Defending Mrs. Halas
|When school officials replaced Valerie Halas as the adviser to a hard-hitting high school newspaper, her students went to court to get her back.|
"It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." So wrote Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas in Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent Community School District, a landmark decision from 1969 that guaranteed public school students a right to symbolic, nondisruptive political expression.
Mary Beth Tinker was an 8th grade student in 1965. She and four other students decided to wear black armbands to protest the war in Vietnam. The school district, however, enacted a policy forbidding students to wear armbands for that purpose. The students did so anyway and were promptly suspended. Tinker challenged the district's policy, arguing that it violated the free speech clause of the First Amendment, and, in a 7-2 decision, the high court agreed. "School officials," Fortas wrote, "do not possess absolute authority over their students."
In 1988, however, the Supreme Court changed course, ruling that school administrators could legally censor certain articles that appear in school-sponsored newspapers. Stu-dents at Hazelwood East High School, near St. Louis, had prepared a package of stories focusing on teen pregnancy, divorce, and the plight of runaways. But the school's principal objected to the articles and blocked their publication. Three of the students sued, saying their First Amendment rights had been infringed. The case--Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier--eventually made its way to the Supreme Court, where, in a 5-3 vote, the censorship was upheld. "We hold," Justice Byron White wrote, "that educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns." Despite the vagueness of its language--what exactly are "legitimate pedagogical concerns"?--Hazelwood became the law of the land.
Thirty years after Tinker and 10 years after Hazelwood, four high school students in Blue Springs, Missouri, a suburb of Kansas City, have filed a federal classaction lawsuit claiming their First Amendment rights--and those of all students at Blue Springs South High School--were infringed by the actions of school administrators. But Jon David et al. vs. Board of Education of Blue Springs is quite different from those earlier cases. While Tinker and Hazelwood involved specific acts of censorship, the student plaintiffs in this case are making much broader allegations. David, the 16-year-old editor of the Jaguar Journal, the Blue Springs South student newspaper, and three of his fellow students--Rick Raven, Kandace Callwell, and Matt Sevart--claim that their rights were violated when administrators removed the paper's longtime faculty adviser, Valerie Halas, and replaced her with another teacher who, the students allege, exercises considerably more control over what can be published. Under Halas, Journal staff members made all of the decisions about what went into the paper. Halas, a veteran teacher and former attorney, encouraged them to write about events and topics beyond the walls of the school, and they often pursued controversial stories--stories that the principal didn't like. Removing Halas from her job, the students argue, was a form of censorship, a way for administrators to control the content of the paper and make it a public relations vehicle for the school.
Says Raven of Halas, "As long as the stories were well-written, she'd let you print them. But that's not true anymore. Now, if it's a story that makes the school look bad, it's not going to get published."
The students' claims are unusual, says Mike Hiestand, a staff attorney with the Student Press Law Center, an advocacy group based in Arlington, Virginia. "Typically, students file suits when a spe-cific article is censored. But the courts have made it clear that school officials are not allowed to do indirectly what they can't do directly. Unfortunately, the courts have also made it clear that they don't like to second-guess administrators."
In the suit, the students are asking for at least $10,000 in actual damages, unspecified punitive damages, and attorneys' fees. Initially, they sought to have Halas reinstated, but at a preliminary hearing in December, the judge presiding over the case refused to do that. If Halas wants her job back, he said, she'll have to wage her own battle. The school district, which denies the allegations, has won a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, but the students are planning to appeal the ruling.
Whatever the outcome of the Blue Springs case, it reflects the fundamental tensions of teaching student journalism in the post-Hazelwood era. Since the court's ruling in that case, journalism advisers have increasingly found themselves caught between the demands of school officials, who generally don't want to see controversial or "negative" stories published in the school newspaper, and students, who are often more than willing to fight for their First Amendment rights. Many administrators assume that Hazelwood gives them carte blanche to control the content of school newspapers, and advisers who encourage students to practice tough but fair journalism risk losing their jobs. "As a result of the Hazelwood decision," Hiestand says, "the amount of protection you get as an adviser depends completely on whom you work for. I have a lot of admiration for these folks. They really put their jobs on the line."
Halas, who continues to teach English at Blue Springs South, says, "I think that I would still have my job as newspaper adviser if I had said, 'We're going to print nothing but happy talk.' But I know I couldn't live with myself."
Sitting at a conference table in the office of their lawyer, Jon David and Rick Raven seem like students any teacher would want in his or her class. They're bright, articulate, and well-informed. Both say they get mostly A's and B's on their report cards. David is the more soft-spoken of the two. When he speaks, however, his words are laced with sarcasm, giving him the air of someone much older. Short and thin, with close-set eyes and straight brown hair, he's dressed casually in baggy dark-brown pants and a beige long-sleeve shirt. Raven, 18, is more talkative, but he seems less cynical about the whole affair. He's wearing blue jeans and a blue-plaid flannel shirt. Both have large bright-blue class rings on their right hands.
Halas, they say, was a great teacher and a great adviser. "She taught us about real journalism," David says. "We made all content decisions in the paper. She said, 'It's your paper. You do what you want. I just advise you, make suggestions.' She prepared us for the real world."
Halas, 44, has been teaching for 17 years. An intense but engaging woman with curly brown hair and piercing hazel eyes, she has a law degree and practiced law for several years before returning to the classroom. She began teaching English and journalism at Blue Springs South in 1990, and she is certified to teach journalism in Missouri. As newspaper adviser, Halas taught two classes: beginning and advanced newswriting. Students in the advanced course produced the Jaguar Journal, although Halas allowed some students not enrolled in the class to work on the paper.
|"I think when you do not provide legitimate sources for students' voices," says Valerie Halas, "they find illegitimate sources."|
The teacher encouraged Journal staff members to write not only about school news but also about larger societal issues. She insisted, however, that such stories be "localized"--that is, focused on how the issues affected the local community. And it was one of those stories, David and Raven say, that first brought the ire of school administrators.
In the spring of 1996, Journal staff members attended an American Cancer Society press conference in Kansas City on the dangers of smoking. Among other things, they learned how easy it was for minors in Missouri to buy cigarettes, even though such sales were illegal. When the students returned to school, they decided they would see just how easy it was.
Jeremy Gates, then editor of the paper, told Halas they wanted to do an undercover investigation in which students would attempt to buy cigarettes from local businesses. The resulting story would be part of a special edition of the Journal devoted to the topic of smoking.
"I said, 'Let's not, OK?' " recalls Halas, who was worried that the school's principal, Dennis Littrell, might not support such a story. "They said, 'Oh, Mrs. Halas, it's a really great idea.' Well, I knew it was a really great idea. So I told them to go ahead and do it." But first, she says she informed one of the school's assistant principals--who now says that never happened. Halas also contacted the local police to make sure it wouldn't be against the law for her students to purchase cigarettes. It wasn't, she was told; it was only illegal for businesses to sell them to minors.
"We got our parents to sign permission slips," says Raven, a 15-year-old freshman at the time, "and then we went out to buy cigarettes." Raven was accompanied by Gates and 16-year-old Missy David, Jon's older sister. (Both Gates and Missy David have since graduated from Blue Springs South.) "Of the eight stores we went to," he says, "two of them, Hy-Vee and Price Chopper, sold cigarettes to us."
When Littrell found out about the story, he refused to let it run. Now the district's director of secondary education, Littrell would not comment for this article. But at the preliminary hearing in December, he said he killed the story because he did not know about it beforehand and because he was concerned about students at Blue Springs South "participating in an illegal activity as part of a class project."
Halas appealed Littrell's decision to deputy superintendent Paul Kinder. "He said the story could run," she recalls, "but only if we took out the names of the businesses that sold the cigarettes." Kinder, according to Gates, "left us with the impression that he didn't want to hurt the school's relationship" with the two businesses because they had donated money to the school.
But Gates and the other Journal staff members wanted to use the names. And they decided that if they couldn't do that, they would, Gates says, "make a statement" by printing the headline "Two Area Businesses Sell Cigarettes to Minors" above a large blank space in the paper.
Halas told the students it was their call. "She made it clear that she would stand by us no matter what," Raven says, "but she wouldn't influence our decision in any way."
