At the beginning of the school year, one of Kyra Howard’s high school classmates abruptly stopped showing up for classes.
Nobody at Plainfield High School in Indiana knew what had happened to the student, Levi Stewart, and school administrators weren’t talking. Some kids guessed he’d been suspended. Among a suburban high school of 1,600 students, his absence was noticed because he was active on campus and a drum major in the state champion school marching band. “He was a prominent kid around school,” said Howard, who as a student journalist may have been more curious than others.
Three weeks went by before local news outlets reported that Stewart had been arrested off campus and accused of a series of sexual assaults. Stewart, 17, was charged as an adult, and court records showed that four girls told police Stewart had threatened, harassed, and physically assaulted them. TV crews soon arrived at the school to cover Stewart’s arrest, and national outlets followed.
Howard, then a 17-year-old senior who worked on the monthly student magazine, the Quaker Shaker, wanted to look into the case. She started reporting but didn’t get far. Administrators told the magazine’s faculty adviser that Stewart’s case was too sensitive a subject for the students to tackle, Howard said. The students suggested a compromise: Instead of reporting on Stewart’s case, they’d write articles about preventing sexual assault at their high school. But according to Howard, another student, and one parent who spoke to BuzzFeed News, Plainfield administrators rejected that idea too. The administration seemed more interested in how the school is perceived by the community than stopping sexual assault, said Howard, who graduated early from Plainfield in December.
"Our school is very concerned with image. They always have been," Howard told BuzzFeed News.
The situation Howard found herself in has played out at high schools around the country in recent years, but the conflict between student media and school administrators has escalated recently, with more students caught in tugs-of-war like the one at Plainfield.
"This last year-plus — ever since #MeToo started — has definitely been the most challenging year of my professional career," said Mike Hiestand, a lawyer for the nonprofit Student Press Law Center, who has spent 30 years helping students dealing with censorship. "#MeToo has landed on colleges and high school campuses in a big way."
Journalists of all ages are more attuned to the issue of sexual misconduct, and with many local newspapers downsizing, student journalists are picking up stories that otherwise might not get covered, including revelations of principals who faked their credentials, and districts that hid harassment complaints against teachers. In January, the student newspaper of a Brooklyn prep school first reported on a controversy surrounding a racist video of two classmates in blackface.
School officials say they’re right to censor controversial articles, especially if the school pays for the publication, to guard against stories that might spark campus fights, defamation allegations, or, in extreme circumstances, suicide attempts. But students, First Amendment lawyers, and some politicians see censorship as a growing problem that teaches students not to value free speech at a time when the president of the United States is openly hostile toward the press.
The censorship, or fear of it, is far from isolated and particularly impacts girls. A recent survey of 461 high school student journalists found 38% of them had been told not to cover something by a school employee. The same survey found that more than half of girls had avoided covering certain topics in anticipation of a negative reaction by the school, compared to 27% of boys.
“What we took away from this was school administrators really want their school media to be cheerleaders,” said Genelle Belmas, a University of Kansas professor who conducted the survey, which was released in 2017. “They really don’t want the tough topics to be undertaken. They want the bad stuff shoved under the rug.”
Last year in Utah, administrators at Herriman High School shut down the student newspaper's website and social media accounts after it broke the news that a teacher was fired for “hugging and other uninvited touching” and for sending inappropriate text messages to a student.
The story, by then-18-year-old Conor Spahr, was based on documents he obtained through an open records request. The documents also revealed the parents of the student had taken out a civil stalking injunction against the teacher, Ryan White, who had also been fired by his previous school. Herriman administrators never explained to the students or to the public why they pulled the article about White. So Spahr and Max Gordon, the paper's 17-year-old editor-in-chief, decided to start their own website to get the story out. About half of the staff joined them and contributed to the rogue news site, which itself became fodder for local and national papers.
“In public schools, the administration has complete control, all the time,” Spahr, now a college freshman, told BuzzFeed News. “They can do whatever they want, including censoring stories about teachers they've fired.”
