Vending Control

Company that sells restrictive policy templates to school districts raises concerns among student press advocates

When Superintendent Jay Mitchell came to the school district of Superior, Wis., in 1998, he said the district policy book, which dated back more than 30 years, was in need of updating.

Facing what he described as the “huge task” of revising the entire book, Mitchell said he turned to a policy vendor with which he was familiar – NEOLA.

Originally known as the Northeastern Ohio Learning Association, NEOLA now provides policies, guidelines, electronic publishing and consulting services for school districts in seven states: Florida, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and West Virginia. The company’s chief operating officer, Sandy Krueger, puts their number of clients at around 850. 

NEOLA uses a series of state-specific policy templates, each of which includes a number of prewritten policy options that administrators may choose from in drafting their policies. Krueger said the associates NEOLA hires to consult with districts, many of whom are former superintendents, are in frequent contact with the districts to inform them of necessary policy alterations.  

Mitchell praised NEOLA and said the service saved him and his school board valuable time and money. He said the company’s legal consultants help his district keep its policies attuned to ever-changing laws.

“It’s labor intensive,” Mitchell said, “and quite honestly it would cost us more to do it ourselves.”

But student press advocates say they are concerned that NEOLA’s cookie cutter method of drafting policies diminishes local input and that the policies’ vague language leads to confusion that can have severe consequences for students’ First Amendment rights.  

Conflicting interpretations of NEOLA student publications and productions policies have sparked controversy in communities throughout the Midwest, leading student press advocates to question the company’s underlying philosophy.

Shake up at Lake Shore

While Mitchell says his district has seen no conflict over its NEOLA student publications policy, just over 700 miles away in St. Clair, Mich., students and student press advocates are up in arms over a similar policy.

In May 2005, superintendent Brian Annable challenged the editorial policy at The Shoreline, the student newspaper at Lake Shore High School, after a student-written article on teen sex ran in The Macomb Daily, a local newspaper.

Annable argued that the editorial policy, which designated the student paper as an “open forum for student expression” and stated that it would not be subject to prior review or restraint by school officials, was in conflict with the board policy, which was drafted using a NEOLA template.

Andrew Mardis, an editor of The Shoreline, said despite the district policy, the paper had been acting as an “open forum” for at least four years with students making the content decisions.

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 newspaper had 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.

Last December, however, Mardis said his adviser received an e-mail stating that the paper’s publication would be postponed until they conformed their editorial policy to board policy. The students refused to publish unless they were able to call the paper an “open forum.”

Dissecting the policy

What followed was months of debate, beginning at a January board of education meeting where Shoreline staff members voiced their disapproval with Annable’s insistence on their adherence to the board policy. It culminated in June, when the board of education voted 7-0 in favor of an updated NEOLA template policy that included new, more restrictive guidelines.

Of the 17 choices in the NEOLA Michigan policy template No. 5722, the student publications and productions policy, the Lake Shore policy contains 11. The guidelines portion, which is meant to help administrators implement the policy, contains all 21 of the template options with amendments to two of them.

The NEOLA student publications policy template consists almost exclusively of options that would limit what students would be allowed to write and includes no option allowing student publications to be public forums for student expression (See sidebar for examples).

An addition to the Lake Shore policy that is not from a NEOLA template is an introductory paragraph that states in part: “Student speech is protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Thus, students have the right to express themselves openly on school premises about matters of social, political and religious importance.”

The remainder of the policy and guidelines, mostly NEOLA template language, act to specify what students are not allowed to write, often conflicting with the rights implied in the first paragraph.

The policy gives ultimate control over student publications to administrators and makes all publications subject to prior review by advisers.

“The decision to publish or produce something shall be made by the adviser with appeal to the principal and superintendent,” the policy states.

In its accompanying guidelines, the policy restricts what advertisements student publications may accept, requires that a byline accompany every article and notes among the objectives of student publications to “promote and encourage school-sponsored activities” and “create a wholesome school spirit.”

The policy also prohibits students from expressing their opinions concerning any candidate, bond issue or proposal that is up for election. In the guidelines, the policy goes a step further in explaining limits on political dialogue.

“School publications/productions shall not endorse any candidate for public office or take a political stand on any issue,” according to the guidelines.

Gloria Olman, a retired high school journalism adviser and legislative chair of the Michigan Interscholastic Press Association, spoke out against Lake Shore’s NEOLA policy and its new guidelines. 

Olman spent two hours discussing the policy with superintendent Annable the week before the board passed the updated version, arguing line-by-line each clause she felt violated student rights.

“They’re just vague and misleading,” Olman said of the NEOLA template options. “They’re violating Hazelwood because they say the administration has the right to prior review and to remove materials for pretty much any reason. Even Hazelwood said it must be for pedagogical reasons.”

Annable defended the policy, saying administrators are primarily interested in promoting “good journalism” among students and are not planning on using the policy to censor.

“People use terms like ‘prior review’ like they use the term ‘censorship,’” Annable said. “How can you offer advice if you haven’t reviewed it?”

