High school editor boycotts graduation after school suppresses sexual misconduct records and censors stories

PENNSYLVANIA — A high school newspaper editor boycotted her graduation after repeated censorship and issues with how her school handles sexual assault and harassment records. 

Grace Marion, a senior at Neshaminy High School and editor-in-chief of The Playwickian, published an investigative article in the June 14, 2018 edition. She found the high school mishandled sexual assault and harassment complaints filed at the school. Marion said when sexual assault or harassment claims are made about employees of Neshaminy High School, they are stored in the files of the student who makes the claim, not in the files of the employee. 

Those files are only kept for a few years after the student’s graduation, Marion said. 

“I knew something was wrong with the system.”

Frank LoMonte, senior legal fellow at the Student Press Law Center, called the filing system “a very non-standard way to keep records,” and said it creates a risk that “a pattern of wrongdoing will go undetected.”

When the complaints are kept in the students’ files and not the employees’, it becomes more difficult to keep track of the complaints, especially for employees who may have multiple complaints against them.

“That’s why it’s such a reckless practice to keep records as the school claims it’s doing, and why The Playwickian has helped make its school safer by bringing this irresponsible school behavior to light,” LoMonte said. 

Marion, who reported the story for a year, uncovered this system after filing an open records request with the school district, asking for copies of complaints filed against specific teachers. Marion said she had spoken to 10 to 15 students who had filed complaints against these teachers, so she was surprised when the Neshaminy School District denied the request, saying no such records existed.

“I knew something was wrong with the system,” Marion said.

Rob McGee, principal at Neshaminy High School in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, did not respond to request for comment.

“It’s really rare to see a high school journalist doggedly pursue public records, but Grace is that really rare student, and you’d expect nothing less from her,” LoMonte said. “She has done an invaluable public service by bringing to light what seems to be, at best, a grossly negligent practice of recordkeeping by her school that runs the risk of letting serial harassers escape punishment.”

Marion also wrote an annual “editor farewell.” In it, Marion announced she would boycott graduation as a protest.

“If it were in this school’s nature to admit its mistakes I would accept that,” Marion wrote. “But it is not, and I am going to be thousands of miles away as you read this because of that.”

In her time at The Playwickian, Marion said several LGBTQ+ students, including staff members of the The Playwickian, were outed to their families by members of the administration. 

“I will not honor a school that supports the oppression of free speech, of LGBTQ+ rights, and of the victims of sexual assault and harassment,” she wrote. “I will not allow a school that regularly censors its student writers, outs LGBTQ+ students to their families, and hides the records of sexual misconduct within its walls claim me or any of my successes.”

Marion said she was upset about the story she was investigating, but also because “about a dozen articles were stopped from printing” during her years at the school. They include a piece on New Year’s resolutions, a few paragraphs about why the basketball coach was fired and a piece of political satire for the school’s literary magazine. Most recently, Marion said the principal tried to stop them from publishing an editorial on her investigation and a recent front page story about marijuana use.

“She has done an invaluable public service by bringing to light what seems to be, at best, a grossly negligent practice of recordkeeping by her school that runs the risk of letting serial harassers escape punishment.”

The Playwickian has been censored by McGee in the past. In 2014, the newspaper’s then-adviser, Tara Huber, and opinion editor, Maddy Buffardi, were suspended for two days over their refusal to print the word “Redskins,” the school’s mascot. Additionally, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief at the time, Gillian McGoldrick, was suspended from her position for one month. The Playwickian was also fined $1,200 after the incident. 

Later that year, The Student Press Law Center awarded McGoldrick and co-editor Reed Hennessy the Courage in Student Journalism Award, for their fight against censorship. The award is co-sponsored by the Center for Scholastic Journalism at Kent State University and National Scholastic Press Association.

“It’s especially remarkable that Grace and her staff have kept working so diligently to hold their school accountable when the school has such a well-established history of heavy-handed censorship,” LoMonte said. “It’s admirable that Grace hasn’t thrown up her hands, gotten discouraged and walked away even when story after story has been shot down.”

Marion said that while the reaction to her editor’s farewell has been mostly positive, she has seen some negative reaction and “victim blaming” in response to the original investigative piece. There were also comments written on Facebook about The Playwickian and the article, including some calling for the end of the newspaper. 

“It’s silly,” Marion said. “You can’t just call for something to be abolished everytime it exposes something you don’t like, especially when it’s the truth, but obviously Neshaminy doesn’t get that.”

SPLC staff writer Monica Kast can be reached by email or at 202-974-6318. Follow her on Twitter at @monica_kast.

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