At the Schoolhouse Gate

At 7 p.m., shit is getting intense.

There’s an increased urgency in the newsroom as the staff’s 8 o’clock deadline approaches. Editors piston between reporters shouting final copy and design corrections so they can put the pages to bed.

“Okay, let’s look at this lead,” the editor-in-chief says to the news editor, the lenses of their glasses illuminated by the glow of the computer monitor. “There are multiple issues here. We can’t wait for the second graf to introduce this info. We need to answer these questions immediately.”

“Can you re-read this story real quick to make sure it’s okay?” the features editor says to the managing editor.

“Is theater tech spelled correctly?” asks the entertainment editor. “I thought it was -RE, not -ER.”

“Check the course list for the spelling,” says a reporter.

“-RE is the place, -ER is the class,” yells another from across the room.

Harried banter like this is commonplace in any professional newsroom during crunch time, where getting the details right is just as important as getting them first.

But these editors and reporters aren’t professionals. They’re high school kids. Zit-faced, sweatpants-wearing, Snapchat-addicted teenagers. Every month, they spend close to 12 hours after school putting together a newspaper whose quality eclipses most of the local rags this country still somehow finds funding for.

Of course I’m bragging. I’m their teacher.

In 2019, being a high school journalist doesn’t hold the appeal it once did. Gone are the days of teens emulating Peter Parker or Clark Kent or, to a lesser extent, Rory Gilmore. Elective classes relevant to 21st century skills like engineering and robotics now overshadow the “outdated” medium of print journalism. Upper-crust kids want advanced business and economics electives on their college applications, and the rest are looking for an easy A because they think it’s too much work to like, you know, write all those gross words.

But for a few — I have 15 kids on my newspaper staff this year — the words are everything.

Being a reporter on the school paper doesn’t give students as much of an archetypical identity as the jocks or the band geeks or the theater weirdos, but for those who know the world of scholastic journalism, it does carry its own ethos.

Those kids are fucking workers, man. I know I’m biased, and I know there are plenty of students out there who aren’t involved in journalism that work hard and deserve praise, but put me in battle with high school kids and I’ll pick the journalists’ foxhole every time. On the whole, I’ve found them to be much more rounded humans than their non-reporter peers, able to strike the precarious balance between meticulousness, task completion, and creativity. Shit, that’s stuff I’m not even good at as a grown man.

And the things they’re writing are serious. These kids aren’t penning cute little vignettes about the soccer team or the homecoming king. In the last two years, my newspaper staff has tackled issues like teen vaping, the impact of local elections on the school community, and new district policies on gender identity and technology. Yeah they wrote a story about prom, but it focused on how students found the prom venue controversial because it was located in a newly-gentrified area of DC. When I was 17, I couldn’t even spell gentrification.

Ay, but there’s the rub. As scholastic journalism programs get stronger, students move past writing rah-rah pablum you’d find in Beaver Cleaver’s school paper. They start functioning as credible sources of news. Good reporters don’t want to profile Suzy Sunshine and how amazing she is; they want to tell the true stories of real teens, even if those stories don’t fit the “isn’t this kid awesome” narrative.    

Well, this makes adults nervous.

I get it. Teachers and administrators have enough on their plates without having to worry about PR scandals, especially if the origins of those scandals come from their own classrooms. But they do control what the community sees and hears about their schools. Administrators are trained in spin; my wife, who is finishing up her specialist degree in school administration, took an entire course entitled “the school and community relations.” The last thing school officials want are acne-ridden smartasses pointing out to the community things might not be so rosy inside the schoolhouse gate.

I’m extremely fortunate to work with an administration that understands not only the importance of a free student press, but also trusts my judgement as an educator and adviser. Never once has my principal asked to approve an article before publication, nor has he given anything but praise to my staff and me. I’m sure there are times he has to hold his tongue — we’re not perfect — but never has he been anything but supportive. He understands the educational mission of the program, and for that I am thankful.

For other journalism educators around the district, state, and country, this is not the case.

Last week, I read an article about a high school in Stockton, California that made me sick to my stomach. Newspaper teacher Kathi Duffel’s ass is currently on the line because she refused to allow her school’s administration to review and approve a profile about an 18-year-old student who has a fledgling career as a porn star.

According to the article, Duffel feels the profile is fair, accurate, and complies with state laws on obscenity and libel. But district officials insist the teacher will face disciplinary action and potentially legal consequences if she sends the article to print without prior review.

The fact that administrators are pitting Duffel against her students — and her own ethics — is an excruciating scenario, but it hits even closer to home for me, who dealt with something similar not so long ago.

  A few years ago, I advised a yearbook staff who wanted the focus of that year’s book to be on the students who didn’t grab all the headlines; they wanted to profile real students grappling with real issues. Included in their list of story ideas was how students dealt with the loss of a loved one, how immigrant students acclimated to American education, and how new teen parents juggled the responsibilities of school and caring for a baby.

This school’s administration had a long-standing policy of reviewing and approving content prior to publication, and as such, I inherited that policy when I took the reins as the yearbook’s adviser. They made me cut a few things in previous years, including a photo of an assistant principal wearing a tutu at a pep rally (they told me “cross-dressing” was not appropriate). Rather than point out the hypocrisy that an AP wearing a tutu at a pep rally was okay but photographing it was not, I picked my battle and complied.

But when the administration returned the story on teen pregnancy with circles around the photos and the word NO!!!! in red ink, the staff and I dug in our heels.

