Principal pulls pregnancy story from Texas yearbook

Staffers running out of time to get decision overturned before printer deadline

TEXAS -- The Burleson High School yearbook staff, going up against a March 1 printer deadline, is fighting their principal's decision to censor a teen pregnancy article.

Senior Megan Estes, editor in chief of The Elk, said the point of the article, featuring two seniors who also are teen mothers, was to show fellow students how the girls are coping with motherhood and how their lives have changed. Estes said the principal told her he felt the article "glamorized" the teen mothers' mistakes.

Principal Paul Cash said the topic of the article conflicts with the school's abstinence-based curriculum. He also said he does not think the community would want that topic covered in the yearbook.

"I believe that as principal of the school it is my obligation to make sure that whatever our students put into press accurately reflects the ideals and values of the community,"

Cash said.

Rachel Dearinger, Burleson's yearbook and newspaper adviser, said that, "unfortunately," Texas law allows Cash to review every page of the yearbook before it is published.

The Supreme Court's 1988 decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier said school officials generally may censor items in school-sponsored outlets if they can present a reasonable educational justification for doing so, and if they have not traditionally allowed students to make final content decisions.

Dearinger, a former copy editor and page designer for the Amarillo Globe-News, said she reviews content but allows the students to make final decisions. She said she is proud of her students because they are telling stories that matter.

"I'm very much in favor of the students," Dearinger said. "The story is about two girls in the school who happened to have babies ... had they not had those kids, how would they be looked on for having abortions?"

Estes said Cash called her home a couple of weeks ago, after not being able to reach her at school, to explain why he thought the article should not be published. After meeting with Cash and Superintendent Mark Jackson on Feb. 6, Estes appealed to the school board during the public comment portion of Monday night's board meeting.

Estes asked the board to give them a decision by Friday so The Elk could meet its deadline, Estes said.

Senior Brittani Shipman, a teen mother featured in the article, accompanied Estes to the meeting and asked the school board to allow her story to be published.

"Allow others to benefit from my experiences and what I've accomplished," she said, according to Dallas-Fort Worth TV station WFFA's Web site.

But Richard Crummel, executive director of learning support and public relations for Burleson Independent School District, said asking the board to respond by Friday is unreasonable because the board's usual review process can take up to several weeks.

Adding to the delay, Estes said Jackson told her on Tuesday that, although she had met with Cash and Jackson informally, she still needed to get those decisions in writing to complete the formal process. And while the president of the school board can call a special meeting to speed up the process, Jackson said it is unlikely that he will do so sooner than March 1. The next scheduled board meeting is March 10.

Estes called the Student Press Law Center after meeting with Cash and Jackson for legal advice on fighting the principal's decision.

"I understand what [the administrators] are thinking," Estes said. "I just don't agree or think that it makes sense."

Estes said she knew about eight to 10 girls attending Burleson who were either pregnant or had children, and she thought it was an important issue to write about. Seniors Shipman and Robin Robertson agreed to tell their stories.

"It really hurts [the girls] when they hear people talking about them ... These are people with real lives -- not just something you gossip about in high school," Estes said.

Cash said high school publications are for educational purposes only, and they are not intended to be venues for student expression.

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the SPLC, said school officials must have, at a minimum, a legitimate educational reason to censor.

"To me, the principal's decision seems neither educational or legitimate," Goldstein said.

"It's not educational because it's not related to the curriculum in some way. It's not legitamate because it's a conclusion, not a rationale."

Dearinger said the yearbook staff went through past yearbooks and found numerous articles addressing teen pregnancy, and other articles that she would argue are more controversial.

"This is not a new topic. It is a reality of high school these days ... isn't opening the dialogue the way to deal with the issue?"

Jackson could not be reached for comment by Wednesday afternoon.

Burleson High School, news, Texas, The Elk