California high school newspaper’s sex issue leads to sexual harassment complaint





CALIFORNIA — When a California high school newspaper staff printed a cover story devoted to sex, they didn’t expect parents would accuse them of sexual harassment.

But that’s what happened less than a week after student journalists at Newbury Park High School distributed their sex issue in February, which featured a cover photo of a woman rolling a red condom onto a banana and included a photo of a man removing a woman’s bra.

After a group of four parents sent a complaint to the principal and the superintendent asking for the article to be removed from the NPHS website because it violated the state’s sex education law and the family and penal sections of the California education code, the Conejo Valley Unified School District addressed the controversy at its meeting Tuesday.

Although the images no longer appear on the the Panther Prowler’s website and the school’s website no longer links to the story, members of the newspaper and of the school board say a legal battle over the story may be next.

The school board voted to protect the Panther Prowler’s rights to freedom of speech and press, leaving the parents dissatisfied, said Michelle Saremi, the Panther Prowler’s adviser.

“We’ve been told to expect further litigation,” Saremi said. “But not necessarily against us, against the district.”

‘Let’s talk about sex’

Newspaper staff began storyboarding for the sex issue in early December, and on Feb. 4, Saremi scheduled a meeting with the school’s principal and assistant principal of instruction to describe the article and art the students planned.

Saremi said she understood teenage sex could be a contentious topic at NPHS, and wanted the principal to be aware of the article’s angle and photos.

In preparation for the special edition, Prowler staff hung posters around the school on Feb. 22 to advertise the upcoming magazine, some with photos relating to the sex article.

When administrators asked members of the newspaper staff to remove the posters about the sex article because they created a disturbance, Co-Editor Grace O’Toole said the staff complied.

“We wanted the focus to be on the article,” she said. “All this buzz on the photos, we felt would be detracting from the article.”

Two days before the issue published, Saremi said she brought a copy of the article to Principal Josh Eby and Superintendent Jeff Baarstad for review, who expressed no concern about the article or artwork, which the district’s legal team also approved.

Although prior review isn’t the Panther Prowler’s standard procedure, they chose to show this particular article to administration ahead of time because it addressed a sensitive topic, O’Toole said.

On Feb. 27, Panther Prowler staff distributed the “Let’s talk about sex” issue, which explored high school students’ experiences with and opinions about sex. The article also included information about a state law that prohibits minors from having sex and statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System.

The article was meant to create “an open dialogue and an open discussion” about sex, O’Toole said, adding that a controversy of this scale was unexpected.

But controversies surrounding student stories about sex aren’t unprecedented. Earlier this week, the Student Press Law Center reported on a controversy at Michigan’s Rochester High School, where school officials have used a prior review policy since February after stories about sex education and changing attitudes about smoking drew criticism. That newspaper, like the Panther Prowler, was criticized for using a photo illustration of a condom over a banana.

Complaints from parents

On March 3, a group of four parents sent a complaint to Eby and Baarstad arguing the article violated sections of state sex education code, family code and penal code. The complaint also asked that the article be removed from the Newbury Park High School website.

California education code allows parents to opt their children out of comprehensive sex education and HIV/AIDS prevention education.

The parents also suggested that by hanging posters and distributing the articles to students, the Panther Prowler staff forced sexual content onto students who may have been offended.

After receiving the complaint, Eby asked the Prowler to remove a photo associated with the sex article — a teenage boy unfastening a teenage girl’s bra — from the Prowler’s website, O’Toole said.

The Prowler staff took the photo down at Eby’s request, but on March 4, published an open letter to the community defending their decision to print the article and photos, highlighting the importance of educating students about safe sex.

Also on March 3, the Prowler’s advertisers alerted staff an NPHS mother contacted them, Saremi said. In her email, the mother expressed alarm at the “severe inappropriateness” of the Prowler’s February issue and encouraged advertisers “to discontinue supporting the journalism department at NPHS.”

The advertisers always receive a copy of the publication, Saremi said, and were already aware of its content. NPHS does not cover the Panther Prowler’s production costs, and the publication relies on advertising and fundraising, she said.

In a meeting on March 11, the principal and superintendent asked Prowler staff to remove all of the sex article content from their website.

“They implied that there would be some sort of ramifications for the journalism program at Newbury Park High School if we didn’t comply,” O’Toole said.

While they chose to take down the photos, members of the Prowler staff voted unanimously to leave the article online, she said. NPHS removed the link to the Panther Prowler’s website from its homepage later that day, O’Toole said.

Saremi said she received a phone call from her president of her union, United Association of Conejo Teachers, cautioning her against talking to anyone about the magazine and letting her know they would assign her an attorney for the upcoming school board meeting.

Saremi said the president informed her two school board members were looking to “punish” someone for the magazine, and believed that “the publication should be taken away from the adviser or the program should be shut down altogether.”

Saremi said some of the newspaper staff overheard this conversation and began an email campaign to raise awareness. As a result, students, parents and community members flooded Baarstad’s and the school board members’ inboxes with letters supporting the Prowler.

‘Uncensored written rebuttal’

During Tuesday’s school board meeting, school board member Mike Dunn added a motion to the agenda at the request of the concerned parents, who argued the article presented a biased view of teenage sex and wanted the paper to provide equal space for an opposing perspective.

If the motion passed, school board members would have written a letter to Panther Prowler staff requesting the newspaper “print an uncensored written rebuttal” from a student with an opposing viewpoint, along with a picture of that student’s choice — on the paper’s front page.

Initially, the action item requested Garry Pace, one of the NPHS parents who submitted the complaint, be allowed to write the rebuttal. Dunn said he amended the item, replacing “Garry Pace” with “students” after other board members expressed concern during the meeting.

Three of five board members voted against the motion.

Both Dunn and school board president Betsy Connolly said there had never been any discussion of punishing Saremi.

Dunn said he was careful to respect the Panther Prowler’s First Amendment rights, requesting rather than ordering the paper to print an article expressing an opposing viewpoint. When drafting the motion, Dunn said he kept in mind a California law protecting students’ freedom of speech and press.

During the meeting, the four parents argued that not only did the original article violate the state’s education code, but their distribution of the article was a form of sexual harassment.

About 50 community members, both adults and students, voiced their opinions during the meetings’ public comment section, Dunn said. While most of the adults expressed concern about the article’s content, many of the students advocated for the Prowler’s freedom of speech.

The Student Press Law Center and American Civil Liberties Union Southern California Chapter also sent a letter to the school board, defending the students’ rights and disputing critics’ claims that the magazine’s content could be considered obscenity or harassment.

Connolly said she voted against the motion because she believes student publications should be a voice for student journalists, not parents and community members. The Panther Prowler gives these adults a forum through letters to the editor.

She said she and the two other board members who voted against the motion agree that “parents and administrators shouldn’t advocate a certain view.” Instead, they should “encourage respectful discussion” of differing viewpoints.

Although neither Dunn nor Connolly have yet heard if the group of parents plan to pursue the issue further, both said the parents may be interested in taking legal action against the school.

The Panther Prowler plans to address the controversy in its April 2 issue with a page dedicated to letters to the editor, an editorial from a staff member about why she chose abstinence and a news story on the school community’s reaction in the wake of the school board meeting, O’Toole said.

Contact SPLC staff writer Katherine Schaeffer by email or at (202) 974-5451.


California, Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, Conejo Valley Unified School District, Newbury Park High School, news, Panther Prowler, recent-news
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After the Panther Prowler at Newbury Park High School printed its sex issue in February, a group of parents argued the issue violates a California law that allows parents to opt their children out of comprehensive sex education.