I didn’t fight the students’ fight for them. I told them if they felt their right to free speech was being violated, they had to build an argument against censoring the photos on their own.

So they did. They contacted the Student Press Law Center, a non-profit organization devoted to supporting students’ rights to free speech. With the help of an SPLC employee, the students researched relevant laws and district policies and developed a case. They followed district protocol by scheduling a meeting with the administration and requesting an appeal in writing. 

The problem was that my administration assumed I was the puppet master controlling this censorship circus, and they formally reprimanded me on insubordination charges. In meeting after meeting, I was given direct orders to remove the photographs of a student’s pregnant belly or I would face serious consequences.

Their main argument against the photographs shifted several times over the course of the proceedings. At first, my principal said the photos were not suitable for print because the pregnant student wore an outfit in the photos that did not meet dress code regulations (my students showed her a decade’s worth of yearbooks showing the swim and dive team in Speedos). Then I was told we did not have sufficient permission to print the photos because my staff obtained them from social media (my staff showed the principal Instagram’s privacy policy and a written statement from the pregnant student granting us permission to use the photos). Finally, the truth outed: the administration wanted to block the photos from being published because they felt the pregnant student would — and this is a real quote — “regret the decision in the future.”

Cue sad trombone.

I want to say I walked into these meetings and propped my feet on the desk and cracked a beer, but I was scared shitless. The theatre of this thing was so absurd, it made me feel like I was crazy. I didn’t sleep; I barely ate; I walked into the mailroom each morning wincing in anticipation of another letter of reprimand in my box.

If ever put into a situation like this, where we’re forced to choose between doing what we think is right and what will make our bosses happy, it’s fun to think we’ll all wrap ourselves in the American flag and stand up against injustice, or the man, or the system, or whatever. But I have to tell you, it ain’t that easy.

Eventually, the lawyers on both sides put away their swords and the students reached a compromise with the administration. The pregnant girl’s photos ran, and, to my knowledge, no parents picketed and no children formed tribes and roamed the campus starting fires as a result of seeing the image of a pregnant teen. 

I was ultimately deemed unfit to be the yearbook adviser and removed from my position, but having seen the writing on the wall, I’d spent the last two months applying for positions at other schools and had one foot out the door anyway. It worked out in that I remained employed elsewhere, but my former school still reviews and approves every word their students produce before publication, censoring material where they see fit.

In the end, after all the fights and the legal jabs and the formal letters of reprimand, nothing came of my students’ stance against censorship. 

So it goes, I guess.

Back in the newsroom, there are 15 minutes left until deadline. Most of the pages are in typeset, but a couple still need a final read from me. I don’t look at the paper until the staff say it’s ready for print, and my job is to give it one last scan for egregious errors and potential libel. “I’m checking to make sure there’s nothing in here that will get me fired,” I say. I’m only half-joking.

This, I understand, seems hypocritical given I just spent 900 words railing against censorship and how it is unfair for adults to review student content prior to publication.

The thing is, I know what I’m doing. Unlike my former principal, who told me she learned about Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier — the 1988 Supreme Court decision on students’ right to free speech — by Googling it, I took a college course in media law. I’ve also spent my teaching career attending professional development and journalism conferences, learning about the student press from some of the country’s best experts. I’m, you know, doing my job.

Tonight, my job’s pretty easy. The few red flags I noticed earlier in the production process — like a caption that identified a famous singer as a “known lesbian” — got caught and fixed in the editing process.

As I look over the final pages, two things make me nervous.

The first one is an article entitled “I couldn’t hide it any longer,” in which a reporter interviewed two LGBT students about coming to terms with their sexuality.

“I know this is dumb obvious,” I say, studying the article. “But we are certain these students are cool with this, right? We’re not like, outing these kids to their parents or anything?”

I’d stake my life on it,” the editor-in-chief says, adding she triple checked with both students in person, and they’re both excited to tell their story.

The other is a headline about a teacher’s likeness in the Netflix miniseries Wild Country. “Teacher photo used in Netflix sex cult documentary without permission,” reads the headline.

This one requires a bit more debate.I ask the students if they think the phrase “sex cult” is necessary in the headline.

“I’m good with whatever you decide,” I say, “but I want you to be able to justify your decision.”

After five minutes of discussion, the staff concludes the word “cult” is relevant, but “sex” isn’t necessary to get the point across. “‘Sex cult’ is just too click bait-y, I think,” says one editor.

Does this type of critical thinking and logic happen in every high school newsroom? No. Do high school students and advisers make mistakes? Absolutely. But my staff isn’t some group of exceptional outliers because they make good choices, and I’m not the world’s best adviser because I barely passed 400-level journalism courses. We are average Americans. The difference is that we’re given the freedom — freedom granted by the First Amendment, by the way — to do great things and tell true stories about the school and community that might have not otherwise come to light.

The protection of our children — insert cheesy line about our country’s most precious natural resource or our nation’s future or whatever here — is paramount, and I understand most prior review and restraint policies are imposed by school districts with the best of intentions. But what school districts and administrators don’t often see is that by enacting such control, they not only tamp down creativity and truth for the sake of a “golly gee, isn’t our school wonderful?” image, but they discourage and squelch the exact type of “real world citizenship” learning they claim to champion.

There’s no call to action here, just a reminder that as much as we complain about teenagers and their bad clothes and their shitty music and their stupid catchphrases (seriously though, what the fuck does “yeet” even mean?), if given the right guidance, they really are capable of doing amazing things.

-30-

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: