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Colo. principal fires adviser, shutters newspaper after coverage of student death
Newspaper editors to hold press conference
March 24, 2011

COLORADO — Overland High School’s student journalists are without an adviser or a newspaper after the principal overhauled the program days after a dispute over content.

The student editors scheduled a press conference for 2:30 p.m. MDT Thursday.

Junior Jaclyn Gutierrez, opinions editor for The Overland Scout, said Principal Leon Lundie told the journalism class March 18 that “he didn’t like the direction the paper was going and after this issue that’s all ready to go to press, we would be done. We will no longer have a newspaper.”

Additionally, Gutierrez said the students’ adviser Laura Sudik was called into a meeting with Lundie where she was removed as newspaper adviser on March 11. Sudik continues to teach speech, journalism and television production courses at the high school.

Gutierrez said beyond being told by Lundie that their class would be reverted to a non-publishing class, the students don’t know what will be happening with their journalism program in the future.

For the upcoming issue of The Overland Scout, the students were working on an article about sophomore Leibert Phillips, who died Jan. 1.

Junior Lori Schafer, editor in chief of The Overland Scout, interviewed Phillips’ mother Linda Kore, who told Schafer the school did not notify her after her son twisted his ankle during a wrestling tournament in December.

Kore later took him to the hospital where she found out Phillips’ ankle was fractured. He collapsed a few days later on New Year’s Day and died. According to Phillips’ death certificate, he died after a blood clot in his right leg traveled to his lungs, causing a pulmonary embolism. The certificate says the clot was a result of complications from the right leg fracture that occurred while wrestling Dec. 9 at Overland High School.

Gutierrez said Lundie told the student editors March 8 that Phillips’ cause of death was wrong in the story and they couldn’t publish it because the facts were wrong. The students then obtained a copy of Phillips’ death certificate March 10.

“Lori and I contacted the mother and we asked if we could come over and talk to her,” Gutierrez said. “We got the death certificate for Mr. Lundie to prove to him that the cause of death was right. We went in when we didn’t have to be at school and highlighted everything that he had said was wrong in the paper. He told us that we were talking to a very emotional mother and this [issue] is too big for a high school paper.”

Gutierrez said Lundie is now allowing them to run the story in their last regular issue. A senior issue will be published at the end of the semester, but only seniors are allowed to work on that newspaper and it’s mostly for remembrances, not new stories, she said.

Tustin Amole, spokeswoman for the Cherry Creek School District, said the administration did not censor the article, but merely suggested changes to it.

“My understanding was that the article only contained an interview with the mother of the child that died,” she said. “The suggestion was made that they talk to the coach and others to create a more balanced article. I don’t know that the article was canceled.”

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate at the Student Press Law Center, said the article consisted of memories of the student, with one line about the cause of death.

“Where’s the opportunity to balance that?” he said. “Anything you would add to contradict any of those things would be, at minimum, in poor taste and possibly factually incorrect when you’re talking about the coroner’s report. The idea that there should be balance to a mother’s memories of her dead son is a little grotesque.”

For the newspaper class, Amole said March 16 that the principal “is planning a change in programming.”

“What universities in Colorado have done is change their journalism departments to communications, incorporating new media and technology,” she said. “He feels that someone different would be a better fit for that particular kind of class.”

Amole said many of the schools in the district are converting to online news only and no longer publish a printed newspaper.

However, Carrie Faust, president of the Colorado High School Press Association and a teacher in the district, said as far as she knows none of the other schools in the district have newspaper websites.

“If district newspapers have online presences it’s against the will of the district and it’s outside of the district servers,” Faust said.

According to one of the district’s acceptable use policies, the last names of students aren’t allowed to appear online. Faust also said administrators have told teachers they can't publish online photos of students.

“In the past when we’ve pursued getting an online presence, they’ve said, ‘Well sure you can if you don’t name any students in your articles, and you don’t name any kids for the bylines of the articles,’” she said.

Gutierrez said this isn’t the first time the student newspaper has had problems with the school’s administration.

“[Our] second issue came out, and it was, ‘This is too negative, this is too graphic,’ basically [the administration] didn’t like it,” she said. “They didn’t like it but said it was nicely written. That was when they started prior reviewing us.”

The negative article was a student complaining about other students “acting ghetto,” while the graphic article was from the perspective of a student whose brother had committed suicide years earlier. She discusses seeing him in the casket, as well as his autopsy scars, and how it affected her.

Colorado is one of seven states with extra protection of student journalists. According to the Colorado Student Free Expression Law, student publications can only be restricted if they contain obscene or defamatory information, or if they promote unlawful acts, the disruption of school or a violation of someone’s right to privacy.

Goldstein said the pattern of events with regard to the newspaper at Overland High School doesn’t suggest the changes are due to curriculum considerations.

“On Tuesday the students are told they have a fact wrong, on Thursday they prove that they have that fact right, and on Friday the journalism teacher is fired and the newspaper is canceled for the rest of the year,” he said. “That doesn’t sound to me like a well thought-out, reasoned change in the course of the program.”

The students have been consulting with the SPLC and the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado. Faust and ACLU of Colorado Legal Director Mark Silverstein were scheduled to join student editors at Thursday’s news conference.

Laura Sudik declined to comment. Principal Leon Lundie and assistant principals Chris Denmark, Alicia Pray and Charla Rosenberry did not return phone calls.

By Aly Brumback, SPLC staff writer

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© 2011 Student Press Law Center

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