The kids at the Faribault High School student newspaper are back at it, this time taking their complaint about censorship to the Faribault School Board.
It’s the latest twist in the stand-off between the determined student journalists and schools Superintendent Bob Stepaniak, who recently demanded prior review of a story about an eight-grade teacher who’s been under investigation by the school district. The students refused to subject the story to Stepaniak’s review. Instead, they collaborated with the hometown Faribault Daily News last week to publish the story in the Daily News instead of in the high school paper, the Echo.
On Monday, as the students were preparing another story about the teacher for the Echo, Stepaniak shut the paper down.
It was a move that teacher Kelly Zwagerman, the newspaper’s adviser of nearly 20 years, said was unprecedented at the school.
“It’s been a nightmare,” said Zwagerman, the school’s journalism teacher since 1986. “In a sense, we’ve just had 16 pages censored. All the work these kids have put into this . . . This is just unimaginable, that something like this could happen.”
Echo co-editor Christen Hildebrandt, a senior, said the students are on the agenda for Thursday’s meeting of the Faribault School Board, “and we hope they’ll overturn Stepaniak’s opinion.”
Stepaniak told Minnpost last week that he originally demanded to review any story on the teacher because he was concerned it could cause legal problems for the district and could fuel rumors while the teacher was still under investigation. He said he also was concerned about privacy issues, in part because the teacher has children who attend school in the district.
But after the students did an end run and got the story published with the help of the Faribault Daily News, Stepaniak appeared to soften his stance. He said he probably wouldn’t demand prior review of a follow-up story in this week’s Echo because “the damage has been done.”
But all of that changed this week. Stepaniak said the issue became bigger than just one story. He wanted the students to continue to discuss his general right to review stories in the Echo, he said, and when they refused, he shut down the edition that was set to go to press today.
“They’d sent a letter saying they thought it was illegal to review,” Stepaniak said.
But a school district attorney has advised him that because working at the Echo is a school activity and the school pays its expenses, the district has the right to approve of what’s published. “It’s hard for me to envision a [student newspaper] able to publish whatever it wants,” he said.
Stepaniak cited the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier, which upheld the right of public high school administrators in St. Louis, Mo., censor school newspaper articles about teen pregnancy and the effects of divorce on children.
Hildebrandt said the Echo has received advice from the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va., that the Hazlewood decision has limitations that make it inapplicable in this case. He said Stepaniak has provided only vague concerns about what a story in the Echo might say, rather than citing specific lissues that might warrant review.
Issues in the Hazelwood case included questions of accuracy and disruption to the educational process, Zwagerman said. But her students’ reporting has been solid and professional, she said, and the students already have assured Stepaniak that they were not naming any minors or identifying family members of the teacher who is under investigation. She added that the district has no history of prior review, meaning the current case would set new precedent.
Zwagerman sent a detailed memo explaining her position to Stepaniak. The Faribault Daily News posted that memo, and e-mails between Stepaniak and the student editors on its Web site yesterday.
The stories involve teacher Shelly Ann Prieve, who was placed on administrative leave in September after a parent complained of “inappropriate behavior,” the Daily News reported. Stepaniak confirmed to Minnpost that at least some of the behavior involved alleged text messages between Prieve and one or more students. Prieve has denied wrongdoing. Faribault police also investigated, but no charges were filed.
Meanwhile, Zwagerman said she’s concerned that the school district is setting a precedent that conflicts with good journalism education. She said one alternative for students might be to publish a Web-only news product that requires no school resources and is independent of the district.
“Either way, I’ll stay with the kids and will be doing meaningful journalism in Faribault,” she said. “I hope we can do it within the school system.”
Chris Ison is an associate professor at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication.