff members. Lacefield said she felt like there was nothing controversial about the story and the reporters had aimed to present different perspectives on the topic.

And while Lacefield and Steinmetz Star Adviser Sharon Schmidt say the story was censored, administrators argue it was always their original intent to postpone publication to allow more time for reporting.

Schmidt, who is also a teacher at Steinmetz, said the trouble with the story started after she contacted Randel Josserand, Network 3 chief of schools for Chicago Public Schools, for comment on the survey.

Ngo, already upset at the tone of Schmidt’s email to Josserand, received the original article and decided to postpone its publication until the January-February edition to allow the students more time to conduct more interviews.

“I asked them to address some things that were missing,” Ngo said, adding that he wanted students to interview members of the local school council and the school nurse.

Although Schmidt returned a revised article days later, Ngo said he was too busy to review the article and decided to once again postpone the story until after the holiday break. Ngo said it was never his intention to permanently kill the story, but to postpone its publication to allow for further reporting.

“That was a big surprise to me and I thought it was very unreasonable,” Schmidt said.

Ngo began prior review of articles at Steinmetz in 2013 after a controversial editorial cartoon appeared in the school newspaper, something that troubled the local school council and school staff members, he said. He cited the Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier Supreme Court decision as what gives him the authority to review content before publication. Hazelwood allows school officials to censor articles in student newspaper as long as there is a reasonable educational justification and the censorship is viewpoint neutral. Although he has been reviewing articles prior to their publication since 2013, Schmidt said this was the first time he has withheld an article.

There is currently an ongoing campaign in the state called New Voices of Illinois to pass anti-Hazelwood legislation that would protect high school journalists from administrative censorship.

Ngo met with the journalism class on Dec. 16 to explain his decision. Lacefield said Ngo did not directly answer any of the students’ questions and never gave a clear reason as to why he was censoring the article.

“It was useless, it was just kind of a waste of time,” Lacefield said.

Ngo said he reiterated his recommendations for further reporting in that meeting and had told the class that he wanted to postpone publication until after the break.

But to Schmidt, there was not much else to research or report – the students had spent weeks working on the story, she said.

Displeased with the meeting, Lacefield decided to publish the story on her personal blog two days later.

“I really thought that people should get it one way or another,” she said.

Lacefield said she didn’t want to wait for 2016 to see the story come out and knew school administrators could not stop her from publishing on a platform not affiliated with the school.

After Lacefield published the story online, Schmidt reported on the situation for Substance News, an online education news site. Local news outlet DNA Info reported on the censorship as well.

After Schmidt’s article was published, Ngo sent out an email to school counselors at 1:05 a.m. Dec. 26 stating there would be no journalism program next year.

“Scratch Journaism (sic) for next year. We will not be offering it anymore. There will be no more Steinmetz Star. I’m still deciding what to do with it for the second semester,” Ngo wrote in the Dec. 26 email.

“I thought that entire email was crazy,” Lacefield said. “It was not thought through.”

Schmidt said she was angry and hurt by the email, but was prepared to fight the administration to keep the paper running.

“I just thought it was ridiculous, because it’s such a good program,” Schmidt said.

Despite his email, Ngo said he has no intention of ending the journalism program at Steinmetz, adding that the students do a great job with the publication. Ngo said he wrote the email in an emotional state after learning that the stories were posted online.

After the holiday break, Ngo and Josserand met with the journalism class to talk about why they postponed publication of the story. Still, Lacefield said the class never received a clear reason why the article was censored in the first place.

“Overall, it’s been difficult to get answers,” Lacefield said.

While the Steinmetz Star will continue to publish a print edition through the end of the school year, Ngo said it’s still up in the air whether the Star will continue in its current form, as grant funding for printing is set to run out at the end of this school year.

While she is disappointed the story didn’t run last year, Lacefield said she is glad it will finally be printed in the student newspaper.

“I feel like we’ve won a war,” Lacefield said.

SPLC staff writer Ryan Tarinelli can be reached by email or at (202) 974-6318.

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