Schools block sex-related content

Stories about virginity, sex, STDs not suitable for "immature" h.s. audiences, school officials claim

A cartoon showing stick figures in varying sexual positions, an article about sexually transmitted diseases and condoms and an article about the moral issue of virginity were censored by administrators who deemed them “too mature” for high school audiences this year.

On Jan. 28, the principal of Ithaca High School in New York removed Ben McKee’s cartoon from the Feb. 2 issue of the independent school newspaper, The Tattler, calling it “obscene and not suitable for immature audiences.” The cartoon showed a teacher whose ruler pointed to a blackboard where eight stick figures were shown in different sexual positions. The depictions were for a “Health 101” class. McKee’s cartoon was to accompany an article entitled, “How is sex being taught in our health classes?”

The principal, Joe Wilson, removed the cartoon a week after he issued new guidelines requiring the newspaper adviser, Stephanie Vinch, to review the paper’s content prior to publication.

Robert Ochshorn, The Tattler’s editor in chief, said the staff thought the cartoon was “pretty innocuous” and necessary to provide commentary to the accompanying story. Ochshorn added that Wilson’s guidelines threatened to end the newspaper’s status as an open forum. The newspaper had operated for more than 100 years as an extracurricular publication.

Wilson’s guidelines were based on the 1988 Supreme Court case Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier which limited high school students’ press freedoms in some school-sponsored publications. Wilson’s prior review mandate gave Vinch the right to “change, edit or remove content that would substantially interfere with the [School] District’s work or impinge upon the rights of other students; or is inconsistent with the legitimate pedogogical concerns of the District.”

Vinch resigned soon after, citing “personal reasons” for leaving.

Ochshorn appealed Wilson’s guidelines to the Ithaca City School District on February 14, but was unsuccessful in his effort to persuade the school to reject them.

Ochshorn has started an alternative newspaper, The Issue, which Wilson also said he must review before being distributed. Wilson denied the students’ distribution of the March issue because it contained McKee’s cartoon in a story about the censorship incident, but the April issue was approved for distribution. Ochshorn is in talks with attorney Raymond Schlather to pursue litigation against the school district.

Steve Reese, the director of the Texas High School Journalism Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, said he is not surprised that sexual topics have been censored from school newspapers because administrators believe students are not mature enough to deal with them. Reese said sex has become “politicized” as a health issue, and there is now an added focus on whether administrators should teach students about birth control and abstinence.

“Administrators are in the business of controlling,” Reese said. “[Sexual] issues have become politically controversial and any time there’s controversy, administrators tend to react by controlling discussion.”

At Pomona High School in Colorado, students Stephanie Siefried and Katie Bolson were prevented from publishing their articles about sexually transmitted diseases and birth control in the February issue of their school newspaper, Pomona Perspective, after the newpaper adviser and journalism instructor, Toni Freeman, told them the administration objected to their articles.

Siefried, the feature editor, and Bolson, a co-editor in chief, discussed their topic ideas with Freeman prior to writing the articles. In addition to writing about sexually transmitted diseases and birth control methods such as the pill and condoms, the students wanted to survey their classmates about their sexual activity. The article referred to abstinence as the only foolproof way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases.

After reading the students’ articles, Freeman met with the assistant principal, Victoria Kaye, to express her “discomfort” with the content. Kaye told Freeman that the students needed to “balance” their articles to avoid offending “minor” students, according to Jefferson County School District spokesman Rick Kaufman. Freeman instead told Siefried and Bolson that the administration opposed the articles and as a result, they were not published in February’s issue of the newspaper, according to Kaufman.

Principal Terry LaValley, Kaye, Freeman and Superintendent Cindy Stevenson held a March 30 meeting to discuss the situation, at which point they reached the conclusion that the stories needed to not contain vulgar language or offensive content in order to be published, according to Kaufman. Kaufman said the articles had not contained vulgar language but could have been considered offensive because of their explanation on how to use condoms, diaphragms, and lubricants.

Colorado’s Student Free Expression Law prohibits expression in student media that is obscene, defamatory, creates a clear and present danger, causes a material or substantial disruption at the school, or violates others’ rights to privacy. Student editors of school-sponsored publications are authorized to determine content.

According to a March 29 article in the Denver Post, Siefried believed the articles should have been published because among teens, sexuality is “the happening thing right now.”

“This is when our sexuality develops,” Siefried said. “We want to help people make the right decisions from the beginning.”

LaValley reviewed the articles for the April issue, as part of the school’s prior review policy that requires the principal to review articles before they go to press. The articles were published in the April 15 edition of the newspaper.

Deborah Capaldi, a research scientist for the Oregon Social Learning Center who studies adolescents, said high school teens--ages 14 to 18--are “old enough” to know the facts about sexual topics and said there is no age when they are not mature “enough” to read about them in high school newspapers or be exposed to them.

“Given the amount of information [high school teens] have access to these days with movies, television and the Internet, [they] are perhaps more sophisticated in ways than prior generations,” Capaldi said.

“Movies sometimes portray sex and the consequences quite sensitively, but a lot them don’t, Capaldi added. “It’s better to be exposed to something well-written about the overall picture [of sex] than something completely un-controlled like [what’s found in movies, television, or on the Internet].”

In Florida, Wellington High School student Amanda Escamilla dealt with censorship when her Feb. 16 opinion article, “Let’s Talk About Sex” caused her principal, Cheryl Alligood, to confiscate issues of the school newspaper, the Wave. Alligood decided ninth-grade students “couldn’t handle” the article, she said.

Escamilla’s article featured two anonymous students’ opposing viewpoints about sex and the morality of it. The last line of her article read, “Make sure, when the time comes, you truly want to swipe your v-card, because this purchase is non-refundable.”

Escamilla said she told Alligood about her plans to write the article and that her principal never told her not to write it.

Alligood ordered that four new pages be inserted to replace Escamilla’s column.

The staff distributed the new paper, mixed with issues of the old that contained Escamilla’s column, but school officials confiscated and destroyed the issues, along with every other newspaper in the newsroom. Students were told they would be suspended if they were caught with the issue containing Escamilla’s column.

Escamilla chose not to pursue litigation.

Barbara Knisely, the public relations manager for the American Association of School Administrators, said when administrators censor topics they determine are “too mature” for school audiences, it is out of concern for community standards that Knisely said vary from place to place. Knisely added that a principal ultimately has to answer to his or her “boss”--the local community and school board.

“You have specific community standards that are established and the administrator is acting on behalf of that system,” Knisely said. “It’s not to say that every decision made is necessarily the right one, but you have to look at a leader in a position of making a decision, from the standpoint of ‘What am I doing [that is] best for the students in this particular school system?’”

Reese said he believes administrators should not try to shield students from certain “hot-button” topics such as sex because they are exposed to them anyway.

“Administrators are defining ‘too mature’ much more strictly than students,” Reese said. “Students are well aware of most of these issues to begin with and wouldn’t be surprised by anything they read in a high school paper that’s already available to them on the Internet and elsewhere.”

Read previous coverage on Ithaca High School:
Read previous coverage on Pomona High School:
Read previous coverage on Wellington High school:

reports, Spring 2005