Meanwhile, the students contacted Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. "We didn't think the school could get away with censoring the article," Goodman says. "We strongly encouraged them to go public with the incident, to go to the local media."
Halas recalls, "The students were livid, absolutely livid. Well, I was too. I was so angry I couldn't see straight." But she had reservations about the students taking their story to the press. "I told them, 'You may win the battle but lose the war.' And that turned out to be a prophetic statement. I said, 'This stuff may get published, but then they'll remove me and put somebody else in. So let's just think about this.' I was pushing for running it without the businesses' names, which was kind of chickening out. But when I look at the situation now, maybe that's what we should have done."
The students, however, had already made up their minds. They sent out copies of the newspaper, along with press releases saying they had been censored, to local news outlets. Reporters soon descended upon the school, which suddenly found itself at the center of a most-unwelcome controversy. "School Paper Locked in Censorship Battle," read the April 9 headline in the Kansas City Star. The local Blue Springs Examiner went so far as to name the two businesses that had sold cigarettes to the students. With that, the school district relented and allowed the Journal to publish the story in full. The stated reason? "The information"--that is, the names of the two businesses--"is already out there," district spokeswoman Yvonne Evans told the Star.
To the Journal staff members, it was a clear-cut victory. "Instead of allowing the school district to censor the article without question, we stood behind our story until it was finally published," wrote Jeremy Gates in the Bolt Reporter, an online newspaper for teenagers that publishes stories censored by high school administrators. Gates and Missy David, who co-wrote the cigarette story, each received a $500 scholarship from the American Cancer Society. Gates won an additional $1,000 from the organization for an editorial he wrote about the affair. And the Student Press Law Center honored the Journal with its annual Scholastic Press Freedom Award.
But Halas suddenly found herself being scrutinized by the administration like never before. And it became increasingly clear that Littrell, the principal, was dissatisfied with what he was reading in the Jaguar Journal.
A bout two weeks after the cigarette article appeared, Halas was informed that she would be evaluated in her role as newspaper adviser. "I thought everyone else was going to be evaluated, too," she says, "but it turned out that I was the only one. None of the other teachers were evaluated in their extracurricular capacities." Over a period of one month, she was evaluated three times by the school's activities director.
Halas received top marks in all but two categories. In the bureaucratic language typical of such reports, her evaluation in those areas said that she "usually maintains a successful public relations program" and that she "usually maintains appropriate program supervision." (If she had received top marks in these categories, the evaluation in both cases would have dropped the qualifier "usually.") In the report's comment section, the activities director wrote: "[Halas] does not always keep the administration informed of developments within the program. . . . Parent permission slips need to be used for all activity trips where transportation is not provided."
Halas, however, had met the district's "performance expectations" in seven other categories, and her contract was renewed. About the same time, she also received tenure.
For the next two years, Halas continued to teach journalism the way she always had, giving her students discretion in determining the content of the Journal. "I tried to impart principles of sound journalism," she says. "I believe it is the students' newspaper. I believe we gain nothing by attempting to control what the students cover. I think when you do not provide a legitimate source for students' voices, they find illegitimate sources. But some people were unhappy with some of the articles in the paper."
Last spring, when a teacher at the school resigned, the Journal staff members decided to write a story. Littrell caught wind of it and asked Halas to come to his office. "He wanted to know why we were doing a story on a teacher leaving," Halas recalls. "And I said, 'Well, it's news, and this is a newswriting class, and this is a newspaper.' And he said, 'What do you mean it's news?' And I said, 'Well, you don't usually have teachers leave in the middle of the school year.' And he said, 'Oh, it happens all the time.'
"Well, it doesn't happen all the time. He said, 'If you have to do a story on it, why do you have to mention that the teacher's leaving? Why can't you just write about the new teachers coming in?' But that was what was interesting--this teacher was being replaced by two new teachers. He said, 'I just don't want to open up the newspaper and see 'Teacher Resigns' on the front page.' "
The story ran. "It was innocuous," Halas says. "But looking back, I think that was the death knell for me."
