The First Lesson of 'Monicagate': Let the Student Free Press Roll

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The narrative of the White House sex scandal has an entry point for nearly everyone, and teachers across the country are said to be embracing it somewhat nervously as a "teachable moment" in which, as the San Diego Tribune reported, "an event outside the classroom delivers a lesson with real-life clarity." ("Talking About the Presidential Scandal in the Classroom," Sept. 23, 1998.) History and social studies teachers are "talking about the news of the day as it relates to the Constitution and impeachment," wrote USA Today, while family-life and health teachers see "a chance to discuss responsible sex and the consequences of sex acts."

It's as if the legal, political, and moral issues raked up by the scandal belong to a separate world that crosses the curriculum only as a source of supporting illustrations for a pre-agreed, tradition-hardened lesson plan. This is also an occasion, however, to see how much of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair is played on the school's own stage every day.

Doesn't the school have leaders (some elected, some not), laws (rules and regulations), and citizens (students and teachers)? Aren't there elections for governing bodies: student officers and school board? Doesn't the principal have a mandate? Isn't he subject to censure or dismissal if he fails? Aren't teachers accountable to a curriculum, to laws, to parents, to administrators? Aren't students accountable to teachers, to curriculum, to parents, to laws? Don't the students and advisers who volunteer to organize extracurricular activities have an obligation to the student body to do a good job? Does anyone in school (students, teachers, or administrators) have sexual feelings? Do they ever act on these feelings? Do these actions sometimes have consequences that affect other individuals or even school institutions?

From this perspective, the school is a community not unlike the town and country to which it belongs--a geographically bounded conglomeration of leaders, followers, interest groups, feelings, and laws. The reason the Clinton-Lewinsky story seems so remote is that, unlike the country, the school has never evolved a serious public forum in which to air its own laundry. It is not much of a democracy. The outlines of the school as a functioning community are etched only lightly in people's minds. Extracurricular activities ostensibly run by students are in fact micromanaged by faculty members; student government has no force without the administration's consent; nearly all school business is conducted privately (though sometimes democratically) by the faculty and administration; school board meetings, while open to the public, are hardly the must-go tradition, say, of the homecoming football game; student media are routinely censored. It's a society that built all the right institutions but granted them no serious degree of respect or democratic authority.

How engaged adult citizens are expected to evolve from this paternalistic muck is a great mystery, and with alienation from voting and politics climbing by the minute, the soil had best be stirred up quickly.

At Middle College High School in New York City, we are beginning, as did the nation itself, with the First Amendment. We are sketching out the school community's struggles in the pages of a newspaper that is written by students and supported by school funds but edited by a professional journalist and uncensored by the administration. In this paper, the obligations of public officials, the fairness and enforcement of laws, and the public or private aspects of individual lives and policymaking are aired freely all year long.

When the principal's last name suddenly changed on the school letterhead, a student reporter found out why: Her divorce was final and she was returning to her maiden name. "Whose business is it?" the reporter asked, nervous about being too nosy. "A divorce isn't necessarily anyone's business," I explained, "except that she's the principal, and now she has a new name. People will wonder why. They all see school documents with her name on them." A brief story explained the change. When a freshman was hit by a car in front of the school, reporters debated whether to interview the victim. "Maybe she doesn't want the whole school to hear about her--she might feel embarrassed," one of the reporters said. "Well, why are we interviewing her?" I asked. "Is it to find out the gory details of the injuries?" "No," they said together. "It's to find out how she is," one reporter said. "And to let the school know, in case people want to send cards," said her partner. "Does that seem fair?" I said. They called the hospital.

The lesson of what information is appropriately public or private is being lived day by day in the journalism class and month by month by its audience of readers.

When it came time to lay out the newspaper, the whole staff debated whether to make the accident the lead article on page one. Should the victim's possible hurt feelings, or those of her family, keep the story that the whole school was gossiping about, largely out of ignorance, buried in the paper? Or did the interest of the larger community take precedence? Finally they agreed to a compromise: The accident would be on page one, but across the bottom, not the top. The lesson of what information is appropriately public or private is being lived day by day in the journalism class and month by month among its audience of readers.

Public services are held to account without a second thought. Thus, the paper has investigated why student government elections are not held according to the provisions of the school's constitution; why broken walls are not repaired; why clocks are stuck; why the basketball program was ditched. Sometimes changes follow: a basketball team, freshly spackled walls, ticking timepieces. Sometimes, as with journalism in the outside community, nothing happens. Inaction, too, is a subject for discussion, on and off the staff.

Sexuality, by general staff agreement, is treated as a public matter when it is part of a trend or a problem. Why do so many girls like older men? How do you know when you are really in love? Do students know the facts about herpes? Where do students get their condoms? Reporters encourage sources to go on the record, but sometimes they refuse. Then we have to weigh whether the comments are likely true or invented. The "Secret Crush" page of personal ads has always been off-record, except for the time when the victim of a false, embarrassing submission elected to write an essay calling the community's attention to the potential for abuse. The whole school was left to debate whether the popular crushes section somehow could be screened and stay secret.

There isn't an issue raised by the White House scandal that hasn't been argued from the heart in this community at some time in the five years of the newspaper's existence. A school that debates its own laws and politics, writes and speaks freely of the performance of its public officials, and struggles with its own feelings of sexuality gets to view Clinton-Lewinsky not as a lesson, but as a problem in living. The messy democracy of the country is also the imperfect democracy of the school. All is a great linked chain that hooks right into the chapters of the social studies and health education textbooks.

Engaged in their community's life, Middle College High is gambling, students will attend school more frequently and with a clearer sense of purpose. Taken seriously as citizens, they can take themselves seriously as learners. Years from now, who knows, perhaps a good many will engage in the life of the Republic, having already sipped the vitalizing juices of empowerment, demanding the partnership of a press that plays the appropriate supporting role: never to lose sight of its potential for good and of the serious purpose for which it exists on the planet.

Leslie Seifert is an editor at Newsday, an adjunct professor at the Columbia University graduate school of journalism, and the founder and director of the Journalism-School-Reform Project at Middle College High School in Long Island City, N.Y.

Vol. 18, Issue 12, Pages 29, 44

Published in Print: November 18, 1998, as The First Lesson of 'Monicagate': Let the Student Free Press Roll
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