Yearbooks face more scrutiny


N.M. book raises ire by including lesbian couples; staff prank in Calif. leads to greater official oversight





At the end of each school year, students pore over their new yearbooks, looking at every picture, picking out their friends and signing messages they hope will retain meaning for years to come. By the time the next year rolls around, that annual is all but forgotten and students are ready to move on to a new year of memory making.

But students at some high schools will return to classes this fall to find the hallways full of chatter about last year’s book ‘ and about possible changes to the way their yearbooks are run.

After publishing pictures of two lesbian couples on the relationships page of the Plainsman, yearbook staff members at Clovis High School faced a crowd of upset community members at the last school board meeting of the year. The group said including gay couples in the book is not representative of the community. Some even threatened to stop donating to school projects.

But student editors argued that featuring the couples was a conscience decision to which they gave much consideration.

“We just wanted to show that there is a diversity, there (are) gay and lesbian couples in the school and they have a right to be in the yearbook just as much as anybody else does,” Editor in Chief Maggie Chavez told the Clovis News Journal.

The Plainsman included a photo of then-sophomores Melody Trujillo and Contezza Bonney and a caption in which the girls talk about their relationship.

The girls said they had been dating for about two years and explained their feelings for each other.

“We were just friends at first but then we started liking each other and by ninth grade we were a couple,” Bonney told the Plainsman. “She’s crazy and outgoing, that’s what I love about her. Melody’s personality is her best quality, she doesn’t care what people think about her and she makes me feel safe and loved.”

Adviser Carol Singletary said the couples approached the staff about being included in the spread. Student editors were supportive and spoke to Singletary about the idea.

“We’re a fairly conservative community, so when the [editors] wanted to include the pictures I said it’s going to make waves,” Singletary said. Because the publication is student-run, Singletary said she and the editors discussed whether the photos would violate anything in the school policy.

“It didn’t violate anyone’s privacy,” she said. “The girls were the ones who approached my staff. They were very public about [their relationship].”

The school board at the Clovis, N. M., school decided to review the district’s publication policy and consider revising it, Superintendent Rhonda Seidenwurm said.

“Currently, our attorneys are reviewing the policy to determine whether the district ‘ through the policy ‘ has abdicated its responsibilities to oversee student publications as defined in the Hazelwood decision,” Seidenwurm told the Student Press Law Center in an e-mail.

In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that school officials may censor high school publications if they are not designated as public forums for student expression, and if the officials can demonstrate reasonable, educational justifications for their censorship.

The school’s current policy says students control all content ‘ with the help of the publications adviser ‘ as long as that content is not obscene, libelous, slanderous or defamatory and does not cause a material or substantial disruption.

That language mirrors the standard set by the Court’s 1969 decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which said administrators cannot censor student speech unless there is a reasonable forecast of “material and substantial disruption” to the school or unless the speech will invade the rights of others.

The current policy says school-sponsored publications are public forums for student speech and “material that stimulates heated discussion or debate does not constitute the type of disruption which is prohibited.”

Singletary, who resigned as yearbook adviser just before the yearbook controversy, said it looks like the policy might be revised to meet Hazelwood standards so the school would have more control over content.

“I didn’t expect that,” she said. “Not one of the things that we discussed was the fact that this would result in a change in policy. I didn’t realize it would be that big.”

But the First Amendment prohibits revoking students’ control over a publication because the school disagrees with a discretionary editorial content decision, said SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte.

“Court after court has said that, as long as students don’t libel someone or steal their copyrighted property or break any other laws, students can’t be punished for expressing a point of view in student publications,” LoMonte said. “If the Clovis school board retaliates against the yearbook because of a disagreement over the tastefulness of editorial content that everyone agrees was legal, the district will be begging for a First Amendment lawsuit, and it will lose.”

Will Cockrell, a member of the Christian Citizenship Team, which first opposed the yearbook spread, helped to mobilize the community to speak out against the picture at the school board meeting, according to the Clovis News Journal.

The Christian Citizenship Team is a group at Central Baptist Church in Clovis that “monitors political actions and social actions that come to bear on society that are counter to Christian doctrine,” Cockrell told the Journal.

“We don’t think that it reflects anywhere close to the attitudes and the morals of the community,” Cockrell said. “I don’t have a child in school but I’m appalled. If I were the parents of those kids, I’d own that school. Those are minors.”

But Jessie Hardison, a yearbook staff member, said she felt like the yearbook should be inclusive of all people no matter their race, gender or sexuality.

“It’s time for Clovis to come into the 21st century and be OK with people … Something little like this goes a long way and if we keep doings things like this, it might change things,” Hardison told the Journal.

Queen Creek Unified School District in Arizona also is reviewing its policies and guidelines regarding student publications after parents complained about the yearbook in May. So far the school has asked for parent volunteers to oversee the publication.

Parents were concerned about pictures of lesbian couples, students with tattoos and piercings, and teens named “best partiers” holding red plastic cups.

The district and parents said the yearbook was “glorifying things that were inappropriate for children in high school,” according to an article in the Arizona Republic.

The district’s current publications policy says the superintendent must review all student publications before they go to print, but that did not happen this time, school board member Dale Hancock told the Republic.

At Charter Oak High School in Covina, Calif., yearbook staff members will see more teacher involvement in the editorial process rather than a policy overhaul. The school is working on refining the process that the staff members work under in order to make sure errors do not make it to publication.

The change is a response to several pages in the 2007-08 yearbook that had offensive or incorrect names.

The school is reprinting the pages with correct names after students replaced the names of nine Black Student Union members with racially offensive fake names such as “Tay Tay Shaniqua,” “Crisphy Nanos” and “Laquan White.”

Principal Kathleen Wiard said the yearbook process usually allows page designers to temporarily fill in fake names until the students are identified and changes are made before the final copies are sent to the printer. For some reason, not all the final changes were made this year, Wiard said.

The school is working on changing the proofing process to something more than an editor or adviser simply asking if changes have been made, Wiard said. The teacher or coach in charge of a given organization now will be responsible for filling in each student’s name and checking the final proofs.

“We’re doing that process now with current proofs for the replacement pages,” Wiard said. The school plans to have yearbook purchasers come in early August so they can replace the pages in the books.

The school knows which students were responsible for the BSU name changes and administrators now are trying to determine how many other students were aware of the situation and failed to report it, she said.

Along with changing the process, Wiard said the publication company the school works with is going to help educate the students on the duties that come with being part of a student publication.

“The kids are going to camps and training with [the company] to talk to them about care and ethical concerns that go with that,” Wiard said.

Wiard refused to release the names of the yearbook adviser or the students involved in the controversy.


Fall 2008, reports