Texas principal censors paper, bans all editorials and ousts award-winning adviser

TEXAS — After censoring the Eagle Nation Online three times this academic year over concerns that stories made the school look bad, the principal of Prosper (Texas) High School, located in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area, will not renew the contract of a nationally acclaimed newspaper and yearbook adviser.

Lori Oglesbee-Petter, a journalism teacher with 34 years of experience in three states, has been at Prosper since May 2016. Last year alone, her journalism students racked up more than 175 state and national journalism awards.

In October 2017, copy editor Isabella Abraham published an article about a senior class movie night that was cancelled due to a “miscommunication” between past administrators and John  Burdett, who is completing his first year as principal.

The article was online for one day when Burdett told Oglesbee-Petter to take it down. He said that the information in the article was not uplifting or accurate. The Eagle stands by the accuracy of the story.

“Ms. O and her students have distinguished themselves across the state and country for their exemplary work,” according to an online bio on the school website.

She declined to comment for this story, saying her teaching contract bars her from speaking with reporters.

Burdett also declined to comment.

“Under her guidance, the young journalists she has worked with have regularly taken home top honors. And how does this principal reward such achievements? He fires her and tells the students not to cover anything but happy news.”

In February 2018, staff writer Haley Stack, in an editorial, admonished Prosper’s choice to remove “A Separate Peace” from the 10th grade curriculum. No reason was given for the decision, but Stack pointed to the novel’s homoerotic undertones as a possible cause. The editorial was online for over a week until Burdett asked for it to be taken down, citing grammatical errors and a lack of positivity. According to the Eagle, there were two grammatical errors: a missing apostrophe and an extra period.

Burdett then told Eagle staff that any articles or editorials that went against “community norms” were to be sent to him for approval. The paper started submitting all articles by Burdett, since they felt the policy was unclear.

On March 23, Eagle staff was informed Oglesbee-Petter would not return to Prosper for another school year. According to associate editor Neha Madhira, Burdett did not provide a reason to Oglesbee-Petter. The school is not required to explain the decision because she was under contract.

“We were extremely concerned,” said Madhira. “We already knew [Burdett] wasn’t on our side.”

Stack believes Oglesbee-Petter’s contract not being renewed is retaliatory.

“I think that [Burdett] doesn’t like our adviser,” Stack said. “And I think he is taking it out on our staff. Anytime that he sees an opportunity to shut us down in any sort of way, he will take it.”

SPLC’s Senior Legal Counsel Mike Hiestand responded to the decision with “shock.”

“Prosper High School is blessed with a veteran teacher who was named the best high school journalism adviser in the entire country,” Hiestand said in a May 18 press release. “Under her guidance, the young journalists she has worked with have regularly taken home top honors. And how does this principal reward such achievements? He fires her and tells the students not to cover anything but happy news.”

On April 9, Eagle staff sent a letter to Burdett, Prosper School District Superintendent Drew Watkins, and school board members, citing the importance of a student-led newspaper, criticizing the October and February instances of censorship, and asking for Oglesbee-Petter to remain at Prosper. Staff members also said they were worried about the future of the Eagle.

“We are not just public relations for the school. Not all news will be positive.”

According to Madhira, her staff never received a reply from any administrators. Burdett did bring up the letter with Madhira in an April 20 interview regarding an approved news article about the nationwide school walk-outs. She remembers Burdett angrily saying the April 9 letter was “false” and cutting her off multiple times during the conversation.

On May 1, Madhira tried to publish an editorial about a team bonding activity organized by Burdett in response to instances of school shootings across the country. In the editorial, Madhira described the activity as disorganized and vague, and then offered solutions to improve it. Burdett blocked the editorial from being published online, saying it was incorrect and didn’t capture the voices of all Prosper students.

Burdett then told Madhira the Eagle could not publish editorials anymore. This policy still remains in place.

“You have a principal that is upset that the teacher is not teaching how to produce fake news,” Hiestand said. “He is telling the kids, ‘You can publish the news as long as it’s happy news.’ That is the definition of fake news.”

Prosper’s prior review policy allows the school’s principal ultimate editorial authority, including the right to block stories from being published. The policy states: “All publications edited, printed, or distributed in the name of or within the District schools shall be under the control of the school administration and the Board. All publications approved and issued by individual schools shall be part of the instructional program, under the supervision of a faculty sponsor, and shall be carefully edited to reflect the ideals and expectations of the citizens of the District for their schools.”

On May 18, Madhira drafted a press release with the help of Hiestand and JEA Scholastic Press Rights Commission Chair Lori Keekley. It explains in detail Burdett’s practice of censorship and Oglesbee-Petter’s contract termination, as well as the importance of editorials.

“We are not just public relations for the school,” Madhira said in the press release. “Not all news will be positive.”

Madhira’s goal is to spread awareness of her paper’s situation. She has reached out to the Dallas Morning News, NBC5, Prosper Magazine, and the Community Impact Newspaper. So far, no reporters have chosen to pick up the story.

Editor’s note: Since this story’s publication, WFAA ABC8, The Dallas Morning News, KXAS NBC-DFW5 and the Dallas Observer have reported on the topic. The Prosper Press has offered to run censored articles.

SPLC staff writer Gabriel Greschle is on Twitter @ggreschler.

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