Dade Disputes Spur Review of Student-Publications Policy
The Dade County, Fla., school district has formed a task force to review its policy on student publications, prompting fears of an erosion of the district's unusually strong commitment to student expression free from prior review by school administrators.
The district's 10-year-old student-publications policy is considered to be among the most liberal in the nation in recognizing the rights and responsibilities of students to control school newspapers and other publications.
But recent incidents have prompted Superintendent Octavio Visiedo to appoint the task force of students, administrators, and school-newspaper advisers to review the policy.
Students say some principals are reviewing newpaper content before publication and ordering changes. But the administrators respond that they are only trying to eliminate errors in grammar and spelling and that they must be concerned with how a student publication reflects on the school.
Principals' 'Urge To Change'
The policy review follows disputes between student-newspaper editors and the principal at Norland High School in Miami.
According to Teresha Freckleton, the editor of the paper, Principal Fred Damianos has twice asked students to run opposing viewpoints or rebuttals alongside opinion articles that were critical of school or district policies.
The first article criticized a dress code that banned shorts. The principal asked that an opposing viewpoint be included, she said. When the editors could not find a student willing to write in favor of the dress code, the principal got the student council to put together a defense of the code.
But the paper's editors considered the council's piece weak and too short for the space allotted, Ms. Freckleton said. The critical article had to be dropped.
The second piece criticized the district's decision to schedule student-competency tests on two Saturdays, instead of during the school week as in previous years.
"We decided to criticize how much money it took'' to pay overtime to teachers and bus drivers to hold the tests on the weekend, Ms. Freckleton said. Again, she said, the principal demanded that a countering viewpoint be included. Deadline pressures forced the paper to drop the critical editorial.
"It just seems to be stories that criticize school policies that he is concerned about,'' Ms. Freckleton said. "There is no way a principal can read stories and not have the urge to change things.''
Mr. Damianos did not return phone calls last week.
The students took their complaints to the district administration. Responding to those incidents and a related flap at another school, Superintendent Visiedo appointed the task force in hopes of clarifying the role of principals in student publications.
In Court Ruling's Wake
Since the Dade system enacted its policy a decade ago, the U.S. Supreme Court has issued a landmark ruling in which it sided with school administrators in a dispute over control of a school-sponsored student newspaper, noted Phyllis Douglas, a lawyer for the district.
The High Court held in 1988 in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that a principal's removal of articles dealing with teenage pregnancy and divorce from the high school paper did not infringe on students' First Amendment rights.
"Of course, [the district's policy] doesn't have to be changed'' because of the Hazelwood decision, Ms. Douglas said. "It is really a policy issue for the board.''
Mark Goodman, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, said that while the Hazelwood decision has resulted in more "censorship'' of student newspapers across the country, Dade's publication policy has resulted in "some of the nation's best high school journalism.''
"They deal with issues more professionally, and the quality of the writing is good,'' he said. "I think that is a direct result of the fact that the students are not spending their time fighting battles over what subjects they can cover.''
Many Dade educators agree that the policy has worked well.
Shirley Yaskin, the journalism adviser at Miami Palmetto Senior High School, said her principal, Leonard Glazer, has not tried to suppress or alter articles.
The school's paper, The Panther, has tackled crime on campus, gay teenagers, and graffiti without interference from administrators.
"We have often criticized the administration for certain policies,'' she said. "They don't always like what we write, but they respect our right to do it.''
"I think everybody tries to act responsibly,'' said Mr. Glazer. "I
think the real issue is that it is a student newspaper and it should be
produced by students.''