Formerly censored article published in New Jersey student newspaper after school board and principal give OK

NEW JERSEY — After a three-month censorship battle, a student journalist’s article about a conflict between teachers and the superintendent was finally published in The Highland Fling today.

“We were able to triumph in the battle of censorship, (and) I think what we accomplished really stands for what we believe,” said Adelina Colaku, a senior and the newspaper’s editor-in-chief. “It takes a lot to be able to do that.”

The Northern Highlands Regional School District’s Board of Education held a closed executive session Monday night and approved the article’s publication, a decision that was relayed to Colaku’s attorney in an email from the district’s attorney on Tuesday, Colaku said.

The board gave its go-ahead contingent on the approval of the school’s principal, Joseph Occhino. Occhino originally censored the piece, which is what triggered Colaku’s appeal to the school board, but Colaku had made revisions to the piece since submitting it. Under the district’s prior review policy, Occhino’s approval was also needed on the remaining pages of the latest issue. Colaku submitted the issue to Occhino Tuesday evening.

Under the district’s prior review policy, Occhino had 48 hours to make revisions or omissions to the story. That timeframe originally concerned Colaku, because the newspaper was up against its deadline with the printer. The deadline was originally Tuesday, but Colaku said she called the printers and “begged” them to print the copies late.

“We’ve been customers for such a long time, ultimately they agreed and they pulled a miracle for us,” Colaku said.

Occhino approved of the article and informed Colaku of his decision around 11 a.m. Thursday, she said. Occhino and board president Barbara Garand could not be reached for comment.

Benjamin Marks, Colaku’s attorney, said he was pleased their negotiations with the school board resulted in the story’s publication. Marks, an attorney from the New York office of Weil, Gotshal & Manges, represented Colaku pro bono through the Student Press Law Center’s attorney referral network.

“I know that we were prepared to defend Adelina’s rights of free speech and the right of free press in the event that permission to publish the article was put down by the school board,” Marks said.

Colaku’s article had been in limbo since March. The story she originally submitted detailed allegations from multiple anonymous sources who said that after administrators filed grievances last year against the district’s superintendent, John Keenan, Occhino was approached by Keenan’s wife, Susan, and told to withdraw the administrators’ complaint and apologize. (Keenan’s resignation was announced at the May 19 meeting of the Northern Highlands school board; he has accepted a position as superintendent with the Greater Egg Harbor Regional School Board in New Jersey.)

Occhino did not approve Colaku’s article for publication and explained in a memo to Colaku that his decision was based on the fact that the story contained “confidential personnel information” and relied on anonymous sources. Occhino also said that the article “cannot present a ‘balanced’ picture because the Northern Highlands Regional High School Board of Education has refused to make any comment concerning the contents of the article.”

Colaku wrote a story in the April 1 edition of the newspaper explaining that her original news story was censored and also appealed the censorship to the board of education. Since her initial appeal, Colaku and Marks have been in discussions with the board.

Because of the concern raised regarding the use of anonymous sources, Colaku went back to her sources and tried to convince them to speak publicly. One of the sources, Technology Administrator Michael Rightmire, agreed to do so. In the published version, that source gave his account of the letter purportedly given to Occhino by Keenan’s wife.

Colaku’s published story also featured a statement from Keenan, who had initially declined to comment on personnel matters, the story states. And the story featured comments from Garand.

The story ran on page three of the newspaper, since the front page of the issue is dedicated to the senior class.

“We’re all extremely ecstatic, a lot of people are shocked at this point. For me, the excitement hasn’t set in yet,” Colaku said. “I’m going to fully realize what we accomplished  when I see it in print.”

Correction: This story originally incorrectly stated when Colaku submitted her revised article for prior review by the school's principal. She submitted it Tuesday evening.

Contact Spoont by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.

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