Students sound off in school newspapers

Teen journalists tackle variety of subjects to mixed reviews from students, staff and faculty

Teen journalists tackle variety of subjects to mixed reviews from students, staff and faculty

January 20, 2003|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

The who, what, when, where and why at North Hagerstown High School - some of it, anyway - is in The Spokesman, the school's newspaper.

The four-page Christmas edition featured front-page columns on what to get a girlfriend for Christmas and whether the December vacation period should be called "Christmas break" or "winter break."

It also contained a story about a clothes drive and a photo of "fashionable" student writer Daryl Henry.

Adviser Matt Blowers said his journalism students are allowed to take on controversial topics, but they must present both sides and stay away from libel.


One recent afternoon, the newspaper staff was working on an anonymous sex survey for the next issue. Among the questions: Are you a virgin? Do you use protection? Who did you have sex with? Is sex a big deal?

Blowers said the staff would write a story to go with the survey.

"I think the way we're doing this is fair ...," said Henry, a senior. "It's not like we're being overly crude. We're just asking people about their lifestyles."

Henry wrote a piece for The Spokesman that satirized North High as a collection point for old tires that serve as mosquito breeding grounds. The tires would be disposed of after they were collected.

Blowers said some parents were upset. Henry said he heard from students and custodians.

"It's nice to know people are reading it," Henry said.

April Crowl, the adviser for The Arrowhead at Boonsboro High School, said her staff hasn't run into any conflicts over controversial issues.

"The editors are completely autonomous," she said.

Some of the issues the paper has written about include high school assessment tests and the debate over the school's mascot.

Asked where she would draw the line on a topic, Crowl said, "If I thought I would lose my job."

Alaina Rowe, a senior at South Hagerstown High School, wrote for the South Wind last year.

"We never got to do anything too adventurous," she said.

Rowe said students accepted the idea that their principal, Michael Shockey, had the right to remove articles he found offensive, so they stayed away from edgier issues.

She recalled a series of cartoons mocking the cold temperature in the school during the winter.

Rowe said Shockey told them the issue was overdone. Students expected the principal to pull the next cartoon, so they removed it themselves, she said.

"They knew it would be taken out," she said. "It was a little disheartening. We didn't get the results we hoped for."

Shockey said he lets the student journalists have free rein, assuming they refrain from personal attacks.

"I like my kids to be able to express themselves on almost any topic ...," he said. "An editorial is fine, as long as it's done with taste and character. We ask the kids to be positive."

Shockey said he watches for veiled innuendo about students and teachers.

The only article he could remember withholding from publication was a feature about the valedictorian. The piece was upbeat and flattering, but was scheduled to run a few months before the school officially announced the valedictorian, which wasn't appropriate, he said.

Rowe said Shockey removed only one or two pieces last year and each time he was "really good" about explaining why. Students would wait in his office and watch as he reviewed each issue before it was sent to the printer.

"It's a tricky thing," Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan said. "Kids can't print everything."

In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that high school administrators can censor student newspapers.

Waynesboro (Pa.) Area High School's newspaper, The Blue and Gold, covers controversial topics such as teen drinking, drugs and anything the teens find relevant, said adviser Gary Brett.

No article has been pulled from the paper due to content, Brett said, because topics are decided upon ahead of time by the newspaper committee, which consists of student editors and writers.

"The worst problems have been typos," said Brett.

The only topics that have not been allowed in the paper are those that "glorify or promote self-destructive behavior."

Gail Woods is the adviser for The Jefferson High Times at Jefferson High School near Charles Town, W.Va. Woods said students write about controversial subject matter and are prohibited only from printing stories that are libelous.

Woods said principal Susan Wall has the authority to pull articles from the paper, but she has never exercised it.

"I try to avoid the racy subjects," said Jefferson High Times editor Paul Gessler, who said all of the controversy covered in the paper is about school policy or national and world issues.

Gessler said only two articles were not published due to negative feedback from teachers.

One article about a member of the school dance team was omitted because it didn't include the entire group. The second article was cut because it demeaned the performance of one of the teachers, yet Gessler insisted the information was true despite its negativity.

Coverage of controversial topics in the paper has had a positive impact on the community, Gessler said. He said one article discussing the school's tardy policy led to a change in school policy after the issue was taken to the School Board.

Reporter Ashley Gordon contributed to this story.

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