High school principal closes open-forum publication over sex survey

VIRGINIA -- A sex survey published in the student newspaper at Midlothian High School has led the principal of that school to challenge the paper's claim to open-forum status.

The Trojan Times reported in February the findings of a survey, conducted by the paper's staff, which asked students at each grade level to define some relationship-related terms, as well as give their opinions on topics such as casual sex and cheating.

The survey, which was taken anonymously, included questions such as: ''Is being intoxicated an excuse for cheating?'' ''Who falls harder, boys or girls?'' and ''How long do you believe in waiting before introducing sexual activity with your partner?''

The newspaper's sports editor, Caitlin Davis, said the survey was meant to indirectly show flaws in the school's abstinence-based health curriculum, known as ''family life,'' and was in no way meant to advocate sex.

''We wanted to give everyone a wakeup call as to what was going on, because our family life program was not working,'' Davis said.

Tiffany Gibson, a graduating senior and editor in chief of the paper, said they have not published an issue since February, after Midlothian High School Principal Christine Wilson told her and other staff members they had to change their editorial policy prior to publishing again.

''We had our early-April issue ready to go and then she said we have to change the policy before we print it,'' Gibson said. ''We told her we didn't want to and that's when it all started.''

Wilson deferred repeated requests for comment to Michael Packer, an attorney with Chesterfield County Public Schools.

Packer said that Wilson found the survey article inappropriate because she felt many of the survey responses advocated casual sex and underage alcohol consumption.

''I think that the survey brought to the attention of the principal that the editorial policy, as written in the paper, is different from the practice,'' Packer said. ''That is what caused the principal to want to make the change in the written policy in the paper.''

The paper's written editorial policy, as of February, states: ''The Trojan Times is an open forum for student expression and the discussion of issues of concern to its audience.'' It further states: ''School officials will not be responsible for the content of the publication; consequently the Trojan Times will not be reviewed, restrained or withheld from distribution by school officials.''

In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier restricting high school students' free press rights by allowing certain circumstances under which a high school newspaper may be censored.

In its decision, the Court ruled that if either ''by policy or by practice'' a student paper has been opened as a forum for student expression, and student editors have control over content, an administrator's ability to interfere with the newspaper is limited.

Packer said the Trojan Times was never an open forum to begin with, and therefore Wilson's decision is not changing policy, but rather updating the policy printed in the newspaper to reflect the actual policy in practice.

''My understanding is when the sponsor was concerned about a particular article, she would bring it to the attention of the principal but did not do a review of every article of every issue,'' Packer said. ''She felt the writing in the paper should conform with past practices of reviewing articles.''

Gibson, the newspaper's editor, and adviser Wendy Spanier each dispute Packer's interpretation of the policy in practice. They say the written policy does reflect what is being practiced and that the newspaper is an open forum consistent with Hazelwood.

Spanier described the editorial policy, which she said has remained the same since she took the job in 1999, as ''autonomous,'' saying the few times she approached Wilson prior to a paper's publication were not a matter of policy but, ''out of professional deference and when I felt she would be personally affected.''

She stressed, however, that she never showed Wilson an article prior to publication, nor did she ever pull an article at Wilson's request.

Although Spanier said she enjoys teaching journalism, she said she will not advise the student newspaper next year. She will, however, continue teaching English.

''I didn't want to give up teaching journalism, but under the circumstances I feel it would be career suicide,'' Spanier said.

Spanier said she could not openly discuss the conditions that led her to such a conclusion. Packer said he could not comment on personnel matters and referred any questions regarding Spanier to her.

An open records request filed by Trojan Times back-page editor Skyler Pollard for ''all documents regarding change in the editorial policy of the Trojan Times ... issued by Mrs. Wilson'' resulted in the withholding of one document.

A similar request for records by the Student Press Law Center is currently being processed.

In the letter responding to Pollard's request, Wilson justifies withholding the document, saying, ''it is a personnel record containing information concerning identifiable individuals.''

Gibson said she and the other students were disappointed with Wilson's decision to withhold the document and suspected the withheld document held the answers to the motive behind the policy change, or possibly a reason for Spanier's stepping down as adviser.

''It shocked us that they were withholding and trying to protect something,'' Gibson said.

Although both are graduating on June 14, Gibson and Davis each said they are not going to leave their dispute with Wilson unsettled. Both expressed interest in meeting with Wilson as a staff to sort out their differences.

''We still really want to have a meeting with her so we can talk with her back and forth,'' Gibson said. ''We want to settle this outside of the courts -- that would be really messy.''

Packer said Wilson ''hopes to work it out with the newspaper staff,'' and said he knows she has talked to students individually. Gibson and Davis each said that Wilson has never spoken to the class as a whole.

Gibson said that despite the staff's desire to keep the issue out of the courts, they are not ruling out the legal option.

''[Wilson] has really blown it out of proportion,'' Gibson said. ''So it might have to go that far.''

Midlothian High School, news, Trojan Times, Virginia