Veteran school administrator stands up for son's speech rights
When the Lake Central, Ind., school board met to discuss a high school principal’s removal of newspapers from the stands in response to an editorial mildly critical of the former football coach, the board heard a forceful argument in favor of student free-press rights from an unexpected source: Another school administrator.
The veteran school administrator, Dr. Joseph Majchrowicz, was also in an unaccustomed position — speaking in front of a school board not as a superintendent or principal, but as the parent of a censored student journalist.
After his son was faced with administrative censorship at Lake Central High School in St. John, Ind., Majchrowicz — superintendent of Sunnybrook School District in Lansing, Ill. — spoke out at the school board meeting against the actions of the administrators and advocated the First Amendment rights of high school journalists.
Majchrowicz has had a lengthy 34-year career in education. After 16 years as a superintendent, 10 years as a principal and eight years as a teacher, he plans to retire in two years. He has taught all levels from pre-school to high school, but predominantly pre-Kindergarten to eighth grade.
His son, Michael Majchrowicz, is editor-in-chief of The Scout at Lake Central High School. In December 2009, Michael wrote an editorial endorsing the resignation of Lake Central’s football coach, which prompted administrators to remove the remaining issues of The Scout from the stands in February. The editorial stated that a change was needed to the football program after its past three losing seasons, and praised the administration’s efforts to remove the coach and improve the program.
After its publication, Assistant Superintendent Lawrence Veracco said some students complained to the assistant principals about the editorial. As a result, Assistant Principal Doug McCallister removed the papers. At the school board meeting that took place a few days later, Michael asked for the papers to be returned.
Citing the situation with administrators as a life lesson for his son, Majchrowicz had not planned on being involved, and only gave him advice on who to talk to.
Even with a Facebook page garnering support from students, alumni and other student editors from local schools to come and speak out against Lake Central administrators, Michael still felt his father’s input at the board meeting was necessary.
“I have a pretty close and open relationship with my parents to begin with. Given my dad’s background in education, I knew from the start that he knew exactly what he was talking about and to have that kind of support meant everything,” Michael said.
Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said student journalists garnering parents’ support is critical in any battle against school censorship.“We’ve seen over and over again that parental involvement is the difference-maker, not only because it fortifies the confidence of the students, but because a parent’s word is so much more persuasive to an elected school board member. That goes doubly, of course, if the parent has the credentials of a school administrator who can say to his peers, ‘I know you want to minimize controversy at your school, but there are more important values and priorities than getting through the day without an annoying phone call,’ “ LoMonte said.
Michael told his father he did not understand why he was being penalized for following the rules and it was unfair that administrators could change the rules at any time. “[He said], ‘I played by the rules… my staff played by the rules… How come the adults in this world get to change the rules mid-stream when it doesn’t fit their needs?’” Majchrowicz said.
Majchrowicz said he was “disappointed” with the decision to remove the newspapers from the stands and had several concerns about how the administration handled the situation with the student newspaper. In his speech at the school board meeting, he pointed out Lake Central’s mission statement and said it mentions engaging students in a democratic process.
“How can you engage kids in a democratic process when you continue to censor their opinions? And this was an opinion column… it wasn’t of a derogatory nature, it wasn’t of a scandalous nature, it wasn’t libelous, it wasn’t slanderous, it wasn’t inflammatory,” Majchrowicz said.
The Scout operates under prior review, which Majchrowicz takes issue with. He emphasized the establishment of trust between administrators and students as essential, and starts with a dialogue between both parties. Communication is something Majchrowicz thinks was missing from the situation. The Scout went through prior review and was vetted by the principal, but, this did not stop other administrators from pulling the newspapers off the stands.
“The principal signed off on it, and yet another administrator was allowed to go and pull the newspaper, censoring them,” Majchrowicz said.
School board members did not seem willing to return the confiscated papers and Majchrowicz said that they appeared to be merely “placating” those in support of The Scout.
“I felt it was smoke and mirrors, I really felt it was a bad administrative decision that was allowed to continue and no one was willing [to say they] can’t pull those papers off the newsstands,” Majchrowicz said.
Although the initial goal was to convince administrators to return the confiscated issues to newsstands, Majchrowicz wants the school to consider lifting prior review from the publication. He suggests establishing a committee of administrators, staff members, parents and the editor-in-chief to consider alternatives and to look at other local high schools’ newspaper models that operate without prior review.
“They said they were going to review the practice [of prior review], and my fear is they’re going to come back with an even more restrictive policy,” Majchrowicz said. After the board meeting, the newspapers were returned to the stacks — but prior review still remains at Lake Central. Majchrowicz said trust must be established between students and administrators in order to produce a quality newspaper without prior review. “The sooner we can give them the appropriate type experiences the better. That needs to be built on trust,” he said.
Although Illinois has a student free expression law to protect the rights of college journalists, Majchrowicz said protections should start as early as possible in high school journalism classes.
The Illinois College Campus Press Act provides student journalists attending public colleges and universities in Illinois with protections, in addition to the First Amendment, against administrative censorship.The law passed in response to Hosty v. Carter in 2005, in which the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals indicated that the same limited First Amendment rights applicable in high schools might also extend to college media.
Majchrowicz thinks that student journalists in high school should also be able to practice journalism without fear of administrative censorship.
“It needs to begin at the high school level. If it doesn’t, then how do high school students learn to deal with responsible reporting of the news in a trusting environment?” Majchrowicz said. “And if they don’t learn it at age 16, 17, when will they? It’s like education in teaching kids how to read. We don’t wait until they’re in third grade.“Majchrowicz emphasized the importance of open, two-way communication that must be established between students and administrators to allow for students to practice responsible journalism.
From a successful student-administrative partnership comes “an even more engaged, well informed school community with a flourishing system of open communication,” Majchrowicz said.
“That system will include, but not be limited to, the student newspaper from which the truthful, unbiased reporting of the news will flow.”
By Nicole Ocran, SPLC staff writer
reports, Spring 2010