Shoreline adviser Kevin Francis could not be reached for comment, but both Olman and editor Andrew Mardis said he has decided not to continue advising the paper in the fall. Until a new adviser is assigned, Shoreline staff members are uncertain how much the new NEOLA guidelines will change the way they operate. 

Fingers crossed in Dexter

Lake Shore’s decision to pull its student newspaper’s open forum editorial policy has Rod Satterthwaite of Dexter, Mich., nervously counting his blessings. 

Satterthwaite advises The Squall, the student newspaper at Dexter High School, a paper that, like The Shoreline, has been a practicing public forum for four or five years despite its more restrictive district policy. Dexter Community Schools is another NEOLA client, and its student publications policy employs many of the same template options as Lake Shore. 

Despite facing an unsupportive assistant principal and superintendent a few years ago, the paper has managed to avoid many of the restrictions of the NEOLA policy. 

Satterthwaite said he has drafted a proposal of the kind of policy he would like to replace the NEOLA one. But due to a high rate of principal turnover over the past few years, he has not been able to build the support he says he needs to take the policy to the school board.

“We want principal backing,” he said.

He said one of the clauses that worried him the most when the board first considered the NEOLA policy was one that prohibited publications that “promote, favor or oppose any candidate for election to the board or the adoption of any bond issue, proposal or question submitted at any election.” 

Satterthwaite, concerned the policy would prohibit students from writing columns about the then upcoming 2000 presidential election, expressed his unease to the superintendent.

“He said, ‘You’re reading the policy too narrowly.’ But I was just reading what the policy said,” Satterthwaite said. “He said ‘That’s not the intent of the policy.’ But it’s hard to get the intent.”

Having seen four different principals in four years, Satterthwaite said he and his students have been lucky.

“My biggest worry is, because the policies are so vague and open to interpretation, if someone comes in who’s not supportive of press rights, they can come in with those policies and run with them,” Satterthwaite said.

Inconsistencies in Indiana 

Two different interpretations of similar NEOLA policies in Indiana have led to two drastically different outcomes for student journalists.

In December 2005, The Triangle, the student newspaper at Columbus North High School in Columbus, Ind., published a four-page report on the risks of oral sex. The feature, titled “That Other Sex,” included national statistics and discussions of the medical and psychological risks of participating in oral sex.

Community members and a member of the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation board of trustees criticized the spread, and the board member proposed a new policy that would require the paper to be submitted to school administrators prior to publication. The policy would have circumvented the adviser who, under the district’s NEOLA policy, is charged with deciding what will and will not be printed.

In January, the board voted against the proposed policy 5-2, a vote Triangle adviser Kim Green said saved the paper’s ability to practice as an “open forum.”

“The [NEOLA] policy was adapted enough that when our community reads it, it shows we encourage an open forum without prior review of any sort,” Green said.

The language of the policy, Green admits, is open to interpretation. The policy gives ultimate control over student publications to the adviser, with appeal to the principal and superintendent. 

Green said while her district’s NEOLA policy was interpreted in a way that supported student freedom of expression, it could have been used to justify restricting the paper.

“It’s word for word a lot of the same language as other schools where the board is using it to shut them down,” Green said. 

One such school is Noblesville High School, located about 70 miles away in Noblesville, Ind. The staff of Mill Stream, the student newspaper at Noblesville, worked for months on an article concerning students’ attitudes regarding oral sex. 

Like The Triangle, the Mill Stream story also focused on the risks of participating in oral sex. However, unlike the situation in Columbus, the superintendent in Noblesville prohibited the students from publishing their article.

The controversy first developed in February when, hours before the Mill Stream publication deadline, the school principal announced that the article could not run until it was approved by a committee of administrators, students and community members.

The committee review process is not provided for in the district’s NEOLA student publications policy.

Although the committee supported running the article, the superintendent prohibited it, saying the article had no place in a student newspaper.

The NEOLA-template district policies that govern Columbus North and Noblesville high schools are not identical. However, the sections of the policies that enumerate unprotected student speech that may be prohibited share all but one of the same clauses. 

Noblesville superintendent Lynn Lehman could not be reached for comment. However, Noblesville principal Annetta Petty described Lehman’s rationale behind the censorship for a story in the Spring 2006 issue of the Report.

“He did not believe it was an appropriate subject for a high school,” Petty said. “The things that might be perceived as being of high interest might be perceived to be shocking to some members of their audience.”

‘Selling a product’

Green said she believes the NEOLA policies are drafted so that they can “go both ways,” or be interpreted differently by different districts or even different board members.

“I think the NEOLA people are selling a product,” Green said. “In selling a product they’re going to sell something with mass appeal, open to interpretation by conservatives and liberals alike.”

John Bowen, a professor of journalism at Kent State University and chair of the Journalism Education Association’s Press Rights Committee, said there is also an inherent bias toward administrative control of student newspapers in the NEOLA policy options. 

