Bringing the receipts: A response to the call for stories of student press censorship in Texas with Rachel Dearinger

While New Voices legislation being introduced in Texas earlier in March, it wasn’t assigned to a legislative committee until last week. In a March 20 Facebook post, the New Voices of Texas page asked for stories of censorship students and advisers have faced in the Longhorn State to motivate state legislators to move the bill forward.

The SPLC spoke with Rachel Dearinger, who teaches photojournalism, broadcast and is the publications adviser at Mansfield Legacy High School about two instances of censorship she faced in her years of teaching in Texas.

The Q&A has been briefly edited for brevity and clarity.

Burleson High School (2005-06)

“It was school policy that if you were pregnant, you went to the alternative high school. There was one student in particular who opted, or wanted to stay at the high school because she was in AP classes. They covered her, and how not just that she was pregnant, but that she stayed at the high school and went to these classes.

Her life wasn’t over because she had a child. She obviously had great family support, and they encouraged her to stay. They did a story on that in the yearbook and had pictures of the kid in different situations. And obviously the student was still a student, but she was also a parent.

That particular principal, I had to give him every yearbook spread for approval. We had many conversations about how I did not like that, and he would come back and copy edit [the spreads] and all these things, and I was like ‘that’s not really your job.’

Sometimes kids need to make a mistake in order to know not to do it again. It’s not that I wasn’t appreciative of him copy editing, but that definitely wasn’t the reason. Anyway, he got that stack of deadlines and said ‘absolutely not, you can’t publish this story.’ There was nothing not factual in it – we talked to the parents, we talked to the girl who was pregnant, we took pictures of her and her child so obviously the parents were involved with the whole thing.

My editors got pretty upset about that, and I had to sort of step back and say ‘this is a fight I can’t fight for you. If this is something that you’re passionate about, you need to go to the school board and say what happened.’

They printed out the yearbook page and made copies to take so each school board member could have one. I remember the news being there, so the story made the news about how it wasn’t happening. Basically, we pulled it because they weren’t getting the support of the school board either.

During that meeting, the principal came back to me and was very mean and said we already published it by making those copies and distributing it at the school board meeting. What ended up happening is, of course the kids were upset and they thought they would have the support of the school board. When they didn’t, they called the SPLC and had lots of conversations, and the editor just decided she wasn’t going to fight it because she would probably not be done with it to this day.

What they ended up doing, and I was super proud of this, is they took it to the town newspaper and said ‘hey, here’s a story, want this?’ And it ended up getting read by more people than would ever have been read in the yearbook. That was sort of a quiet ‘Yes’ moment for me because I couldn’t really cheer them on to do that, but they did it on their own.”

Mansfield Legacy High School (2012-13)

“There was a student in my Broadcast I class and we were doing PSAs. So I had an African-American student who was an athlete, and he made this PSA. And what he did was he took a kid from every ethnic group that was at this school.

He had them in the studio on a solid background say whatever the derogatory term is for their race. He had them go through this, and the end of the video was saying that those words don’t define those kids. That they’re just words.

He got the idea from The R Word. I have really bad luck with principals apparently. We just thought ‘we better let them know that this is happening,’ because it obviously wasn’t a happy-go-lucky thing, but I thought it was really well done on a sensitive subject.

He was fine with everything in there until “nigger.” The whole point of the video was that we shouldn’t be using these words. That they’re just words and not what define people.

He said ‘yes’ at first when he saw it, and then he came back and said absolutely not. We were just about to post it and he said ‘no, no, no, over my dead body.’ That really surprised me because I thought [the students] were being proactive in a way that would catch students’ attention. That’s hard to do.

Nothing really ever came after that, and I never felt like I did at Burleson. But it’s unfortunate when good work, that I think can reach whatever it is in whatever medium, gets cut. It’s a lesson kids have to learn, but it sucks.”

What would New Voices legislation do for student journalism in Texas?

“I think it would help administrators see that there are a lot of serious kids. I think a lot of people don’t think journalism in high school is serious, that it’s just the yearbook. These kids are doing great work.

I think administrators, if they came into the classroom, would see that. But they’re just scared. Rather than empowering the kids, they just say “no” and protect themselves. I think it would definitely send a message to them that there is a reason [students] have these rights. They should be able to tell these stories that aren’t always happy stories.

All these high schools want the positive coverage, and I get it, but bad things happen too. Kids shouldn’t be afraid to tell those stories, but they are because they want to make everybody happy.

I tell them ‘it is not your job to make it look good if it’s not good,’ and they look at me like ‘what are you talking about?’

They didn’t win, so write about them not winning. I think we paint kind of a rosy picture when it’s not always so rosy. I think we create better journalists and better human beings if they’re allowed to do things freely.”