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MUHS journalism program, student newspaper may be on the way out

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By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — The fate of Middlebury Union High School’s student newspaper hangs in the balance as organizers wait to see if journalism class will be offered at MUHS next year.

And even if journalism class does makes the cut for the 2008-2009 course lineup at MUHS, leaders of The Tigers’ Print said they are apprehensive about putting out a newspaper they said is now carefully screened — posing the prospect of censorship — by school administrators before it is published.

“I think it’s kind of up in the air,” MUHS English teacher and journalism instructor Timothy O’Leary said of The Tigers’ Print and the school’s journalism program.

The Tigers’ Print was reinvigorated two years ago, after a hiatus of a few years, by three local parents who restarted the paper as a high school club activity. They formed an alliance with the Addison Independent, which published the paper pro bono for that first year within its regular Thursday publication roughly once a month.

The effort was successful enough that the high school administration incorporated The Tigers’ Print into a journalism class within the English department worthy of a full credit. The paper is written and assembled by about a dozen students in the class — mostly seniors — who usually spend one Sunday a month pulling it all together before the week of publication. It has continued to be published in the Independent this past school year on a monthly basis.

At issue is that the class has not made the initial cut of 2008-2009 course offerings based on pre-enrollment registration. Eight students registered for the course, when ideally a minimum of 10 are needed to make a course viable for the ensuring academic year, according to MUHS Principal Bill Lawson. He said administrators must weigh all course requests with the goal of “maximizing the most number of kids getting the most (courses) that they want.”

At least one student recently began developing a list of potential participants in a journalism class next year and has come up with around 15 names, according to O’Leary, who also noted that only three students had pre-registered for the class as of this same time last year.

Lawson said it is not too late to save the journalism class.

“I hope I will be able to fit it in and make it run,” said Lawson, who believes The Tigers’ Print could continue to survive even in the absence of a journalism class.

But students and adult advisors now creating the newspaper aren’t sure if they want to keep it going in view of what they said is a rigorous “content screening process” to which The Tigers’ Print is being submitted by MUHS administrators before it is published.

While Lawson said he has always been able to look at The Tigers’ Print content before publication, he acknowledged holding it to a higher level of scrutiny in the wake of a recent article in which a student was quoted, by name, confessing to coming to class after having smoked marijuana. The student was retroactively suspended for that admission.

Organizers of the paper said they believed using the student’s name gave more credibility to the basis of the article — drug use at school — but Lawson said the newspaper shouldn’t have “outed” the teen.

“The student exposed himself unnecessarily to public scrutiny,” Lawson said. “It was very unfortunate. There could have been very serious, outside-of-school ramifications.”

Lawson added he now regrets not having raised his objections when he saw the student’s name in the article prior to publication.

“I had seen it and knew it shouldn’t have gone out,” Lawson said. “I had hoped the advisor would’ve made the student aware. If that’s not going to happen, I have a duty to protect (the students).”

As a consequence, Lawson said he now pre-screens The Tigers’ Print for content, while MUHS Associate Principal Cathy Dieman reviews it for grammar and spelling.

The screening process, however, has come under fire by The Tigers’ Print student writers and advisors, who believe the publication could now be muted in a way that will prevent students from painting what they believe is an accurate picture of what is happening at MUHS.

“I don’t want to be a puppeteer,” O’Leary said. “I don’t want to lose that authentic voice to the newspaper.”

O’Leary said he conceded the article on drug use that precipitated The Tigers’ Print controversy “caused a stir.” But he said that stir has spurred a lot of great discussion about drug abuse, free speech and journalism.

O’Leary hopes The Tigers’ Print can continue without the prospect of administrative censorship.

“This has been a great vehicle to have a student voice for the teachers, students, administration and community to hear,” O’Leary said. “I hope we have shown them a little window into what the kids think about what goes on here.”

The Tigers’ Print, he said, has inspired many students to pursue writing and photojournalism. He noted Tigers’ Print photographer Nick Atherton has been printed in the Addison Independent and has sold photos to The Burlington Free Press and 17 Magazine.

Another Tigers’ Print staffer, Liam Kelley-St. Clair, will be attending the New York University journalism program.

“It would be a shame if that real-world experience students can prep for… is missing next year,” O’Leary said.

Atherton said he would also hate to see the student newspaper die. But he said he believes two things will need to happen in order for The Tigers’ Print to remain viable — more students will have to get involved, and it will have to be published without editorial oversight.

“I don’t think it can be continued in a serious way unless the administration stops reviewing it,” Atherton said.

While he said recent evidence has shown the administration has thus far not made content changes to The Tigers Print, he said organizers are concerned about “the specter of what might be censored.”

Lawson said he does not plan to be heavy-handed in his review of the student newspaper.

“I came from the Boston area, which has seen a long history of censorship, and I do not want to be one,” Lawson said.

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