Stink of censorship threatens to knock out story about dirty school bathrooms

Administrators revise policy after student paper's report on 'filthy' facility conditions

NEW YORK -- The staff of the Francis Lewis High School student newspaper thought the bathrooms at their school stunk.

Students were upset by restrictive policies on student bathroom use, such as the "10-minute rule," which called for bathrooms to be locked the first and last 10 minutes of class and a ban on more than two bathrooms -- one for each sex -- being open at the same time. At the 4,000-student school, that meant there was one bathroom for every 2,000 students.

Student reporters decided to monitor the conditions of the bathrooms, which they described as "filthy" and lacking toilet paper and soap, and they consulted a urologist to discover the effects that restrictions on bathroom use could have on students' bodies.

In the end, they thought they had a good story.

There was only one problem: the administration would not let them run it.

Matthew Chayes, editor of The Patriot, said he submitted the article to school administrators for review in October, at which time he said he was told to change the tone of the story or it would not be printed in the newspaper.

Chayes said principal Catherine Kalina told him the article was one-sided, unfair and unbalanced. Kalina also disputed the credibility of the sources and demanded they write letters to her stating their positions on the issue, Chayes said.

In an attempt to reach an agreement, Chayes, who disagreed with the changes, suggested bringing in a third party for mediation -- an idea that he said was quickly thrown out.

"I thought having a third party present, someone who is not affected by the article, was a good idea," Chayes said. "If the article is about you, you can't be objective. I'm not expecting [Kalina] to be because that's humanly impossible. I'm just asking her to recognize that she can't be objective."

Chayes said administrators not only threatened not to publish the article, but also threatened to remove him from his staff position and put negative letters of recommendation in his file.

Kalina did not return numerous calls made to her office by the Report.

After being told by administrators a second time to make changes to the article, Chayes finally did. He said he removed a quote in which Kalina said if there was not any tissue paper in the bathroom, the students should bring their own.

In spite of administrators' attempts to "knit-pick everything," Chayes said that in the end only insignificant changes were made to the article.

"My goal in reporting was to tell both sides of the story," Chayes said. "I was not trying to show favor to either. The students don't get to review the article and make changes, so why should the other side? That doesn't make for a very fair story." Despite the problems Chayes faced with administrators over the article, he said at least one good thing came out of it: the school opened more bathrooms to the students.

But this proved to be a bittersweet victory for newspaper staff members because they continue to struggle with an administration they say exerts "too much control."

Their complaints stem from several instances where they say administrators ordered them to remove certain comments from news articles.

According to Chayes, the problems started two years ago when administrators refused to allow the newspaper to publish a story about a student's Web site, which included a "Most Hated Teachers" list. In addition, Chayes said the newspaper staff attempted to print a letter written by a fellow student critical of the ROTC program but was not permitted to do so. Other articles were printed with minor changes, Chayes said.

Kalina, along with other administrators, is allowed to review the newspaper before publication and has final say on the content, according to the board of education policy. But Chayes believes administrators are exercising too much control.

Chayes accused Kalina of trying to censor anything that criticizes the school or its administrators.

"They don't like what we write because never before had [the newspaper] written anything that wasn't a total [public relations] story," Chayes said. "If you want a PR story, hire a PR person."

reports, Spring 2001