Bowen said the company’s use of former superintendents as sales associates exacerbates this tendency.

“They’re going to represent the school interests, this is what these guys know,” Bowen said. “They know what’s going on is beneficial to the school system, and that’s who pays them.”

Although some of the NEOLA options are based in law, such as those prohibiting the publication of libelous or obscene materials, others have no legal basis and, consequently, are more open to interpretation.

Restrictive atmospheres

Gloria Olman from the Michigan Interscholastic Press Association said that NEOLA policies create restrictive atmospheres for student journalists and said it deprives them of training necessary to be citizens of a democracy.

“We teach students the Constitution on paper but they don’t know how to live it,” Olman said. “We need to teach our students how to think, not what to think. When they enforce these policies, the kids aren’t learning.”

Olman said in addition to failing to educate students, she believes the NEOLA template can be used to violate students’ First Amendment rights. 

In the case of Lake Shore, Olman said that since The Shoreline had been practicing as an open forum for years, any censorship of the paper would have to meet the standards of the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District

In Tinker, the Court ruled that in order to censor a student publication, administrators must prove that the material would create a “substantial disruption” of normal school activities or would invade the rights of others. The Court’s decision in Hazelwood narrowed the Tinker decision, but only for student newspapers that are not designated public forums by policy or practice.

“If these newspapers within these districts were previously limited public forums, then these students can sue,” Olman said. “In Lake Shore they fall under Tinker, and it’s going to come back to bite the district at some point.”

Mardis, editor of Lake Shore’s student newspaper, said he is not considering any legal action at this time.

Bowen said although he disagrees with the language of the NEOLA templates, he understands why school districts would use the company’s services.

“On the surface it makes a lot of sense; they don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Bowen said. “But those generic policies don’t reflect local concerns.”

He said he worries school districts often have a false sense of security since NEOLA provides them with policy experts and legal advice. He said this reduces the districts’ need to consult local student press advocates or other scholastic student press groups prior to adopting student publications policies.

Bowen said it has been 10 years since he had any direct contact with a NEOLA representative and said the company should do more to reach out to groups like JEA.

“I just wish they would be more open in discussing with people before they write First Amendment policies,” Bowen said.

Open to discussion

Sandy Krueger, NEOLA’s chief operating officer, said she is interested in listening to the suggestions and concerns of scholastic press advocates.

“We’re very anxious to hear any comments,” Krueger said.

The current student publications policy template was drafted before the company came under new ownership in 1999, Krueger said. She said she was not sure when the last major review of the policy occurred, but said if clients have concerns, NEOLA gives them options.

“We try to write materials that are appropriate, where [administrators] can find choices that work for them,” Krueger said. “If clients have special circumstances and want more information we tell them to contact their own attorneys.”

She added that districts are free to write their own policies or add to the template student press friendly options, but said oftentimes districts have few complaints.

“Even if the district is coming in reluctant, usually by the time they’ve got one section done they just say ‘We’re going to use your stuff, it’s much better than what we have,’” Krueger said. “Ours have been legally vetted, there’s something to say for having the material reviewed.”

Krueger denied allegations that NEOLA has any hidden motives in the way it drafts its policy options.

“We never create anything that’s intentionally vague or with the idea that someone will interpret it somewhere that isn’t within the bounds of the law,” Krueger said.

She said NEOLA has no particular philosophy of administrative control in student press matters, but admits they are aware of their client base.

“Our clients are school districts and school boards,” she said. “That’s where we’re going to start out. What do the schools have to do? What do they want to do?”

Krueger said NEOLA does not take sides on issues such as whether a district should allow its student publications protection as limited public forums and said they do not claim to specialize in student press issues. After all, she said, student publications policies are one of many the group sells. 

“Obviously this policy is important, but it is one of 300 or 350 we’re dealing with on a daily basis,” Krueger said. “That’s one small piece of what we do every day. Not that we don’t care, we certainly do.”

‘One small piece’

While to school administrators and NEOLA associates the student publications policy is just one in hundreds, to student journalists it can have a direct effect on everything from who advises them to what they can and cannot publish.

The updated NEOLA policy and guidelines at Lake Shore leave Andrew Mardis, who said he will likely be both the editor and business manager of The Shoreline in the fall, more concerned about who will advise his paper next year than his other editorial responsibilities. 

Mardis said he is concerned administrators may hire what he calls a “tool” – someone who the district will use to strictly enforce the new district policies.

“If we get a tool next year, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to handle the class,” Mardis said. “I don’t know if it’s worth putting myself through that stress.”

That stress, Mardis said, includes the possibility of a much more complex relationship with the new adviser, who will have the power to veto stories without student input. Mardis said even if the NEOLA policy does not lead to direct censorship, he fears it will lead students to self-censor.

“Students aren’t going to want to cover controversial topics that need to be talked about,” Mardis said. “They’re afraid they’re going to do all this work only for the adviser to say ‘we can’t publish that.’ Then they just did all that work for nothing.”

Fall 2006, reports