An Arkansas school district suspended its high school newspaper and threatened to fire the teacher who advises it after student journalists wrote a story criticizing the transfer of five football players to a rival high school.
“They are like, ‘Well, you raised an uproar, we’re going to try and silence you,’” Halle Roberts, 17, the editor-in-chief of the Har-Ber Herald, told BuzzFeed News.
Friday nights mean football in Springdale, a small city in the northwest of the state. So when five varsity players transferred from Har-Ber High School to their archrivals at Springdale High School in the middle of the school year in late 2017 — both schools are under the Springdale Public Schools district — student journalists at the Herald decided to investigate.
The Herald published its monthslong investigation — which questions the legitimacy of the school district’s approval of the transfers — on Oct. 30.
“Once it dropped, everyone was talking about it,” said Roberts. “Parents were mad, students were mad. It just caused a chain of events.”
Those events include the Springdale Public Schools district officials demanding the story be removed from the school website — despite Arkansas state law protecting the rights of student publications. Several school and district officials didn’t return requests for comment.
On Tuesday, Paul Griep, the principal of Har-Ber high school, announced the newspaper was suspended from publishing while the school district writes new protocols for student publications. Roberts argues that the school district is violating her and her classmates’ free speech.
“They are trying to change the policy, which takes away our First Amendment right,” she said.
The Student Press Law Center, which works to defend freedom of the press for student publications, agreed. “School officials at this point seem to me to have completely thrown up their hands and said, ‘We’re not going to listen to what the law says in our state, and we’re going to do what we want,’” Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel for SPLC, told BuzzFeed News.
Roberts is a senior, and wants to work as a sports journalist at ESPN someday. She assigned reporters to look into the football team transfers.
“The fact that five of our varsity starters left us, it was pretty much the talk of the town,” said Roberts.
District policy states that students can’t transfer schools because they’re recruited or want to play on a different team. An academic transfer is one of the few valid exceptions to allow a transfer student to play sports.
So the student journalists — the newspaper class has 10 students and is held in second period every day — got to digging.
An anonymous source gave them a pile of FOIA documents from the Arkansas Activities Association showing that five of the players’ parents wrote letters requesting their sons be allowed to play football because they transferred schools for academic reasons.
However, the Herald had also conducted on-the-record interviews with the transfer students themselves, months earlier.
In those interviews, two of the teens said they were transferring to play football.
“We just want to go over there because we have a better chance of getting scholarships and playing at D1,” one transfer student told the Herald, referring to Division 1 college football programs.
“I just feel like it’s better for my future to go out there and get college looks,” said another.
The story also included a description of a video filmed in late December 2017 that shows the father of one of the transfer students at a bonfire party celebrating the end of football season by burning Har-Ber school gear and yelling about the football coach of Har-Ber.
The principal of Har-Ber knew the controversial football story was coming and asked the newspaper’s teacher adviser, Karla Sprague, to show him a copy of the story before it was published. She refused.
The investigation — written by student reporters Jack Williams, Molly Hendren and Matteo Campagnola — was the centerfold spread in the Oct. 30 edition, along with an accompanying editorial slamming the district’s transfer process.
The Herald is not usually a huge read in town — last year the class had only four students and published sporadically .
“It went from no one ever really talking about it, to everyone talking about it,” said Roberts, noting that people were posting the story on social media and debating it in sports forums.
That’s especially true because just a few weeks prior, the Springdale Bulldogs played the Har-Ber Wildcats for their annual game. For the first time in 11 years, the Bulldogs won. One of the players who transferred scored the winning touchdown in the final seconds.
Three days after the story was published, the deputy superintendent for Springdale Public Schools asked Sprague to take the story down. She complied.
Sprague and the journalism staff tried to get the district to allow it to be republished.
But on Monday, Springdale Superintendent Jim Rollins wrote in a letter to Sprague that the story would not be republished because it was “intentionally negative, demeaning, derogatory, hurtful and potentially harmful to the students addressed in those articles.”
Rollins also called it “extremely divisive and disruptive” to the school district.
Griep, the principal of Har-Ber, sent a memo to Sprague Tuesday saying that from now on, nothing could be printed without prior review by school authorities while new guidelines for student media were being created.
“This includes the issue of the Har-Ber Herald scheduled for publication later this week,” he wrote.
Griep also noted that if the Herald continued to publish, the student adviser, Sprague, could be terminated.
“I love my kids, my school and my work,” said Sprague, who referred all questions to her lawyer.
Threatening to fire a teacher adviser is a common ploy used by schools trying to get their students to stop writing anything critical, said SPLC’s Hiestand. And an Arkansas state law protects the “right of expression” of student journalists; it’s one of 14 states to have such laws.
Superintendent Rollins and the Springdale school district have not responded to multiple requests for comment. Griep, the Har-Ber school principal, and the Springdale high school principal have also not responded.
Roberts said despite being banned from publishing, the Herald staff still put together its latest edition. A double-page spread would be about the paper’s censorship. The sports section focused on the new seasons of wrestling and indoor track. Students reviewed the latest Ariana Grande album and the film Bohemian Rhapsody.
Roberts said Herald staff knew they’d get backlash from Springdale High School students and fans about their football story. But now it’s senior year, and Roberts is the editor-in-chief of a paper that can’t be published.
“What was so unexpected was that our administration was not standing up for us,” she said. “It’s just a slap in the face.”
It is unclear who filmed the video at a bonfire party. A previous version of this story said it was filmed by a football player whose father appears in the video. He is the only player to appear in the video; a previous version said that other players also appeared.