By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — The UD-3 school board will spend the next few weeks crafting a policy for the Middlebury Union High School Tigers’ Print newspaper that could range from continuing to allow the administration to pre-screen the content of the publication, to simply ensuring that students’ names are withheld from articles that could get them in trouble.
Board members on Tuesday decided to take that course after two hours of at-times impassioned debate, focusing on the balance of protecting students while allowing them the freedom to produce a newspaper with an unfiltered voice.
School leaders have been considering a policy since last spring, after a Tigers’ Print scribe printed the name of a student who confessed to having attended classes while under the influence of marijuana. That student was retroactively suspended from classes for three days. The UD-3 board’s policy committee met during the summer to gather a series of legal opinions and public testimony on potential ground rules for the student newspaper.
The policy committee on Tuesday unveiled two potential newspaper policies.
The first proposed policy calls for the journalism course teacher to be responsible for reviewing all material prior to publication. The superintendent or his designee, however, would have final approval over the material to be published. The policy also stipulates that the superintendent will not permit censorship “of any article because of administrative disagreement with the article’s viewpoint or opinions of the author, or merely because of any controversial nature of an article or its subject matter.” At the same time, the superintendent won’t allow into print any information that “could violate the rights of students, constitute discrimination of any portion of the student body, or advocate behavior that exposes all or a portion of the student body to harm.”
The second proposed policy allows the student journalists to determine the content of the newspaper, giving them the responsibility to adhere to strict standards of accuracy, objectivity, fairness, fact checking and spelling/grammar. The school would “not protect” student expression that is obscene to minors, is libelous, would likely cause disruption to student activities, or that violates privacy rights. School administrators under this policy would not pre-screen material prior to publication, but could punish students who violate any of the content ground rules. The students would be guided by teacher/advisors.
“Both policies prohibit censorship,” noted UD-3 Policy Committee Chairman Jerry Shedd of Ripton, though the impact of prior review weighs most heavily in the first scenario.
Board members may also consider a third policy — that the Tigers’ Print simply steer clear of using students’ names in articles in which self-incrimination may be an issue.
“It sounds like we’re so close to making something work here,” board member Leonard Barrett of Bridport said. “Maybe the thing we just need to address is something to do with keeping names out of the public eye.
“We’ve got to protect the community and the kids,” Barrett added. “If (printing a student’s name) was the only thing that went wrong, it sounds like we’re trying to go a little too far, here, and maybe we’d better address more toward protecting the kid’s name and keeping them out of the paper, and not put more pressure in making sure the principal or superintendent read every article before it goes out.”
Some school officials noted that the Federal Education Rights and Policy Act (FERPA) already ensures students confidentiality as it relates to student records.
“It would be nice if we could focus on the one thing that caused it all, but that doesn’t mean something else couldn’t come up,” said board member Lorraine Morse of Middlebury. “But that doesn’t mean something else couldn’t come up.”
In addition to comments by board members, also speaking up at Tuesday’s UD-3 meeting were some parents, community members, former Tigers’ Print advisor Timothy O’Leary and Addison Independent Publisher Angelo Lynn. The Tigers’ Print is distributed to a wider audience through the Independent.
O’Leary told the board he was “sad not to be allowed to be the journalism teacher this coming year. To be disallowed to continue in that position, even after the request of our entire department, with no real explanation about how those decisions were being made, saddens me.”
O’Leary added, however, that he was pleased to see that 17 students had signed up for the journalism course this year. He encouraged the board to seek input from those students in framing the school’s newspaper policy.
“I think we really want to be in a place where we invite student ownership,” said O’Leary, an English teacher at MUHS.
William Lawson, MUHS principal, said O’Leary had not been forced out as Tigers’ Print advisory. Lawson said only a handful of students had registered for the journalism class at a point last spring when UD-3 administrators needed to schedule courses. That handful of students subsequently swelled to the current 17 — at a point when O’Leary’s and other instructors’ teaching schedules had already been set. A business teacher and part-time English teacher will now be taking the helm of the journalism course.
“It required a great deal of effort (to reschedule the journalism class), long after courses had been pretty much set,” Lawson said. “There was no mal-intention, or anything like that.”
Lawson added he has “no interest in censorship; I never have and I never will.” At the same time, Lawson said he and other MUHS administrators feel duty-bound to safeguard students who may otherwise make themselves vulnerable in the pages of the student newspaper.
In several back-and-forth exchanges between Lynn and board members, Lynn noted his concern with the first proposed policy was its relatively strict interpretation of censorship and the potentially stifling effect that could have on the students’ enthusiasm to produce the quality school newspaper that the Tigers’ Print has become in the past two years.
“What we would hope is that the board can craft a policy that gives students the responsibility to create a product on their own with oversight, but without the chilling effect that occurred at the end of last spring,” Lynn said after the meeting, referring to the incident that prompted prior review of the paper by the administration for the newspaper’s final issue of the school year. “The challenge, today, is to bring the students and the journalism advisors into this deliberate process so that they buy into whatever policy is decided in a way that maintains the sense of excitement and ownership that’s been at the paper for the past two years, while also providing legal protection for the school. As always with free speech issues, it’s not an uncomplicated task.”
The UD-3 board said it would take up the issue at its meeting the third week of September and hopes to vote on a newspaper policy in early October.