Yearbooks battle censorship





High school yearbook pages composed of senior superlatives and senior messages might be popular among students but they can be more trouble than they are worth for publication staffs.

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\nLisa Rodgers, the editor of the 2005 yearbook at Michigan's Cody High School, discovered this the hard way after a coded message on a senior ''confessions'' page led to the censorship of the book and the dismissal of the publication's adviser in June.

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\nThe yearbook drew the attention of Principal Ronnie Phillips and other staff members because of a picture of a gay couple at homecoming and a coded message on a senior ''confessions'' page that staff members perceived as an accusation that certain teachers had engaged in sexual behavior with students. The page allows graduates to reveal secrets they kept during their time at the Detroit school.

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\nRodgers, who graduated in June, was among the first to come under fire for the content of the publication. She said she takes full responsibility for missing the comments when proofing the page but believes the reaction was overblown.

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\n''The teachers were personally attacking me,'' she said.

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\nRodgers said the 2005 yearbook contained less offensive material than in previous years.

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\n''If you go into the past yearbooks and you see the confessions, they are more controversial,'' she said.

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\nMattie Majors of the Detroit Public Schools' media relations department denied that the picture of the gay couple caused objections from the staff but admitted there was concern over the ''confessions'' page.

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\n''There were some comments on that page that they felt were a little inappropriate,'' she explained. ''[Phillips] talked to his staff about that and they felt that maybe some of these things wouldn't be really good memories.''

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\nPhillips also removed publications adviser Robbyn Williams from her position. Phillips and other staff members also pulled the offending pages from existing yearbooks and edited the material out before additional copies of the book could be published.

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\nAlumni Association President Ruth Jordan said the decision to remove Williams worried her because Williams had produced award-winning yearbooks and her replacement has no previous experience with a yearbook staff.

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\n''Her reputation is on the line,'' Jordan said. ''Ms. Williams is a very good teacher and we would hate to lose her.''

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\nWilliams has also been moved down from teaching senior English classes to teaching freshman English classes, according to Jordan.

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\nMajors did not return phone calls for comment on Williams' status at the school. Williams also did not return phone calls or e-mails for comment.

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\nMichelle Price, public relations manager at the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said the union would be unable to assist Williams in returning to her position as publications adviser.

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\n''We really don't have any authority over what her administrator assigns her to regarding the yearbook,'' Price said.

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\nPrior to Williams' dismissal, the Detroit Free Press reported that Phillips and other staff members met with seniors on May 26 to issue an ultimatum to those who had received a copy of the yearbook released the day before. The ultimatum: return the yearbook or be excluded from graduation ceremonies.

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\nMajors denied the report, saying Phillips did not issue the ultimatum but simply asked students to return the books. But Rodgers, who initially resisted returning the book, said she gave in because she felt threatened.

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\n''It hurt because I didn't want to turn it in and I let them ruin it,'' she said, explaining that the pages were replaced in a careless manner.

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\nRodgers believes the controversy was used as an excuse to remove Williams as adviser and, in turn, to employ a cheaper publishing company to print future yearbooks.

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\n''I don't understand why [Williams] was treated the way she was treated,'' Rodgers said. ''This lady has done so much, for not just me -- because she's like a second mother to me -- but so much for the other students and so much for the rest of the staff.''

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\nWilliams was not the only adviser to come under fire for a yearbook as students at schools across the country graduated in the spring.

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\nIn a similar case in Missouri, the superintendent of St. Louis Public Schools called for students of Central High School to return their yearbooks because they contained controversial senior superlatives.

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\nThe yearbook contained ''offensive'' statements about certain students at the school, such as a superlative saying a student was the ''most likely to contract a disease,'' according to a representative of the St. Louis Public Schools.

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\nDespite the statements, only two parents complained about the yearbook and just five of the 125 books ordered were voluntarily returned, the district representative said.

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\nSuperintendent Creg Williams is investigating yearbook adviser Bill Perry and Principal Stanley Engram for allowing the book's publication.

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\nWilliams and the school board planned to discuss how to handle the situation, the district representative said, though Williams' public statement suggested he was planning disciplinary action.

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\n''Obviously the burden of this responsibility is the principal's,'' Williams told KSDK News Channel 5, the NBC affiliate in St. Louis. ''Also in this particular case, this yearbook coordinator should have known that this information was not appropriate and that this information should not have been put in print.''

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\nPerry spent the last month of school on sick leave, a time when he would otherwise be working with the students on the publication, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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\nWilliams told the Post-Dispatch that he planned to revise the district's policy on student publications so that principals in the district engage in prior review of future yearbooks.

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\nWilliams and Johnny Little, director of public information for St. Louis Public Schools, did not return calls for comment.

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\nAnn Akers, associate director of the National Scholastic Press Association, said yearbook staffs encounter fewer problems when they move away from the publication of novelty pages, such as senior confessions. Senior superlatives also tend to be problematic, she said.

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\nWhen that content is kept out of yearbooks, staff members can focus on their journalistic responsibilities rather than on editing material written by students not trained in those responsibilities, Akers said.

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\nRather than imposing prior review, administrators should speak with the yearbook adviser and make sure students are properly educated in their journalistic duties, she added.

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\n''It would be more desirable to have a policy that said because these are modern, responsible journalistic publications, [those] kinds of content are discouraged,'' Akers explained.


Fall 2005, reports