For yearbooks, a diminished kind of free speech

Daydreams of summer vacations were replaced with concern about yearbook content for many school administrators as the final days of the school year came to a close last spring. But while most students anxiously awaited the arrival of their school yearbook, student journalists on yearbook staffs often were not included in decisions to alter the books because of "inappropriate" content, editing errors and "questionable" photographs. Instead, it was often administrators who made the decisions to delay distribution, recall issues or place stickers over content they found objectionable. Yearbooks often face greater pressure than other types of student media to present positive depictions of schools because they are historical documents, said Judi Coolidge, a yearbook adviser at Bay High School in Ohio.“Yearbooks haven’t been taken seriously because they don’t all take themselves seriously as being real historical documents that are referred to all of the time,” said Coolidge, the Journalism Education Association’s 2002 national high school yearbook adviser of the year.To help ensure yearbooks are respected as works of journalism and therefore less susceptible to censorship, advisers and staff members must think of themselves as professional journalists, she said. This includes checking information and quotes for accuracy, basing news coverage on student reactions and plenty of editing. Still, at several schools, content that was not reviewed by yearbook staffs made its way into final editions. In others, student comment sections contained language some found offensive. And at one school, administrators even objected to the items a high school student included in his senior portrait.Tyler Schultz, a recent graduate of Pewaukee High School in Wisconsin, posed with a 12-guage shotgun and a Confederate battle flag in the portrait he first submitted to yearbook staff members.The self-proclaimed “country boy” has been a trap shooter for three years and is close with family members in the South. He said he chose the two items because the school had asked students to express their personalities in their senior portraits for the yearbook. But when Principal Marty Van Hulle saw the photo before an awards banquet, she said the photo could not be published in the yearbook unless the gun and flag were cropped out of the portrait.“As the yearbook is representative of the school and a publication of Pewaukee High School, it is by its very nature an extension of the school and school district, and therefore it is reasonable for us to regulate the message the school sends via our publications,” Superintendent JoAnn Sternke told GM Today, a commercial newspaper covering the Milwaukee area. “Weapons or images of this sort are not something we endorse or condone in the school environment.”Schultz and his mother, Tammy Ankomeus, said they were upset they were not told the photo was a problem until late May even though they had submitted the photo to yearbook staff members in October. Schultz submitted an alternate photo that appeared in the yearbook. When students at schools in New York and Florida were told to write their own entries in yearbook comment sections, administrators did not always like what they received.At Penfield High School in New York, students opened their yearbooks to find white stickers placed over blacked-out quotes that four students had submitted.Administrators told members of the yearbook committee, which is made up of five students and one teacher, to cover the entries, which officials described as inappropriate and containing sexual innuendos. Administrators said covering the entries in more than 1,000 books prevented delays and additional costs of reprinting the page.One quote contained lyrics from the song “Milkshake” by rapper Kelis, a parent of a Penfield High School student told the Democrat and Chronicle.In Florida’s Miami-Dade County, a comment in the Key Biscayne Community School “memory book” that upset several parents slipped by school staff members who edited student entries.The morning after the books were distributed to students at the kindergarten through eighth-grade school, a parent called to tell school officials that one student had included the phrase “Death to Jews” in German. The student the remark was attributed to was suspended for the four remaining days of the school year, and the book was recalled so administrators could replace the page without the anti-Semitic comment.Though Miami-Dade school district policy says that students should control the content of student publications, it is unclear whether students or administrators produced the book. The policy, which is broader than federal courts require, states “it is essential that schools provide students effective avenues not only to participate in discussions in which points of views are explored but also to question, to inquire and to freely express ideas including those that are controversial.”Another area of the student conduct code allows students to “be free from anyone telling you what you can and cannot write and read.”John Schuster, spokesman for Miami-Dade County Public Schools, would not comment on reason the student was suspended, and the school principal did not respond to requests for comment.When students are given space to include their own messages in yearbooks, advisers and yearbook staff members should be sure the entries are appropriate, said Marilyn Scoggins, a Columbia Scholastic Press Association Gold Key recipient and former yearbook adviser at Hooker High School in Oklahoma. “Have an editorial policy written, board-approved and printed in the colophon section of your yearbook stating what will not be considered for publication,” she advised. Even if a school has a policy on student submissions, the problems students face when items slip past staff members range from the happy endings to passing the reprint bills to the offending students or delaying distribution for weeks.Two students at Hudson High School in Massachusetts were relieved when Jostens, a yearbook publishing company, offered to reprint pages that contained altered biographies of them. Messages in Venessa Lopes’ and Jenn Geary’s biographies that originally thanked family and friends were changed to say, “I am dumb and ugly.” Another inserted remark made fun of Lopes’ Portuguese heritage.“Often with mistakes we put a label on,” told Jostens representative John Neister to the Town Online. “This is a little different. We understand the feelings of the parents.”The original pages had to be cut from the books, new pages printed and then hand-glued in books; however, the books were scheduled to arrive back at the school before graduation.Principal John Stapelfeld is conducting an investigation into who was responsible for the changes. In Maryland, pranksters responsible for placing what school official described as a racial slur next to a yearbook photo could face a debt of $1,000 to reprint the page without their unauthorized addition. Two Perry Hall High School students who were not on the yearbook staff but were able to access a computer it was produced on, told school officials that the remark was a common nickname the two used, and neither were offended by the term. Still, Principal Brian Gonzalez recalled 450 of the books after they were distributed to have the page with the comment reprinted.“It appears as though this was a very unfortunate and inappropriate prank,” Baltimore County school spokesman Charles Herndon told the Associated Press. “Regardless of how the word was intended, it is a vile word and simply cannot be tolerated.”At Rosemary Middle School in South Carolina, Principal Barbara Nesmith may have been monkeying around as she reviewed the yearbook proofs before sending them to the printer, but she was serious about having them reprinted when she saw what got past her.When the books arrived at the school, Nesmith told teachers not to distribute them because she had not originally noticed that cartoon monkeys had been put in place of the photos of several students who were absent the day their pictures were to be taken.The books were reprinted without the cartoons, but it took several weeks until students received them.Nesmith said she had to prevent people from seeing them because the cartoons could have been insulting. “Even if we were just talking about one child that would be hurt, that would be too many,” she told the Georgetown Times.

Ways to ensure yearbook is treated as a journalistic publication:
  • Capture events that make the year unique
  • Base coverage on the reactions and opinions of the student body
  • Use accurate information that is attributed
  • Check to make sure photo captions correctly identify students
  • Avoid hurtful statements that attack students’ physical characteristics
  • Focus on merit-based honors rather than popularity contests
  • Have a written editorial policy for student submissions

    Source: Marilyn Scoggins, former yearbook adviser

  • Fall 2004, reports