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Student editors faced with school restrictions do end run, collaborate with Faribault paper on sensitive story

Hard-hitting journalism is alive and well at Faribault High School — just not in the school newspaper.

Instead, the bylines of two editors of the Echo student newspaper appear on the front page of today's Faribault Daily News, the result of the students' end run around the schools superintendent.

The alliance culminates nearly three months of investigation into the alleged conduct of Faribault Middle School teacher Shelly Ann Prieve, who was placed on administrative leave in September after a parent complained of "inappropriate behavior," the Daily News reported. At least some of that behavior involved alleged text messages between Prieve and one or more students, Superintendent Bob Stepaniak confirmed to MinnPost.


Prieve has denied wrongdoing and said last week that she had no knowledge of any allegations against her, according to the Daily News article. A person who answered the telephone at Prieve's home this morning said she would have no comment.

 

 

Students had inside sources
A sidebar to the article explains how the students collaborated with the Daily News to get the story after learning they might not be allowed to publish in the school paper. The Daily News had heard some of the same allegations in October, but didn't know the name of the teacher involved. Meanwhile, the student journalists at the Echo were able to use their sources inside the school to get the name.

The students also requested information about the suspension under Minnesota open-records law and confirmed the investigation of Prieve, though little detail was provided because the investigation was ongoing. And when they talked with Stepaniak about the case, he demanded that the Echo allow him to review any story before it was published.

"They kind of bristled at that," Stepaniak said. When one of the student editors asked what Stepaniak would do if they didn't show him the story, "I said the paper wouldn't be published," he said.

Adamant against prior review
"He said that we cannot publish anything without him reviewing it first," Echo Co-Editor-in-Chief Benjamin Jackson said. "I said, 'No.' I am pretty adamant in not accepting or doing prior review. I think it's just a terrible idea."

Stepaniak said he has never interfered with the Echo before, but was concerned about damaging Prieve's reputation. Her four children also go to Faribault schools, Stepaniak said, adding he was also concerned about legal consequences for the district.

"I expressed concern that if the teacher was innocent or we found it was minor stuff, my concern was we would just fuel those rumors," he said. "I told them I think we have an obligation to bend over backwards to be fair."

Case law allows public school administrators to censor content in school newspapers in some instances, said Mark Anfinson, a media attorney who consulted with the Daily News on the story. Stepaniak said discussions with the district's lawyer convinced him he had that right.

But the students didn't give up. In November, they reached out to the Daily News.

Students originally sought advice
"They wanted advice on how to proceed, and whether the superintendent had a right to censor them," said Daily News reporter Jim Hammerand, who'd been working the story but hadn't nailed it down. "We said, 'If you help us out, you might not be able to publish in the Echo, but we can publish in the Daily News.' They were inside the school system, so they had information we couldn't get. They knew the teacher's name."

Today's Daily News story includes the bylines of Hammerand, Jackson and Christen Hildebrandt, another co-editor-in-chief of the Echo.

The story says that Faribault police also investigated, but found no information with which to charge Prieve. The article said that police did find a pattern "of Prieve and students text messaging each other outside of school hours, in some cases to the point that parents said they felt uneasy." It added that a police report quoted one unidentified student saying that he resisted Prieve's efforts to "force him into something," but police could not verify allegations that the student and Prieve were unusually close.

Stepaniak said the school district's investigation is ongoing, but appears to be nearing completion. He said now that the story has been published in the Daily News, he'll soften his stance on the Echo's ongoing coverage. He may ask to see future stories on the matter, but probably won't stop the paper from publishing if editors refuse.

"I think the damage has been done," he said. But he appeared to appreciate the young journalists' tenacity. "I don't think they've behaved inappropriately," he said.

The next issue of the Echo goes to press Tuesday.

Chris Ison, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism and Mass Communication, writes on a variety of topics.

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Comments (5)

It sounds like all parties did the right thing... except the accused teacher (if true). The superintendent is correct to review material that may impact another persons life. Especially since these journalists are still "in training."

Too bad there won't be many newspapers for them to work for in the future. But that topic belongs in a different blog.

Years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and Richard Nixon was President, I was the editor of a college paper at a liberal arts school in Vermont. We had a grand old time, mainly because one of the college's trustees was Felix "The Fixer" Rohatyn, a New York financier who was deeply involved in the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Chile, and the murder of president Allende.

Then we got hold of a genuine scoop. The college was providing space to the Department of Defense, which had a military intelligence presence on campus. To add sweet irony, the intelligence unit was headquartered in the basement of the administration building, directly underneath the office of the college president.

As we worked on the article, the question came up whether the college could stop us from publishing. One of the students on the staff has a father who was a lawyer that did press law, and his advice was as is paraphrased below:

The College corporation is the publisher of the paper. Even if the paper is funded by the student activities fee, the college collects the fee and oversees its disbursement. They also co-sign loans to buy equipment, and provide space to the paper without charge. Even though the college allows the paper's editorial board to set policy and select successor editors, that isn't an unusual thing for a publisher to do.

But what about first amendment protections freedom of the press? we asked. Weren't we protected? His explanation was that we were protected against government censorship, but that we as editors weren't protected against the publisher exercising control over the paper that they own. He illustrated that point by saying 'Let's say one of your reporters writes an article that he thinks is really important, but you think is poorly researched and written. He refuses to submit to you editing the article, and demands that you publish it just as he wrote it, claiming that the first amendment protects his freedom to have his article published just as he liked.'

He ended this little sermon by repeating the old adage about how the only person who really has freedom of the press is the guy who owns one.

The point being that the Superintendent was within his rights in acting as a publisher and exerting control over editorial content (think Rupert Murdoch, or Colonel McCormick). The editors were maybe within their rights by seeking another outlet for their story, although it's possible that a real paper would have said that they had rights to the work product of reporters on staff of their paper.

But that's a topic for intellectual property lawyers.

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OK, give points to the kids for working around the censorship, but the larger issue is one of naming suspects that haven't been charged with a crime - and in this case won't be.

What is the justification for likely destroying this woman's career over unproven allegations? It looks like law enforcement did their job, but found nothing to prosecute. By publishing the allegations anyway, has the paper overstepped its ethical duties to the communty?

The most important lesson for student journalists is "when is a story not a story?" Reporters had no additional facts beyond what the police had. And the newspaper doesn't seem to be questioning their decision not to charge. The logical conclusion is "we should publish all allegations about teachers/public officials no matter how weak the evidence." It seems a poor choice on the part of the Faribault Daily News to publish the story.

When I started reading this story, I assumed that the student reporters had uncovered something important. Here, a teacher was investigated (for outside of school hours text messaging) but was not actually charged with anything. Does the need to get that information to the public outweigh the possible damage to the teacher's reputation? Is that news? She is not a public figure. She is a teacher in a small town with children in the school system.

I have to wonder if the Faribault Daily News would have even reported the story if they had uncovered it. From their standpoint, I think that the story here is the censorship of the student paper, and not the underlying investigation of the teacher.