By Gretchen Wehmhoff
For over two decades I advised an award-winning high school student newspaper in the state’s largest school district. During that time I pretty much gained a permanent seat in the principal’s office, was part of two legal briefs prepared for the district administration (both favoring the student newspaper’s rights), had multiple interviews by local media and one run-in with the U.S. Secret Service.
I’m pretty proud of that record. Not because I survived, but because my students prevailed. They prevailed because they followed good journalism practices, understood their rights within the district and followed a written appeals process each time to stand for their voice – something they ended up defending more often once we started distributing 5,000 papers of each issue around the community.
The young reporters won first place in reporting a story for which I sat on the hot seat. They created relationships with local media to back them up if they were silenced. Sometimes the issues brought against the kids were unrealistic – such as removing drawings of drugs (found in a “don’t do drugs” pamphlethanded out at a local clinic) from a story on drug abuse . Some were a bit pathetic, such as censoring their informative Halloween spread – they couldn’t mention anything to do with witches or Wiccan practices.
The student editor at the time, ready to go to publication, removed each “offense” and replaced it with some kind of cartoon question mark. She inserted a statement noting that the drug pictures had been removed by order of the administration.
After that, when the kids were censored, the administration instructed them not to place such a statement. They wanted to censor without being called out on it.
The next time involved a streaker. We had a photo, from the back, of a streaker who ran through the homecoming halftime show. The photo (before digital photography) showed the streaker to take up less space than a fingernail on the print. Nope. Can’t publish that.
So the kids sent the photo to the Anchorage Daily News who published it in their section designed and written by young reporters. Back page section A. This, of course, brought the broadcast media to the school, where accompanied by a very uncomfortable assistant principal, they interviewed kids and took a shot of the streaker photo to air on the evening news.
One day I walked into the office and two of my colleagues had just removed all of the newspapers out of homeroom teachers boxes. They were upset over an editorial criticizing cheer leading as a sport. The district superintendent stepped in and ordered the papers to be returned to the boxes. One of the teachers left me a note admonishing me for allowing such “vomit” to be written.
In most cases the school administration was frustrated with me – believing I should censor the kids for them. I stood my ground, informed the leadership where to find the district policies protecting student publications and assisted my students as they journeyed through the process.
The only battle we truly lost was in the early 2000s when we tried to develop an online presence for the paper. Eventually, the topic of our intentions showed up at a secondary principal’s meeting where they “voted” to not allow online student newspapers. Too much risk. So much for encouraging innovation. Now, nearly all student newspapers have an online presence.
Other students started to reach out to me when they felt threatened by censorship. One girl had been taken to the disciplinary office for pinning a condom (in the unopened package) to her shirt in an attempt to promote birth control being distributed in the nurse’s office. When the principal stepped out, the student grabbed the desk phone and called my classroom. We quickly scanned her rights and decided that she had a right to wear a badge. She was suspended, but the local media heard her story and she was in the paper as a young woman taking a stand.
First Amendment rights don’t have an age requirement. Yet it is not uncommon for kids to believe they “can’t” do something because they have been previously penalized for questioning authority.
For over 20 years, I was privileged to listen and observe as my students discussed stories, made sure their reporting was accurate and had the best interest of the readership in their plans. No principal ever observed those amazing moments of mature thought process.
One of the most memorable was the discussion of the student newspaper to place facts in front of their readership. That the student newspaper, handed out to each student, was the one place all students could get their news. It was a place to dispel rumors – especially when an assistant principal at the school was charged with running a gambling entity with multiple school computers on the premises.
The kids interviewed the police, the troopers, the attorneys and, when it was necessary, practiced the skill of offering a right to respond.
It took three weeks to get the paper approved. The administration told them to cut the gambling story. The kids took their story to an appeals board, the editor made her case and the appeals board approved the story. Yet a mad dash in the last ten minutes before press time had the unit principal driving to the school while the administrator from HR called to ask again that I stop the story.
The printer, supportive of the kids, was holding the press for us. It had already been in the local news. Why was this such an issue? Their reason, of course, was risk management. How would it impact the district if the defendant pleaded that the school was publishing information. How would the district be liable?
I told him I understood, but if this didn’t run in the school newspaper, the kids had already spoken to the Alaska Star and would provide the original story, as well as their challenges, for publication.
The paper went to press, no one was sued and the student body of around 2,000 students saw a factual accounting of something that happened in their school. Rumors stopped and the kids won another first place award for reporting.
Multiple attempts were made to slow us down over the years. Our computers were removed, so I started to collect surplus equipment. The curriculum principal moved the class to the first period (after 20 years scheduled during the last period of the day) making it difficult for reporters to make calls – it was 7:30 a.m. – or extend their time after school. And finally, the class was canceled by the same curriculum principal who didn’t like our story about the gambling principal. However, having been very involved in contract negotiations, I was able to point out that the contract required I be notified the spring before an extra-curricular position was ended – so pay me to run a lunchtime newspaper or just pay me.
Eventually, the paper came back the following semester after some frank discussion and with the assistance of the union and the local press.
At a certain point, after the district sought a legal opinion from their lawyers, the censorship slowed a bit.
Accurate news comes from good journalism. Facts come from good reporting. Good reporters are cultivated when young journalists are provided real experiences and encouragement. How many school newspapers still exist? Who are we protecting when we try to shade the eyes of those who seek information, such as young reporters and their readership?
We aren’t protecting them.