Photo of gang member leads principal to confiscate student newspaper

ARKANSAS -- High school students in Little Rock are weighing their legal options after their principal pulled an issue of the student newspaper over a feature concerning drugs and gang activity.

The Galaxy, the student newspaper at Wilber D. Mills University Studies High School, was confiscated May 26 when principal Bill Barnes objected to a cover photo of a gang member that accompanied stories investigating potential gang and drug problems at the school.

The student newspaper adviser, Kent Smith, said Barnes called him into his office just after the papers were distributed.

''Barnes' initial claim to us was that this was fabricated, this doesn't occur in his school, which my staff members took great offense,'' Smith said.

Barnes was unable to comment Thursday, he said, due to end of the school year duties.

However, Barnes told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette he pulled the papers because he objected to the dominant front-page photograph of an apparent gang member with a red bandana wrapped around his face, leaving only his eyes visible.

''We think that someone could figure out who it is,'' Barnes told the Democrat-Gazette. ''It could end up being a serious problem.''

But the newspaper's design editor, Tiffany Summitt, said even if someone could identify the student on the cover, it would not change much.

''Everyone knew who it was,'' she said. ''It's not like [gang members] hide who they are, they're proud of it.''

Summitt said she was not in school when the papers were distributed, but when she arrived, ''there was chaos'' in reaction to the confiscation of the paper.

''There were a lot of people planning walk-outs and sit-ins, it was insane,'' Summitt said. ''Despite the fact that they took up most of them they couldn't take them if they were on a student's person. Many students put them under their clothes and several people walked around with the front page pinned to their shirts.''

The Democrat-Gazette reported that Barnes said Smith should have paid closer attention to the students' work. But Smith said he is far from frivolous in his advising.

''I don't allow them to print something for shock value, they have to have a good reason for writing the story,'' Smith said.

Smith said The Galaxy reports that, while the community has gang activity, the school does not have a problem because the gangs largely consider the school a ''safe ground'' and a ''place of peace.'' He also said the students darkened the photo to help protect the gang member's identity.

Smith said when he was first called to Barnes' office, he felt threatened.

''He said 'this is possible grounds to be fired,''' Smith said. ''He went on and said, 'if something happens to a student that would be grounds for firing.' I didn't get that because I was caught off guard.''

This is apparently the first time Barnes has taken any steps to control the paper according to Smith and Allen Loibner, director of the Arkansas Scholastic Press Association.

Loibner, who was The Galaxy's adviser for two and a half years before Smith took the position, said Barnes has handled previous controversies regarding the paper well and was even awarded the ASPA's administrator of the year award in 2004.

''Half of me says he's really concerned for student safety more than anything else,'' Loibner said. ''I don't think he's protected to do what he did, but I think he's truly concerned for student safety.''

Staff photographer Erica Torres said she would like to file a lawsuit but that she is not sure quite how to go about filing one and how doing so would improve the situation.

''We're really not sure if we're going to go through with [a lawsuit] or not,'' Torres said.

Arkansas state law is clear when it comes to the rights of student journalists and their advisers. The Arkansas Student Publications Act, which became law in 1995, requires school districts to come up with student publications policy statements that protect student journalists and their advisers.

Loibner said the student publications policy for Pulaski County Special School District, in which the high school resides, is one of the strongest in the state.

''We have one of the most iron-clad policies there are,'' Loibner said. ''We go above and beyond state law.''

Summitt, who will be co-editor of the newspaper next year, said she and her staff are not going to let the incident, or the fact that the school is facing turnover in administrators, change what they publish.

''We're not going to make our paper fluff because the principal got touchy with one of our subjects,'' Summitt said.

''We'll stay on the topics we have been doing. Now that we're aware of our rights we're not going to have them taken away.''

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