About the same time, the Jaguar students wondered why the German club wasn't being allowed to visit a local middle school during school hours to perform skits and recruit club members for the following year. "I thought they were making a mountain out of a molehill," Halas says, "but I told them, 'Well, just go ask. I'm sure there's a perfectly logical reason.' " So the students made some phone calls. When Littrell found out about the story, he fired off a memo to Halas asking the teacher why the Journal students seemed "continually on the search for subject matter that they can build into a controversy?"
"It would appear to me," he wrote, "that 'dirt' is the criteria for a Jaguar Journal article. Whatever happened to the idea that a high school paper should highlight all the positives that the students are involved in?" Then he proceeded to list a number of stories that he thought the newspaper should be covering, stories mostly about Blue Springs South students that had been honored for one reason or another. He told Halas that he wanted to see a "more positive slant to our student paper. . . . We do not need to be the Enquirer." He encouraged the teacher to "take some time and seriously consider a change in the current philosophy of the paper."
At the preliminary court hearing, Littrell said, "My concerns were not necessarily [about] the articles that were written, but my concern was the articles that were not being written." He cited an instance when the paper ran only a back-page photo of a student receiving a certificate to note the fact that more than 30 seniors were about to graduate with 4.0 grade-point averages.
Littrell went on to explain that he had conveyed to Halas his concerns about the paper, but that she had reiterated her belief that the Journal is the students' paper and that "they had the right to determine what was in that paper and what was not." To the principal, that was like "a history class where the students decide not to study the Depression because it's not interesting and they want to just study World War II." Nonetheless, he and Halas "agreed to disagree" on the matter.
Then, last spring, Halas was told that she would be evaluated as newspaper adviser again. This time, the evaluator would be Littrell himself. The principal gave Halas top marks in eight of the nine categories. However, he concluded that she "usually maintains a successful public relations program"--instead of simply "maintains"--and added, "Parents, staff, and administration are kept informed of developments within the activity [but] there is no link between paper and administration to maintain a successful public relations program." He noted that he "would like to see more appropriate guidelines for supervision and decisionmaking." He also implied that, under Halas, the journalism program had an "insufficient number" of students but that the teacher does a "good job with small numbers."
"I thought it was his parting shot at me before he left," Halas says of Littrell, who was about to take a central-office position with the district. "I thought it was an unfair evaluation, and I told him so."
On June 25, Halas met with Littrell and Carole Gran, the district's assistant superintendent for human resources. Littrell told Halas that he was recommending that the teacher's "extra duty" contract as newspaper adviser not be renewed. According to Halas, Littrell said his decision was based not only on his evaluation but also on his dissatisfaction with the content of the Journal. "He said, 'Why does there have to be anything negative in the newspaper?' "
Indeed, at the preliminary hearing, when Scott Turner, the students' lawyer, asked Littrell if Halas was removed from her position because of the "tone and content of the newspaper," the principal replied, "That would be correct, yes."
Halas left the June 25 meeting feeling "empty and shocked."
"I couldn't believe this was happening," she says. "I knew I was the most qualified person in our building to teach journalism." She drove straight to the office of her husband, a lawyer in Independence, and told him what had happened. Then she went to the library, where she checked out a book called My Mother Lost Her Job Today. The Halases have two children, a 5-year-old son and a 1-year-old daughter, and she hoped the book would make it easier to explain to the boy what had happened.
At first, Halas kept the news to herself and her family. She sent a letter to Littrell and Gran asking for a second chance. "I outlined everything I had done since that first below-expectation performance evaluation," she says. "But I got a very terse response back from Carole Gran saying that the decision had been made."
Eventually, Halas' students found out they had lost their adviser, and they were furious. David and about 15 others planned to hold a protest rally at the next school board meeting, on August 17. Armed with homemade signs that said "Reinstate Mrs. Halas" and "Don't Shoot the Messenger," the students marched in front of the Blue Springs administrative offices, shouting, "Bring back Mrs. Halas, bring back Mrs. Halas." When the meeting started, they took their case inside. Former Journal editor Monica Moreland and two parents spoke on behalf of the teacher. One of the parents, Raymond Moore, said, "This smells of vengeance. It smells of retribution." But board President Dale Walkup called the matter a "dead issue."
