Silencing the 'rebellion'


Administrators discover a new form of censorship that involves a pink slip instead of a red pen





Wanted: Teacher willing to advise student publications. Must not allow students to write about controversial issues, damage the school's reputation with quality reporting or upset students, parents or the community with the truth. Must realize that a school publication is a public-relations device. Potential advisers who emphasize First Amendment rights need not apply.

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The location jumps back and forth across the country, but the story remains the same. One by one, advisers are called into the principal's office to defend a controversial article, harsh editorial or tough ethical decision made by student editors. Often before they are allowed to defend their position as an adviser to the students -- not an official censor -- they are removed from their position.

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\n The effects of the administration's decision on the adviser, the students and the program can be devastating. Add to that the scarce protection for advisers who find themselves torn between administration demands and student rights, and administrators have found an effective way to censor the student press without so much as a black line.

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\nThe ousted advisers

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\n Janet Ewell started the newspaper at California's Rancho Alamitos High School with ''a ream of paper, a pencil, and a bunch of students who couldn't get into the classroom.'' She said she was removed from her adviser position for simply doing a good job.

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\n In May, after the newspaper published several editorials critical of the school, principal Gene Campbell told Ewell that she would be removed from the adviser position next year.

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\n Ewell, an 11-year newspaper adviser who was transferred to Rancho Alamitos High School in Garden Grove in 1995, said that problems did not arise until Campbell came to the school in 2000. Ewell said that he objected to a staff editorial about the number and condition of the school bathrooms. Although Campbell verbally reprimanded her, he promised improvements in the restrooms, Ewell said.

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\n Other articles also raised Campbell's ire, but the final straw came when the staff published a Jan. 29 signed editorial about the lack of outside help offered by Rancho Alamitos teachers. Ewell said Campbell called on her, not the students, to defend their work. The last time he did so, Campbell notified Ewell of her reassignment.

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\n When Ewell asked why, she said all Campbell would tell her was that he desired a new direction for the paper.

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\n Campbell declined to discuss the personnel issue, but disputed Ewell's claim. ''Ms. Ewell's characterization is not my characterization of the change,'' Campbell said.

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\n Like Ewell, 23-year-old Tara Williams never thought that standing up for her students' First Amendment rights would cost the adviser her job at Maryland's Southern High School in Baltimore.

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\n But that is exactly what happened, Williams said, when principal Thomas Stephens declined to renew her contract. Although she was given no formal reasoning behind the school's decision -- administrators in Maryland do not have to provide one to provisional teachers without permanent teaching credentials -- Williams is convinced that the decision is a result of a controversy that has swirled around the school newspaper, The Bulldog.

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\n ''I truly do believe that it is in relation to the articles,'' she said.

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\n According to Williams, trouble arose when Stephens reprimanded her and demanded prior review after the February issue documented criticism of the district's controversial plan to convert the school into a technology magnet school next fall.

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\n The students did not turn the March issue over to Stephens for prior review in accordance with his new policy. Stevens, who was unavailable for comment, was reportedly angered about the issue, which featured a front-page photo depicting a student holding a sign that read ''I've Been Censored'' and articles critical of unsafe conditions at the school.

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\n Students printed and distributed the unsanctioned issue on Southern's campus. Williams attached a copy of the issue to her classroom door and refused to remove it at Stephens' request. Stephens then notified her of the nonrenewal of her contract.

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\n Refusing to submit to prior review, the students did not publish issues in April or May. Maryland state Sen. George W. Della Jr., a Southern alumnus, offered the students his assistance in publishing an underground version of The Bulldog.

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\n Students, however, decided to accept the school's offer to publish a final issue in June with Stephens' prior review. Despite the agreement to resume publication, Williams, who was hired two years ago to start the journalism program at Southern, still does not have her job back.

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\n ''The students are pretty upset that I've been dismissed,'' she said. ''I still just don't see why I was fired for doing my job.''

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\n Laurie Winslow ran into the same conditions as Williams when she came to Quabbin Regional High School in Massachusetts -- the journalism program changed hands every two to three years, and there was no budget for computers or supplies.

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\n But while Winslow, who has no prior journalism training, was busy securing $1,000 seed money from the administration and another $500 in advertising revenue, she didn't know how much the editorial setup she inherited at The Reservoir infringed on her and her students' rights.

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\n ''There's been a long tradition of prior review and even prior restraint at Quabbin,'' Winslow said. She was unaware of Massachusetts' freedom of expression law that may have protected her and her students.

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\n Problems first surfaced when the students asked questions about a janitor who had pulled a knife on another janitor in 2001. Administrators did not tell Winslow at the time that they were upset.

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\n Winslow said nothing was brought to her attention until January, when an article about students who were asked to leave the school because of excessive absences and tardies, a practice called exclusion, angered the incoming dean of administration.

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\n Winslow was called into the dean Bernard Audette's office in March to discuss several articles that she had not known presented problems. In May, Winslow found out that the district would not renew her contract.

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\n Citing Massachusetts law, administrators also declined to give her a reason.

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\n But it is not just newspapers that breed controversial content. Michelle Coro was reassigned from her duties as adviser of the Roots yearbook at Mesquite High School in Arizona to teach freshman and sophomore English.

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\n Administrators told Coro that the decision was a personnel issue, but she said her file is clean and even contains letters of recommendation, including one from the principal. Coro is certain her reassignment was the result of two controversial pages in the 2002 yearbook.

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\n The spread Coro cited contained baseball analogies to describe sex and student testimonials about slang terms for marijuana. According to junior yearbook editor Brittney Knudson, Coro brought the pages to the principal before publication, but the principal did not express concern about the subject matter in the book. The controversy only came when parents called in, objecting to the content.

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\n ''I offered to glue the pages together, to remove them, whatever I had to do to make sure the books went out,'' Coro said. ''But the principal was intent on doing something more.''

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\n The principal has since decided to perform prior review on the publication, and the staff remains without an adviser.

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Fall 2002, reports