A 1988 Supreme Court decision, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, set the stage for the current debates over how much freedom student media should enjoy. That case involved a school principal who prevented the student newspaper from publishing two articles: one on teen pregnancy and birth control, and another on the impact of a student’s parents getting divorced. The justices ruled that a school’s “basic educational mission” took precedence over students’ free speech and gave school officials broad authority to censor student media if they have reasonable justification. However, the ruling does not define reasonable justification, leaving it open to wide interpretations. Superintendents and principals have cited the case for years to justify preventing students from publishing stories about teachers, students, or staff accused of sexual assault.
Vermont is one of 13 states that have taken a more liberal approach: Laws in those states limit administrators from censoring student journalism unless they can show it is obscene, it would violate the law, or it would disrupt classroom teaching. The Vermont law protected student journalists at Burlington High School in September who broke the story about a guidance counselor in danger of losing his license for unprofessional conduct.
The four Burlington students who wrote the article had obtained documents from the Vermont Agency of Education showing that an investigation found counselor Mario Macias falsified records, demeaned female colleagues, and “creeped” out a student teacher. The principal, Noel Green, ordered the students take down the story, because, as Green told a local alt-weekly newspaper, he liked Macias, and the article “created a hostile work environment for one of my employees.”
“Obviously getting censored is really frustrating when you're working on a news story,” said Halle Newman, a Burlington senior and one of the authors of the article. “At the same time, when something is censored, you know it's censored because something about it is important.”
Within a couple of days, the school backed down after students pointed out that Vermont’s law prohibits administrators from yanking a story just because it involves a controversial subject or is critical of school administrators. The students reposted the article and continued reporting on Macias’s case.
“The law makes us confident that the public wants us to be covering more significant stories, not just be a student newspaper covering the sports games,” Julia Shannon-Grillo, a junior and one of the article's authors, told BuzzFeed News.
Officials from Burlington and Herriman high schools did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
In the Indiana legislature, Republican Ed Clere, has tried for three years to pass a bill similar to Vermont’s to prevent censorship of student media except in cases involving possible libel or stories that encourage illegal or disruptive activity or violation of school policies. Clere's bill failed to get the majority support it needed in the Indiana House last year. He reintroduced it on Jan. 10.
“In today’s atmosphere, when journalism and journalists are under attack, we need student journalism more than ever,” Clere told BuzzFeed News. “They can approach stories on a unique and meaningful level and get to stories that other journalists can’t get to. They also have a unique level of credibility with their peers.”
Committee hearings during previous legislative sessions revealed how Indiana school administrators view student media.
“School-sponsored publications are a public relations tool,” JT Coopman, the head of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, told lawmakers in a 2018 committee hearing. Coopman warned that without the “oversight of a school administration, a school-sponsored student publication can become a public relations nightmare.”
Lisa F. Tanselle, a lawyer for the Indiana School Boards Association, said if the school pays for the student publication, then “we do not support giving student journalists complete freedom of speech and freedom of press.” Tanselle’s group worried that Clere’s proposed bill would block schools from taking "any action against a media adviser."
When someone calls Hiestand about a censorship issue in a high school, his first piece of advice is to urge the faculty adviser to stay on the sidelines and let the students take the lead in challenging administrators. Administrators will often try to get advisers, who tend to have close bonds with their students, to cave in to demands. “They see advisers as a weak link,” Hiestand said. In addition, if an adviser is caught in the middle of a case, students might be inclined to back down to protect their ally, Hiestand said.
That’s what happened at Plainfield. Howard didn’t want the student publication’s adviser, Michelle Burress, to get into trouble, so she didn’t consider going rogue and publishing a story about Levi Stewart, her classmate who had been arrested, on an external website.
Students on the magazine staff said they adore Burress and emphatically trust her. Burress was the Plainfield school district’s teacher of the year in 2016. She declined interview requests from BuzzFeed News.