"Her replacement has been hired," he said.
Meanwhile, the students had been contacted by Scott Turner, a 32-year-old lawyer based in Independence. Turner had never worked on a First Amendment case--he and his partner, Patrick Campbell, specialize in personal injury and criminal litigation--but as a third-year law student at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, Turner had written his thesis on the Hazelwood case. Now, as he read news accounts of the dismissal of Valerie Halas, he concluded that the students at Blue Springs South were the victims of indirect censorship.
"I thought they were being treated unfairly," he says. "This wasn't a pure personnel issue on behalf of the school district. It was an attempt to suppress what the students had to say. And I just thought that was wrong. Knowing that the students probably didn't have many legal avenues to pursue, I offered to help them out." He adds: "It was obvious to me that the motive behind removing Mrs. Halas wasn't because she was a poor teacher. It was because they didn't like what was being printed in the newspaper which she was in charge of."
A few weeks after the rally, David and some of the other Jaguar Journal staff members met with Turner at his office. "I told them that I thought they had good grounds for a lawsuit," he says. "I went over what I thought some of the pros and cons might be and that it was their decision to make." If any of the students decided to sue, Turner said, he would handle the case at no cost to them.
About a month later, he got a call from David. The Jaguar Journal editor, Rick Raven, Kandace Callwell, and Matt Sevart--with the blessing of their parents--had decided to take Turner up on his offer.
F iled this past November in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, the nine-page lawsuit accused the school district of "suppressing and prohibiting the speech of plaintiffs by removing faculty adviser Valerie Halas," and it asked for a temporary injunction reinstating the teacher to her adviser post.
But at the preliminary hearing in December, Judge Dean Whipple denied the request. "The students have no right to any particular teacher," Whipple ruled. If Halas wants to bring suit against the district, he told Turner, she's free to do so. But "these students don't have any standing to bring that request."
Turner also asked for a court order designating the Journal as a "public forum for student expression." It is a crucial distinction, because, according to Hazelwood, student newspapers that are so-deemed--even those that are part of a school's curriculum--are entitled to stronger First Amendment protection. Turner called to the stand David, Raven, Littrell, and Kimberly Mauck, Halas' replacement as journalism adviser, in an effort to prove that the Journal was no longer being run as a public forum, as he believed it had been under Mrs. Halas.
Under questioning, Littrell admitted that since April 1996 the Journal's masthead had stated, "The Jaguar Journal is a public forum for student expression. Student editors make all content decisions." (The students had added the language after the cigarette imbroglio.) But Littrell said he never noticed the change until more than a year later; and, besides, the paper was not a public forum because he had final authority over it. In an affidavit, Littrell had said that one of his duties as principal was "to review, when necessary, final drafts of the Jaguar Journal prior to publication." On the stand, however, Littrell admitted, "I chose not to do that."
Raven told the court that, when Halas was ad-viser, Journal staff members were "the eyes and ears of the school," and they would vote as a staff to decide what stories ran in the paper. "Now," he said, "we bring it and we vote and then we're not sure if it's going to be published or not sometimes."
Turner asked, "Has Ms. Mauck ever refused to let you run a story that you have offered an idea for?"
Yes, Raven replied. Last fall, the school board approved a policy that would limit open discussion of personnel issues at board meetings. The policy change seemed to be a direct result of the August 17 meeting, at which parents and students protested Halas' removal. Raven and other Journal staff members thought the new policy would make, in Raven's words, "a really good news story."
"We voted. . . . and I don't remember if it was unanimous or not," Raven said, "but [Ms. Mauck] told me basically that we couldn't run it."
Mauck, however, testified that the students had voted not to run the story.
David cited another example. At the beginning of the school year, he had wanted to write a news story about what had happened to Halas. "I wanted to do an article," he testified, "but I knew that Ms. Mauck's job was on the line because she is not tenured, and so I didn't want to [get her in trouble]. So I decided to make it an editorial. . . ." The staff, he said, voted unanimously that the editorial should be published.
"After we took the vote," he said, "I showed it to Ms. Mauck, and I let her read it, and she told me that she would not let it go in. She said it wasn't timely. It had happened over the summer, so it didn't matter. But that was our first issue, and everything in it was about things that had happened in the summer."
