Kate Karstens is a senior at George Mason High School in Falls Church, Virginia and the editor of their student newspaper, The Lasso. Since last March, she’s been on a campaign to codify press freedom in her school district by changing her school board’s policy of prior review. I spoke with her about her passion for journalism and how her fight continues after her statement to the school board last semester was written off during a portion of a board meeting she could not attend.
Molly Cooke: Tell me about how you got into journalism in general.
Kate Karstens: When I was an eighth-grader, I went to the high school. Our high school was eighth through twelfth grade and towards the time of the year – I guess third quarter – when you start to pick your classes, I noticed a few flyers around school that said, “Join the Lasso!” and I remember walking with my sister, who was a junior at the time, and she pointed, she was like, “They win awards; it’s actually a really good paper.” I’m really competitive, and I saw that I was like “Oh my gosh, I want to win. I want to do something. I want to talk about my school. I want to really make a difference.” So I registered for the course and I guess the rest is history.
MC: What inspired you to take on the issue of censorship at your school?
KK: About every year, or two or three times a year, we have some sort of – I guess, kerfuffle – with administration on a piece. They either will completely censor it or choose parts of it taken out or publishing will be delayed due to the school board policy allowing prior review. I was at the Columbia Scholastic Press Association last March and I was at a conference about how to cover sensitive stories in high school sports, and I raised my hand and I said, “How do you really do this with prior review?” and everyone looked at me like I was this extraterrestrial. I had three people be like, “What’s prior review?” and I realized that these incredible newspapers that I was so honored to be just sharing a room with, talking to the editors, they had no idea what prior review was and they were better papers because of it. I realized that we were never going to be able to reach our potential as a student publication without having – we needed to get rid of prior review. It’s not even so much about, yes, winning awards is great, but really at the end of the day, we should be looked to as what’s holding our administration accountable, and having them hold us back is just cause enough to wonder, “What are we missing? If we could investigate to the extent that we would be allowed to without prior review, what would we find?” Democracy is just built on the foundation of having free press, having a voice, and I think that when even so much as a small public school tries to inhibit that, you inhibit the accountability for administrators.
MC: I know that you spoke at a school board meeting. Has anything happened since then?
KK: They actually discussed my proposal about a month ago and it ended up being a three-and-a-half-hour meeting and they didn’t even get to the bulk part until really late in the meeting so I ended up having to go home before they could discuss it, but I watched it online the next day and it was honestly insulting. A lot of the board members were really patronizing and did not treat my proposal and what I was hoping to accomplish with the amount of respect that I think adults would have received. So I actually wrote them sort of a strongly worded email, outlining that I’m not stepping down, I’m not going away. I understand that I’m a child, but that doesn’t mean that what I want isn’t attainable and that doesn’t mean that what I want shouldn’t be given the same respect as an adult.
Also, I did listen to what the school board’s attorney had to say about my proposal and I actually rewrote our current proposal and I sort of highlighted portions that I was hoping would be amended and I added in portions. For example, the second sentence of Amendment Three, I would highlight and then below it, I would write what I would hope to put in there instead. Examples of that include not so much that we won’t have any restriction, because I realize that that is an unattainable goal, but that it is the responsibility of the student and the teacher/advisor to bring issues of caution to the principal; it’s not the principal’s job to be checking in constantly, because what it does is it hinders our ability to report and to report in a really timely manner. Also things like right now the principal is technically the editor of the paper, but I would want to change that to the faculty advisor and the student editor-in-chief are the technical co-editors of the paper. And there are more minor things, but those are the really big ones.
MC: What are next steps for you then? Are you waiting to hear back from the school board?
KK: I’ve heard back from a few and I’ll be setting up meeting times with them soon because it’s really key to get each and every one of them on the same… basically I noticed a theme that a lot of them missed the point and missed what I was trying to accomplish and I think just sitting down with them individually and helping them understand why I’m trying to do this, what I think it will accomplish, it really sort of helps my case, and I’ve noticed that with some of the board members I’ve met with already. Really, next steps are making sure it’s consistently on the agenda for board meetings and making my presence known and really making sure that I’m keeping a strong hold with community members, I think that’s really going to be key.
MC: What’s the support been like from other members of the staff of The Lasso? Are they rallying around this as well?
KK: I would definitely say I’m the leader of this fight, but every single staff member supports me. Doing a lot of this amending and emailing and constantly meeting, it does sometimes place a burden on my ability to be the editor-in-chief of this paper and so my managing editors have done a tremendous job of picking up the slack and making sure that everything still runs smoothly while I’m focusing on more administrative matters.
It’s important that the student is the figurehead of this, but I honestly wouldn’t have been able to do any of it had it not been for my faculty advisor, Mr. Loub. He not only taught me how to write and how to be a good and ethical journalist, but the fact that when I came to him in March saying, “I want to change this,” he was like, “Yeah, I’ve been waiting for you to come and tell me this. Let’s talk about it, let’s do it,” and he’s been really really supportive. As a teacher is technically an employee of the school board, he has to be sort of a little bit detached from this, but regardless, his support, I couldn’t have done it had he not been so for it and so ready for to take on this challenge.
MC: Is there anything that you’d like to add? What would you like to say to younger girls who are looking to come up in journalism?
KK: Never stop working hard because the second that you stop remembering what your goal is and what you’re trying to attain, you’re now moving backwards. You always keep pushing, and it’s so hard to say as someone who’s been censored so many times, it’s so hard to say “Just keep pushing, just keep writing. You will get there, you will get your story published.” It’s really hard to say that when you keep getting told no, but if you push hard enough, they can’t say no. I’ve gained so much confidence just from coming back time and time again and saying, “No, I’m not going to let myself be censored.”