For High School Journalists, Hard News May Be No News

High schools across the country have pushed back this year against student journalists who have reported on sensitive subjects, such as the reaction to school shootings and adolescent sexuality.

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For High School Journalists, Hard News May Be No News
Jaclyn Peiser
, New York Times

High schools across the country have pushed back this year against student journalists who have reported on sensitive subjects, such as the reaction to school shootings and adolescent sexuality.

In Orange County, California, a principal condemned a school publication for a special issue that focused on teenage relationships, calling it “disrespectful and sensationalistic.”

In a town roughly 20 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, the administration deactivated a school’s news website after student journalists posted an investigative article examining the mysterious dismissal of a history teacher.

And in a suburb of Dallas, a principal forbade the publication of an opinion piece critical of the administration for scheduling events during the National School Walkout protest.

Since 1988, when the Supreme Court ruled that a Missouri school district had acted lawfully in removing a two-page spread on divorce and teenage pregnancy from a student newspaper, administrators have been able to censor work in school publications that they consider poorly written or “inconsistent with the shared values of a civilized social order.” Fourteen states have laws in place meant to safeguard school publications from interference.

The killing of the opinion piece on the National School Walkout protest was the third instance of conflict between John Burdett, the principal of Prosper High School in Prosper, Texas, and the school’s news publication, Eagle Nation Online. The first skirmish concerned an article about the cancellation of “movie day,” a school tradition allowing the class that had raised the most money for a cancer charity to see a movie during school hours. Burdett disputed the article’s take on the cancellation and ordered the faculty adviser, Lori Oglesbee-Petter, to scrub it from the site.

The next incident involved an opinion piece by the current assistant editor, Haley Stack, 16, that argued against the school’s removal of the novel “A Separate Peace” from the sophomore reading list. Burdett cited grammatical errors in ordering that the story be taken down, Stack said. Weeks later, Oglesbee-Petter, a 35-year teaching veteran who had led Eagle Nation Online to more than 175 journalism awards during the past school year, learned that her contract would not be renewed.

The third conflict centered on the opinion piece about the National School Walkout, written by Neha Madhira, 16, the publication’s current editor-in-chief. It criticized the administration for scheduling a number of activities — group-bonding exercises, the singing of the school song in the hallways, a 30-second moment of silence — at the time of the April 20 protest, which was organized in the wake of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

“We knew that our principal was basically trying to cut us off,” Stack said.

Stack and Madhira added that teachers had blocked students who tried to join the walkout, and that the singing of the school song had been disrupted by students who joked about school shootings and offered Nazi salutes.

“It was a mess,” Stack said. “And so Neha wrote that.”

Madhira submitted the opinion piece to Burdett, who barred it from publication, saying it was not representative of the views of the school’s 3,000 students. Prosper High officials and Oglesbee-Petter declined to comment for this article.

“We live in a democracy where the First Amendment isn’t instinctive,” said Mike Hiestand, the senior legal counsel at the Student Press Law Center, a group that provides free legal help to high school and college journalists. “It’s learned and nurtured, and we certainly are not providing a whole lot of opportunity for students to learn the First Amendment in a firsthand kind of way.” In Herriman, Utah, an enterprising school publication ran into trouble after digging into a subject that administrators at Herriman High School had tried to keep secret: the reason for the dismissal of a popular history teacher.

Conor Spahr, 18, spent more than a month looking into why the teacher had stopped showing up for his classes in fall 2017. After reviewing public records and interviewing students and teachers, Spahr reported in The Herriman Telegraph that the teacher “was sending highly inappropriate messages to a female student,” according to an unnamed person described in the article as a “source.” The morning after the article went live, it was gone.

“At first I thought it was a glitch or something,” Spahr said. “But once we saw the entire website was down, we knew something was happening.”

Spahr and Max Gordon, The Telegraph’s 18-year-old former editor-in-chief, created a new website — The Herriman Telegram — and republished the article. In January, news outlets in Utah reported that the teacher was under police investigation on allegations that he had sent inappropriate text messages to a minor.

In a statement, the Jordan School District, which includes Herriman High School, said it “encourages thought-provoking, informative and accurate reporting of all stories in our school newspapers.”

It isn’t only investigative reporting or stories on protests that have pitted student journalists against educators in recent months. Editors and reporters at San Juan Hills High School in San Juan Capistrano, California, caused a furor in March with a special issue of The Express called “Relationships & Sex.”

“We had five anonymous stories featuring personal experiences of students from diverse backgrounds and diverse relationships and sexual experiences,” said Olivia Fu, 18, formerly a co-editor-in-chief of The Express. “They opened up about what it was like for them in relationships in high school.”

In “Long-Term,” a girl describes ending up in an “emotionally abusive” relationship with a boy. In “Waiting Until Marriage,” a heterosexual couple explains why they have decided to abstain from sex. In “Gay,” a male student tells of ending up at a motel room for a sexual encounter with two partners. “Pregnancy Scare” goes into the fears of a sexually active female student, and “Bisexual” presents a male student who says, “I used to hate myself for my sexuality.” The stories were written by Express staff members, who gave aliases to the students they interviewed.

In an email to parents, the school’s principal, Jennifer Smalley, apologized for the “shock and dismay you felt when you opened up the paper.” The publication’s faculty adviser, Bill Kaiser, was put on paid leave. Out of concern for him, the students briefly took down the articles.

Fu and her fellow co-editor-in-chief, Sam Newman, came to believe that the negative reaction from many parents and the administration had to do with two articles in particular, “Gay” and “Bisexual.” They said Smalley had asked the reporter of those articles, Kate Finman, to reveal the names of the students she had interviewed, and informed her that she had contacted child protective services. Finman did not comply with the principal’s request to name the subjects of her stories.

A spokesman for the school district, Ryan Burris, disputed that account, saying the principal was concerned about the articles that described students in potential danger. He cited the rental of a hotel room in “Gay” as evidence that one of “the three males involved in the activity was at least 18 years of age,” and pointed to the phrase “emotionally abusive” in “Long-Term” as another cause for concern.

Burris said the principal had reported the matters to child protective services because California law required school officials to report any “suspicion of child abuse.”

In a statement, the school district said: “While this particular issue of the paper did not live up to the journalistic standards we expect, it was, nevertheless, printed, published and distributed freely at the school in classrooms and throughout the campus.” Elsewhere in the country, student reporters have delved into difficult subjects without interference or complaint from administrators. The staff of The Eagle Eye at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, where Ty Thompson is the principal, had free rein to cover the mass shooting there and its aftermath.

“I think, in general, our administration, especially our principal, Mr. Thompson, is amazing and always wants to work with us and not against us,” said Rebecca Schneid, a co-editor-in-chief of The Eagle Eye.

Schneid, 16, offered advice to student journalists dealing with school officials: “Just try to talk to them in a way that makes them understand what your role on campus is. Your job is to talk about the important things happening in your community.”

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