A few days later, however, according to David, Mauck "had a change of heart and she said it could be a tribute to Mrs. Halas if I took out everything about the administration."
David rewrote the piece, but Mauck told him that it could only run as a commentary with David's byline and not as an unsigned editorial. At the end of his piece, David had written, "[Mrs. Halas] should be acknowledged for her efforts. Yet she has been reprimanded for doing so." According to David, Mauck cut the last line, so before the newspaper went to press, he put it back in. The teacher, he said, then called the printer and had the line taken out again. "She told me that it wasn't the tone that we were striving for, and she just said she couldn't trust me anymore, and if I did [something like that] again, I'd be pulled as editor."
Mauck defended her action. "We discussed [the piece] for some length," she told the court, "and. . . I said, well, why don't you maybe commend [Mrs. Halas] on her accomplishments because there were so many, and so he agreed, and we changed the last line." When she saw that David had put the line back in, "I changed it to what I had approved." (In her affidavit, Mauck wrote, "Since I became faculty adviser, there has never been a student-written article which has been refused publication by myself or any other administrator.")
To Turner, this was an obvious example of censorship. But Shirley Keeler, a lawyer for the district, argued, "This is a school-sponsored paper, and under Supreme Court decision and under the law as it stands today, there is final authority in the teacher of that class and principal of that building to exercise reasonable educational control. . . . Changing the masthead did not make this a public forum run by the students."
Judge Whipple agreed with Keeler. He ruled that the Journal was, in fact, not a public forum because it was part of the school's curriculum. Therefore, the district was within its rights to exercise editorial control over the paper. "I've seen no evidence . . . that any actions the school has taken haven't been for legitimate educational concerns," he said.
After the ruling, the district promptly filed a motion to get the case thrown out of court. About a month later, Judge Whipple did just that. On February 3, he ruled that the actions by school administrators met the Hazelwood test, saying they "clearly are related to 'legitimate pedagogical concerns.' " The students, he added, failed to demonstrate "any offensive policy or practice" by the district and "did not produce any evidence that [the administrators] acted unreasonably in the exercise of their educational obligations."
Blue Springs officials hailed the ruling. "We didn't think this thing had any merit to start with," says Julius Oswald, a district lawyer, "and the judge apparently agreed."
A disappointed Rick Raven said he and the other three student-plaintiffs will appeal the decision. "I don't think the judge heard enough evidence to make a ruling," he says. "The district said [the suit] was frivolous, but it wasn't. If we don't appeal, we're just caving in. And we don't want to do that."
Halas, meanwhile, won't comment on whether she intends to file her own lawsuit. "I'm weighing a variety of options," she says. Should she decide to sue the district, the teacher faces a tough battle, according to Mike Hiestand of the Student Press Law Center. "The courts," he says, "tend to give all the breaks to the employers, not the advisers."
Though Halas deliberately kept her distance from her students' lawsuit, she's proud of them. "You've got to admire kids who'll stick their necks out like that and say, 'We just don't think this is right.' "
I ronically, if Valerie Halas taught journalism just a few miles away, on the other side of the Missouri River, she would probably still be advising young reporters. That's because Kansas is one of six states to have a law protecting the free expression of students. And the law, known as the Kansas Student Publications Act, not only protects students, but also their advisers. Such employees, the law states, "are responsible for teaching and encouraging free and responsible expression of material and high standards of English and journalism. No such adviser or employee shall be terminated from employment, transferred, or relieved of duties. . . for refusal to abridge or infringe upon the right to freedom of expression conferred by this act."
Five other states--Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, and Massachusetts--have similar laws. For the last six years, Bill Hankins, chairman of the Freedom of Expression Committee of the Missouri Interscholastic Press Association, has tried to get a similar law passed in Missouri. He'll try again this year. Meanwhile, Hankins, the longtime newspaper adviser at Oak Park High School, in Kansas City, is speaking out on behalf of his friend and colleague, Valerie Halas. "In my opinion," Hankins wrote in an op-ed in the Star last fall, "the Blue Springs administration is trying to censor the students through the firing of the adviser."