Burress was confronted by school officials over something her students wrote in 2017, after the student magazine published an issue called “Plainfield High School’s Dating Survival Guide Declassified.” It focused on the highs and lows of high school dating and included stories about first kisses, meeting the parents, and abusive relationships. It also included the definitions of polyamory and friends with benefits, and it featured a poll about sexting. School board members and some parents thought the issue was inappropriate for teens.
“The word ‘sex’ was not even used in the issue except for ‘sexting,’” Howard said.
The controversy caused school district officials to change the Quaker Shaker’s funding system. In August 2018, the magazine staff learned that the $5 annual fee charged to parents to pay for the publication had been canceled; instead, student journalists would have to sell subscriptions. The publication used to print around 1,600 copies, but it now releases fewer than 400, according to Howard. Rich Trivett, a parent of one of the magazine’s editors, told BuzzFeed News the school board declined multiple requests to let him speak about the funding change at their monthly meetings.
The month after the magazine’s funding change, Stewart was arrested. Two young women told police Stewart forced them to perform oral sex on him. Another said he digitally penetrated her without consent, and a fourth said he slapped her when she turned down his advances. Stewart has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled for trial in March, but students won't be able to write about it. The school’s ban on covering Stewart’s case remains in effect, even though the school no longer pays for printing the publication. It does, however, provide the computers and the classroom for the Quaker Shaker staff to work, and they earn credits for the course, which gives administrators the power to decide what gets covered.
“I don’t understand why the administration wouldn’t want us to put out something that’s factual,” Howard said. “When it comes down to it, them censoring us just causes more issues.”
When reached for comment by BuzzFeed News, Sabrina Kapp, a district spokesperson, said she didn’t know if students were forbidden from writing stories about the case or about sexual assault generally. Kapp said the Plainfield High School principal and school board members were not available for an interview.
BuzzFeed News submitted a records request to the school district to learn more about the discussions that had led to the ban on reporting of Stewart’s case. Eventually, the district responded with a letter indicating that there were no relevant email records to share.
The Plainfield situation has been center on Clere’s mind as he has pushed Indiana to adopt more protections for student journalists. Plainfield students went to the state House to testify in favor of his bill. Plainfield officials were invited to explain why they opposed the legislation but declined to do so, Kapp said, to avoid to avoid a faceoff between administrators and students.
But Kapp said the district thinks its oversight has been working fine. “This is a class and is funded by taxpayer dollars at a public school in a conservative community,” she told BuzzFeed News, “so we think it’s reasonable for things to continue to work as they have been.”
Clere, though, says the district’s approach stifles students.
“They censor themselves,” Clere said. “They don’t go out and pursue the really difficult stories and the really difficult topics because they know they’ll never be published or broadcast. There’s a chilling effect. In a lot of schools, journalism programs have withered because of that reality and because of a lack of support.”
Data showing how many student newspapers exist is hard to come by, but a few surveys provide a broad picture, and it seems to back up Clere’s argument. A 2011 study found 64% of public high schools have student newspapers; a drop from a 1994 survey that found 78% had a student paper. Similar drops in student newspapers since the 1990s have been observed in Chicago and New York City. Separately, a 2018 report by the Knight Foundation surveying students on the First Amendment noted a “growing minority” of high school students who support government censorship of news media.
When student media are freed to report on sensitive subjects, advisers say the positive impacts far outweigh the possible negatives.
Six years ago, Paul Kandell’s students at Palo Alto High School in California proposed a big project on sexual assault. Kandell, a journalism teacher and adviser for a student magazine, Verde, first had them take an online course from the Poynter Institute, a journalism ethics nonprofit, and get advice from groups like the Student Press Law Center. Kandell also advised the school’s administrators of the project, and they didn’t interfere.
The result was a series of articles that earned the Palo Alto students invitations to talk about their work on the radio and at student press conventions. Kandell now fields calls from other school newspaper advisers hoping to emulate the project.
“We’re reducing misery by publishing this stuff,” Kandell told BuzzFeed News. “Teens who might not read anything else in the press might read this stuff, and their behavior is going to be changed — even incrementally.” ●