Some new team members were subjected to beatings so severe that marks and bruises were left on their bodies. For years it had been part of an accepted hazing ritual for freshman football players at Avon High School in Avon, Ind.
That is, until student reporter Marina Hennessy uncovered the practice, wrote about it and shook up the system. Reporting for her school newspaper, The Echo, Hennessy received pressure from the football coach, the athletic director and the administration, but ultimately the story ran in a revised, if still controversial, version. Later the coach resigned, denying that the story had influenced his decision.
For her effort, Hennessy won the 2000 Student Journalism Impact Award from the Journalism Education Association (JEA). On campuses across the country, however, the rewards for intrepid high school reporting are not always sweet.
They sit in a circle, 20 student editors from Idaho, in Boise along with 600 other young journalists on a cold October day for a statewide school newspaper conference. They've gathered to discuss the challenges and responsibilities of being a "voice" for the school community.
"Sometimes when we print stories, we're afraid of the reaction," says an editor from Lewiston.
A Boise editor concurs: "I remember the time, in our homecoming issue, we included opinions from students who didn't like the activities and felt left out, and a lot of people complained, especially the teachers."
"We need to represent the whole student body," says another from Idaho Falls. "Sometimes I get frustrated at the staff because they think they're better than everyone else," complains an editor who describes how she insists her music writers also review CDs that interest a majority of the student body, not just obscure bands the writers themselves may like.
Recently, the Idaho Legislature passed a law mandating a daily school recital of the Pledge of Allegiance, and the editors wondered how they would cover the students who did not participate, as was their right.
"Really, what is the Pledge all about?" asks an irate editor who wanted to write a scathing editorial urging all students to refuse taking the oath.
"I don't see what the big deal is," says another, "and it might teach some respect for the country. We could help on this."
"Maybe we should print the pledge in the paper for those who don't know it," suggests a junior.
"But how do we explain to the readers," challenges a senior from Pocatello, "that some students don't believe in God and don't want to sit down while everyone else is standing up and staring at them?"
A Razor's Edge
When I was a student journalist 20 years ago, my principal censored the best column I ever wrote, an interview with God. He said it would hurt the upcoming bond levy vote for local schools -- which failed anyway. A decade later, the feeling resurfaced when I served as a high school newspaper advisor and my staff battled to freely and responsibly express themselves.
I remember the well-researched and well-written stories about gay students who suffered persecution, about Christian biology teachers who refused to teach evolution, about Hispanic students who lived in migrant labor camps, about biased searches and seizures, about rampant sexism on campus.
I also remember how some of these stories generated attacks on my staff and on my credibility as an educator, and how it felt to become a pariah when I thought my students' journalism ultimately brought people together.
Welcome to the fractious, often bruising world of high school newspapers. They can divide a student body, staff or community faster than any controversial curriculum or state law, or they can be the perfect forum for addressing troubling issues on campus. Sometimes there is a razor's edge between these two functions, and it's not always clear how to get the right words and pictures to the readers to help them reflect and perhaps become progressive agents for change.
Mine was not a unique experience, definitely not the most outrageous, since some administrators have shut down school newspapers over controversial articles and burned entire press runs. About 70 percent of American high schools publish the estimated 25,000 school newspapers that millions of students and adults read, and many student journalists and their advisors share similar stories.
When asked if their principals preview the paper and sometimes pressure writers to alter stories or to drop them altogether, about half the Idaho editors raise their hands. As for publishing stories about teenage sexuality, particularly gay and lesbian issues, it's touchy in urban schools, but for a paper from a remote town near the Bitterroot Mountains, one editor admits, "Forget it. They won't let us run anything like that."
According to the Student Press Law Center, an organization that provides free legal assistance to high school and college journalists concerning censorship matters, a record 518 grade 9-12 public school journalists or their advisors contacted the Center for help in 2000. This was a 41 percent increase from the previous year and marked the sixth straight annual increase.
"Without question there is more censorship today than there was 25 years ago. The issues are pretty much the same, but you can point to Hazelwood," said Center director Mark Goodman, who receives many emotional calls from students and advisors facing imminent censorship.
Hazelwood is short for Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, a landmark 1988 Supreme Court decision -- upholding a Missouri principal's censorship of an article about parental divorce and teenage sexuality -- that constitutionally ended unfettered high school press freedom. Swept aside were the protections guaranteed by the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines decision, which famously declared that students don't "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."
In Hazelwood's majority opinion, the Court held that a school newspaper was not a public forum and established the legality of prior review (i.e., censorship) by school administrators, if editorial control was "reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns." After Hazelwood, incidents of censorship skyrocketed, and many high school journalists and advisors wanting to report compelling issues have had their editorial fate determined by administrators who want to protect the reputation of their school.
Even though it might be a tough road to travel, Mark Goodman encourages students who face administrative interference to "contest the censorship and try to anticipate the reaction from the complainers. The bottom line is if the issues are important to students and they cover them in a meaningful way, they should be published. Ask the adults -- 'Do you want me to print the truth?'"
A Different Beat
Making high school papers better at presenting relevant and controversial issues, which in turn might convince more principals of their potential to help, is a challenge for advisors and staffs. Setting aside the need for bigger budgets that could pay for higher quality printing, color, special editions and technology upgrades, there are often a few problems that need to be fixed in order to improve a paper and have it reach more people.
