Student publications: "Sneaky" policy change delayed

When administrators wanted the Albemarle County School Board to revise its policy on student publications, school board member Gary Grant had a problem with that sort of change coming during summer vacation.

"I certainly wasn't happy we hadn't contacted faculty advisors, student editors, the Virginia High School League that oversees student journalism, and the county-wide student council," says Grant, a former reporter. "It seems to me it would behoove adults in the central office to involve everyone in the loop."

The proposed change in policy gives school officials more control over the style and content of student publications, "as long as the officials' actions are reasonably related to legitimate educational concerns," according to a draft of the proposed change.

Have there been flagrant abuses at county high schools? Deputy county attorney Mark Trank says no, that the changes reflect current Supreme Court rulings that deal with student publications.

Specifically, he's referring to Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, in which a high school principal pulled articles in a student paper that talked about student pregnancies and divorce. The principal cited privacy concerns, and the Supreme Court ruled in his favor in 1988.

"Before, school newspapers were closer to real newspapers," says Trank. "This gives school officials more discretion."

"There's an awful lot of gray area in Hazelwood, and it doesn't give administrators as much room to control content as they think," cautions Bob Button, a 32-year journalism veteran who advises on student journalism at the Virginia High School League. School officials can step in only when content interferes with the "educational or pedagogical mission of the school," he says.

"The danger in controlling content," Button continues, "is that it eliminates a lot of lessons students need to learn about journalism."

One of those lessons was learned by the newspaper staff at Tandem Friends School this past year when an unauthorized edition of the school paper, the Broken Record, went out containing sexual language.

Tandem principal Paul Perkinson says one piece in particular used questionable journalistic practice and humor inappropriate for a school readership in grades five through twelve– not to mention their parents. And, while students have a lot of leeway on the paper, it went to press without being shown to the faculty advisor. "I think the students abused that freedom," says Perkinson.

Nonetheless, he still sees high school as an "embryonic democracy" where it's important to learn that "citizenship is freedom with responsibility." Perkinson won't change Tandem's policies on school publications because, as he says, "If you can't make mistakes in high school, where can you?"

Grant objects to what he calls the "punitive language" in the Albemarle County policy that prohibits libel, obscenity, and personal attacks. "Can't we say that we encourage student journalists to follow professional journalistic ethics?" he asks.

Sam Latter, the editor of Western Hemisphere at Western Albemarle High School, had heard nothing about the proposed change in county policy, and he worries that it opens the door to censorship. He says the paper's faculty advisor lets the Hemisphere staff know when material is inappropriate. "I don't think allowing administrators to revise anything is fair," he says.

Button cites an example of administrative abuse in Michigan, where students researched a lawsuit against the school system because of pollution in the bus barns and were told the topic was off limits. "That's the concern, that administrators can determine a subject is off-limits that should not be," he says.

"I would think the best education would be students and advisors involved in formulating policy," adds Button.

The Albemarle County School Board agrees. On July 10, it deferred approving a new policy until the fall so that student editors and faculty advisors could examine and comment on it.

That's good news for Latter. "I'd be upset if I came back to school and found administrators had this discussion while none of the students who run the papers had a say in it," he says. "That would be really sneaky."