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.