The first issue is achieving staff diversity, a goal that eludes many school media efforts, including yearbooks and television or radio stations. "We need more papers with students of color in American high schools," says Norma Kneese, an advisor at Snake River High School in Blackfoot, Idaho, and the director of JEA's Multicultural Committee.
Kneese says it should be every newspaper's goal to have a staff that reflects the student body's racial composition. She and other advisors around the country have strategized ways to recruit more minority students and faculty sponsors.
One of her ideas is to solicit cartoons, art, letters to the editor and essays from freelancers among the school's minority groups. In Kneese's case, this effort has provided Hispanic students a chance to see their work in print, which is the first step to enticing them to join the staff full-time.
Kneese also urges papers to avoid the trap of sticking to "easy," mainstream news and feature stories that reflect only the majority culture of the school or community. The school newspaper, in her view, has a responsibility not only to reflect the full spectrum of the student body but also to educate students about the broader diversity beyond where they live.
"I always tell my students that 100 miles from this school is a whole different world," Kneese says.
One effective approach is for young journalists to cover "beats" that are unfamiliar to their own experience. An athlete could investigate disability issues, for example, or a writer who loves hip-hop music might cover a high school rodeo. I once assigned a thoroughly urbanized young man to cover a statewide Future Farmers of America soil-judging contest held on our campus. He was challenged but wrote a great story that showed others how an arcane skill meant so much to one group of students.
As National Scholastic Press Association Executive Director Tom Rolnicki observes, "These kind of stories have made a big difference. Papers have pushed for more acceptance." Rolnicki also credits high school newspapers with "getting the foot in the door through the AIDS epidemic" to address concerns related to teenage sexuality, a topic many community newspapers neglected to cover. "These high school papers went well beyond what was being discussed and brought the issues out in the open," he says.
Today this proactive role is even more urgent because of the arrival of Web sites produced by students off campus that attack fellow students, teachers and administrators. According to a recent article in the Washington Post, these so-called "slam" sites are proliferating nationwide, and the courts have generally upheld a student's right to publish critical or insulting material (as long as it is not libelous or obscene and does not invade anyone's privacy or create substantial campus disruption). A newspaper that welcomes a diversity of opinions to its pages and seeks out communication with disaffected groups can help forestall more poisonous Web sites.
A vibrant school newspaper can also diminish the need for students to start underground newspapers, a tradition with a proud history dating back to the campus upheavals of the '60s. Students have the right to distribute underground papers on campus, and many still do (an estimated 100 to 150 are published each year), which suggests that some writers don't feel welcome in their schools' official publications. Underground newspapers have broken great stories over the years, but they invariably fade once the dedicated few who produced them leave school.
Student newspapers offer a natural forum for addressing the problems of bigotry and separatism that taint schools in rural, suburban and urban areas. Classroom discussions, community speakers and assemblies are also effective, but the student press has the additional function of documenting issues and perspectives, including how they change over time.
Good reporting and photography by students can shed light on divisive issues that have lingered in the shadows -- issues such as racial segregation in the lunchroom and at dances, class bias in vocational education, lack of affordable higher education opportunities for minorities, and the struggle for non-native speakers to learn subjects in English.
For example, at Westlake High in Austin, Texas, The Featherduster explored the cruel treatment on campus of handicapped students and published a first-person account by a Muslim student in a predominantly Christian student body. At John C. Fremont High in Oakland, Calif., a city with a school district where 76 different languages are spoken, the staff of The Green and Gold reported the tensions between ethnic groups and the need to abandon the "us versus them" mentality.
The potentially pathological consequences of this mentality -- particularly as it applies to social affiliations -- became clear with the murders at Columbine High in 1999. Yet group identity and allegiance -- and the rivalry and alienation these factors can produce -- remain facts of teen life. Many student journalists belong to these identity groups themselves, but some have the maturity to step outside themselves to become neutral observers. When they interview their "antagonists" and shape these conversations into feature articles that represent different views, the process can lead to awareness and understanding.
With guidance, proper editing and a staff commitment to high reporting standards, student-to-student grievances can be responsibly examined by high school journalists.
Another way for high school papers to improve their positive outreach is to actually go off campus and serve the community. As part of a multi-faceted program called PACERS (Program for the Academic and Cultural Enhancement of Rural Schools) in Alabama, students fill a cultural void by producing newspapers that serve communities previously without local media.
These papers report news from public schools, local government, churches, different ethnic groups, political races and even the police blotter. pacers connects young journalists to parents, senior citizens, businesses and children in their communities. In the process, the student reporters, editors and photographers play a pivotal role in community education.
Even in a structured classroom setting, it's a difficult job for journalists-in-training to always get it right and be fair. They will make mistakes, of course, as do the national media -- consider the last Presidential election. But their efforts can stimulate dialogue in the classrooms, faculty lounges, board meetings and perhaps the local newspaper. With the freedom to address serious, relevant issues comes the responsibility for accurate, balanced reporting and, in return, the credibility that young people crave but are often denied.
If our nation's school newspapers got turned loose in a proactive way, with full administrative support, campus life in this country would change for the better. From my experience, I am utterly convinced that high school publications packed with excellent student reporting could help prevent campus violence.
At the Boise conference, in a discussion on the subject of the proper role of high school newspapers, Breonna Crosby of Kuna, Idaho, exclaimed, "We can be a weapon for change!" Perhaps it's not the best metaphor, but the message behind it rings true.