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Editorial: Young Journalists — Again — School the Adults

  • In this Sept. 20, 2018 photo, BHS Register editors, from left, Julia Shannon-Grillo, Halle Newman, Nataleigh Noble and Jenna Peterson stand outside the Burlington High School in Burlington, Vt. The students stood up to censorship in their student newspaper and won. (AP Photo/Lisa Rathke)


Friday, December 07, 2018

It is profoundly discouraging to witness adults failing in their obligations to the young people in their charge. Examples abound, from the thoughtless to the tawdry to the traumatic, and in each case they represent a betrayal. But what a glorious thing it is when young people, with right on their side, stand their ground and teach the adults a thing or two.

A few months ago, we learned of four student journalists at Burlington High School who broke the news about a school employee who was facing a state investigation on charges of unprofessional conduct. As VtDigger reported in September, the school’s principal ordered the story removed from the website of the BHS Register, the student newspaper, which was an apparent violation of Vermont’s “New Voices” law. That law, signed by Gov. Phil Scott in 2017, was designed specifically to protect student journalists. Burlington School District officials began backtracking almost immediately. The students’ journalism was sound, the adults’ interpretation of the law was flawed, and the end result was the scrapping of “all previously practiced or adopted guidelines” regarding student publications and a revamping of the school’s media policy — in a process that this time included students.

“I think ... we’ve just learned how important and how vital the First Amendment is to just our country, and our society and our government,” senior Nataleigh Noble, 17, one of the student journalists who wrote the story, told The Associated Press.

In October, a similar situation unfolded about 1,500 miles to the south and west, in Springdale, Ark., where student journalists at Har-Ber High School, after a nearly yearlong investigation, uncovered a scandal that involved one of the South’s sacred cows — the varsity football team.

Six players, the Har-Ber Herald reported, were allowed to transfer to Springdale High School, which is in the same school district as Har-Ber High. Such transfers are permitted for academic reasons only, and that is what the parents of the players said in their letters requesting the transfers. The student journalists obtained those letters through a freedom-of-information request — and they also interviewed several of the players, who told them that the real reason they wanted to transfer to Springdale was to increase their chances of being offered a major college football scholarship. Transfers for that reason are not allowed under the school district’s policy, and that was the focus of the Har-Ber Herald report.

We would like to be able to say that Springdale School District officials applauded the students’ diligence and enterprise and immediately began a review of the district’s policies on transfers. We cannot. Instead, they suspended publication of the newspaper, ordered the story and accompanying editorial removed from its website, demanded that all future stories be reviewed in advance by administrators and threatened to fire the teacher who advises the student journalists.

It’s almost like they had something to hide — something, that is, beyond their ignorance of the 1995 Arkansas Student Publication Act, which, like Vermont’s “New Voices” law, is intended to protect the First Amendment rights of student journalists.

“If something is in the wrong, then I think people need to know about it,” Halle Roberts, 17, the Herald’s editor-in-chief, told a local TV station. “And as journalists, I feel that it is our duty to do that. And I don’t think we were in the wrong for that,” she said.

On Tuesday, after the Student Press Law Center had published the censored story on its website and the faculty of the University of Arkansas School of Journalism and Strategic Media and members of the Northwest Arkansas chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists weighed in with harsh critiques of the administration’s actions, Springdale School District officials relented and allowed the articles to be reposted. In a statement, they called the matter “complex” and “challenging” and said it merited a “thorough” review. “The social and emotional well-being of all students has been and continues to be a priority of the district,” they said.

“This statement may or may not answer all of your questions but this is all we have to say,” they concluded. “The district will not make anyone available for interviews.”

Not exactly a profile in courage. Further, such petulant stonewalling sets a terrible example for the unfortunate students whose schools these officials purport to lead.

We applaud the courageous student journalists at the Har-Ber Herald, the BHS Register and elsewhere and urge them to continue to investigate their school districts’ policies and how they are being implemented. Perhaps their efforts will help teach district officials a little something about the importance of the First Amendment, the evils of censorship and the folly of trying to bury the truth.