Published Online: June 7, 2005
Published in Print: June 8, 2005, as School Yearbooks Plagued by Errors, Pranks

School Yearbooks Plagued by Errors, Pranks

Rash of Incidents Leads to Tightened Oversight of Student Publications

Not many high school yearbook pranks get the attention of the U.S. Secret Service.

But when someone on the yearbook staff at Mesa Ridge High School in Colorado Springs, Colo., put “Most Likely to Assassinate President Bush” under the photo of a classmate, the federal law-enforcement agency visited the campus to investigate.

Newspaper accounts say the investigation was quickly closed, though the Secret Service has no official comment, said Tom Mazur, an agency spokesman.

But the 8,500-student Widefield school district, which includes Mesa Ridge High, has instituted its own procedures to make sure nothing like the assassination reference happens again in a yearbook.

“We’re going to have three sets of adult eyes” reading each page, said James Drew, a spokesman for the district. All but about 30 of 600 yearbooks were recalled last month, and the offending phrase was blacked out with ink, he said.

Previously, “we basically had a yearbook editor who was responsible for putting together all the pages,” he said. “It’s hard to put all of this on one person.”

The Colorado incident is one of a spate of pranks or off-color photos that have appeared in yearbooks this spring, a problem that has left administrators and yearbook advisers trying to tighten their oversight to prevent such mistakes.

At Boynton Beach High School in the 165,000-student Palm Beach County, Fla., district, the 2005 yearbook has a photo of a black teenager posing with a leash around his neck with his then-girlfriend, who is white. The caption was “Most Whipped,” a colloquial reference to suggest the girlfriend had the young man under her control.

In newspaper accounts, the black student, Robert Richards, 19, said he didn’t see anything wrong with the photo. But his mother, Jacqueline Nobles, asked the district days after some of the yearbooks had been distributed to recall them. The district did so and covered the photo with a sticker.

On the Gulf Coast of Florida, at Bonita Springs Middle School in the 69,000-student Lee County district, administrators distributed the yearbook in late May, then ended up having to cut out pages that depicted two students flashing gang signs and a joke about a student’s weight.

And at Waxahachie High School in the 6,000-student Texas district of that name, the photo of the National Honor Society identified the chapter’s only black member as “black girl,” while the names of all the white members were printed. The district reprinted the pages and offered an apology to the student.

Candace Ahlfinger, a spokeswoman for the Waxahachie district, said the “black girl” moniker appears to have been an innocent mistake, but that the district is still investigating. In an apology, signed by the superintendent, the school board president, and the high school’s principal, the identification was called “a poor choice to use as a placeholder for a student’s name that was not known at the time, but it was not done maliciously nor was it meant to be printed.”

Guarding Against Pranks

The districts involved in the incidents have promised to put extra layers of proofreading in place.

Ms. Ahlfinger said the Waxahachie district is taking an extra step and plans to have security officers scan yearbook pictures for gang signs or symbols.

“These things change as fast as you learn them,” she said.

Such oversight would subject yearbooks to scrutiny by people who may have no knowledge of good journalism and an agenda to make the school look good, said Mark Goodman, the executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based Student Press Law Center. It’s more important to teach students the tenets of journalism and acknowledge there will be occasional mistakes, he said.

“There’s no reason the yearbook staff can’t do this job if they’re given the tools to do so,” Mr. Goodman said.

Linda S. Puntney, the executive director of the Journalism Education Association, a Manhattan, Kan., group for publication advisers and journalism teachers, said pranks have been an ongoing issue for yearbooks. She said that schools need to make an effort to have properly trained yearbook advisers in place, instead of a teacher who is just taking on the yearbook in addition to many other duties.

“It’s the responsibility of the administration to make sure they have a person who is trained or to get training for them,” Ms. Puntney said.

Rich Stoebe, a spokesman for yearbook publisher Jostens Inc., based in Bloomington, Minn., said that as the publisher, the company doesn’t edit content. It does, however, provides free summer workshops where students can learn about “creating a book and what goes into a good yearbook.”

In addition, the company introduced a proofing system last year that allows teachers and students to access yearbook pages online. That allows for easy editing, Mr. Stoebe said.

“We have a pretty well-documented process, with multiple proofing stages,” he said.

Students are some of the best guards against pranks, said Casey Nichols, who was named by the JEA as the 2005 national yearbook adviser of the year. He teaches at Rocklin High School in the 9,500-student Rocklin district outside Sacramento, Calif.

Mr. Nichols said his student staff members “literally take an oath at the beginning of the year,” pledging to take their jobs seriously and root out potentially hurtful jokes and pranks.

“We really talk about this,” he said. “We never, ever want to print something that could hurt someone else.”

Mr. Nichols said he thinks that students may not see the permanence of their actions in yearbooks because they are so used to “disposable communications,” like e-mail. “So much of their communication is immediate,” he said. “They don’t see the long-term implications.”

Even seemingly harmless jokes can get out of control. A member of the Rocklin High yearbook staff this year made a veiled reference to a teacher in the space reserved for staff comments. The comment was mentioned on a student’s personal Web site and eventually grew to be something hurtful, Mr. Nichols said.

The students involved won’t work on the yearbook again, he said. They “learned a pretty harsh lesson.”

Vol. 24, Issue 39, Pages 3,14

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