Like Halas, Hankins has always encouraged his students to practice "real" journalism. He calls the Journal's cigarette story "good, solid journalism," not unlike an investigation his students did about 20 years ago. Staff members of the Northmen's Log wanted to see how easy it was for minors to purchase alcohol, so they decided to go to liquor stores and find out. Hankins, aware of the potential legal problems, insisted that the students be accompanied by parents. The adults lingered in the background but stepped in when some of the stores sold the teens liquor. "I tell my students that there's no story they can't do as long as they do it well," he says, adding that he is fortunate to have the support of his principal. "Ultimately, you have to have a principal who's willing to stand by your side."
Gary Marx, spokesman for the American Association of School Administrators, believes that most school districts keep their hands off student-run publications. "When Hazelwood came down," he says, "we said--and we still say today--that while some school administrators may welcome the latitude to intervene in the operations of student newspapers, they should do so sparingly." And, he adds, "one of the best things schools can do to avoid problems is to employ good journalism advisers."
S ince the beginning of this school year, Jon David and his fellow staff members have published five editions of the Jaguar Journal. The December 22 issue featured a cover story about Blue Springs South students helping out needy families. Also on the front page was a story about a teacher who had recently adopted a 2-year-old Romanian boy. Inside, there were movie reviews, a review of R.E.M's latest album, a humorous commentary about substitute teachers, a story about how people from different cultures celebrate winter holidays, and a profile of varsity basketball coach Gil Hanlin. About the only hard-hitting story was a piece by Joey Dennis and Matt Sevart on the health dangers faced by wrestlers who go on crash diets to stay in their weight divisions.
Dennis Littrell, although no longer principal of Blue Springs South, is impressed by the new Journal, which now comes out once a month instead of every two weeks, as it did before. Last September, after the first issue appeared, he wrote Kimberly Mauck a memo. "You have captured what I always believed a high school paper should be," he wrote, "a paper about student accomplishments, student opinions, and student activities." The current principal, Keith Maxey, says he's satisfied with the newspaper.
But David and Raven say morale is low, especially among staff members trained by Halas. Kandace Callwell recently quit. David says, "I don't enjoy working on the newspaper at all anymore. I almost quit this week. We all did. But we decided to stick with it. The quality of the paper is awful, though."
"All the stories I've helped write or have written this year," Raven says, "I could have written in 15 minutes by walking around the halls for 10 minutes and writing for five. In the past, I'd have to do in-depth research, whether it was getting background information, statistics, or calling people all over to get their opinions. But that's not happening now."
Raven, who is also co-editor of the yearbook, hasn't lost his enthusiasm for journalism. He hopes to major in the subject in college, either at the University of Missouri or the University of Maryland. He's currently writing for the Blue Springs Examiner's teen page. "I love it," he says. Sevart, now the Journal's sports editor, also plans to go into journalism, and he says it's because of his former adviser. "Mrs. Halas was the best teacher I ever had."
David, on the other hand, doesn't think journalism is in his future. "Maybe if I had had Mrs. Halas for a couple of more years," he says. "But I don't think I want to. Now I'm thinking about law."
Halas says the Journal is "markedly different" this year. "It's very geared toward what's going on inside the four walls of the school," she says. If she were still adviser, she says, she would have urged her students to write about the impeachment and Senate trial of President Clinton. "I don't believe there's been anything about that this year," she says.
Although Halas continues to teach at Blue Springs South, school just isn't the same, she says. "It's sad for me sometimes." She misses the late nights working on deadline and the camaraderie of the journalism students. "My son said early this fall, 'When are we going to see Jon again?' He and the other staff members used to come to my house all the time. And that's just painful to think about."
"Last summer," she says, "before school started, my grandma said, 'You just go in there and hold your head up high. You didn't do anything wrong.' And I don't think I did anything wrong. I really don't." The administration, she believes, "didn't like the newspaper, so they said, 'Well, we'll just remove the adviser.' And I think that's censorship. I truly do."
Vol. 10, Issue 6, Pages 29-33Published in Print: March 1, 1999, as Defending Mrs. Halas