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Newspaper controversy puts Bear Creek High School in international spotlight

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Posted: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 12:00 am

When Mikala Bussey, 18, saw a headline about Bear Creek High School on the Yahoo.com homepage, she knew the story had gone viral.

"People in Australia are reading this story. And the comments are just great. There were 3,000, last I checked," she said.

The story in question is that of the high school's principal temporarily confiscating a stack of student newspapers the day before they were meant to go out to students.

Principal Shirley McNichols was concerned about the headline: "Outdated safety plan leaves some wondering: How safe is (Bear Creek)?" She worried that the story could incite students to panic, thinking their school was vulnerable to intruders. So, in an attempt to keep the school safe, she locked all the papers in her office until they could be reviewed by her superiors.

McNichols, a no-nonsense woman in a black cardigan, did what she saw as best to protect her school from potential crisis.

Kathi Duffel, the adviser of the award-winning student newspaper, is frustrated at an administration that doesn't trust her judgment after 22 years of teaching journalism.

And editor-in-chief Justine Chang and Bussey, the reporter who wrote the story, are members of a young newspaper staff bristling at the chance to defend their First Amendment rights.

The story idea came up in a brainstorming session in early January. Several mass shootings in the news led the reporters to want to take a thorough look at just how safe the Bear Creek campus really is, and the nuts and bolts of the school safety policy.

"We were concerned our comprehensive safety plan wasn't so comprehensive," Duffel said.

Bussey is an athletic swimmer, with the confidence earned by swimming in open water races from Alcatraz island to San Francisco Harbor. She was the first to raise her hand when the story came up for assignment. She fearlessly dug into the story, examined the policy, and found that much of it had to do with non-safety-related information.

Bussey's story quoted assistant principal Marlon Gayle, who reportedly admitted that about 20 percent of the school safety plan is outdated, and he is not very confident his staff is familiar with the plan.

McNichols doesn't normally read the student paper, but Gayle tipped her off to the subject of Bussey's story.

These statements and others were red flags to McNichols. When the Galt Herald, which prints the Bruin Voice under the Herburger Publications company, dropped off 1,700 copies on Feb. 6, McNichols rolled the cart of newspapers into her office before 8:30 a.m. Newspaper staff were only able to grab a few issues before the rest were confiscated.

"It came as kind of a shock," said editor-in-chief Justine Chang. A petite girl with long, dark hair and patterned leggings, Chang found it hard to grasp that the administrator she worked with for Key Club would restrict the student paper.

The staff went to work in their classroom wallpapered with former issues, brainstorming a letter to McNichols asking her to explain what triggered the action.

According to McNichols, the story contained inaccurate and misleading statements, and could cause students to feel afraid at school if they felt the campus is not well-protected.

One quote McNichols cited as inaccurate was from a campus supervisor who was informed of a lockdown drill just one day before it happened. Another statement she felt was misleading discussed the ease with which visitors can come on campus without being stopped.

McNichols said there is no concern necessary about Bear Creek's safety. The policy book is updated often, she said.

"We've been doing that all year. Especially in this climate, you'd be very remiss not to do that," she said.

McNichols took two copies of the paper to the Lodi Unified School District office. Dawn Vetica, assistant superintendent of secondary education, and Superintendent Cathy Nichols-Washer reviewed the paper, and decided the story would not incite panic among the student body. McNichols returned to campus and notified the Bruin Voice staff by email that the papers were ready for pick-up.

Bussey, Chang and the rest of the 20-student staff bolted to the main office to pick up the papers, which amounted to $500 worth of printing costs. In an after-school frenzy, they stuffed each copy of the issue with ads for a local driving school.

McNichols says she never really held the papers, because they were released in time to pass out on Thursday.

"They were in the main office for a few hours, not even a full day, so we could check out the story," she said. "This has become such a big story and it's nothing."

Duffel said the real issue is that McNichols does not show an understanding of prior review and prior restraint.

"I read every article over and over again until it's approved. I would never allow something illegal to print. That is my job," said Duffel, who has advised the paper for 22 years. "We've printed controversial stories, but they've won awards more often than not."

Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, said McNichols was wrong to hold the papers, even for a few hours.

"There was nothing written in the article that would incite students to panic or rise up," he said.

"It's a good policy to teach students there will be consequences for things they write," Ewert added. "They must bear responsibility for things they publish. If administrators prevent that from occurring, students won't truly understand the power they have and the responsibility they have to get it right."

Ideally, a conversation will unfold between students and the administration to air the concerns and deal with the perceived problem.

A similar situation took place at Tokay High School six years ago.

At the time, Principal Erik Sandstrom was worried about copyright infringement if the Tokay Press published a photo of a tiger logo painted on the school gym floor.

"This principal was very enlightened and used it as a teachable moment," Ewert said.

Sandstrom led a discussion on the potential issues of libel, slander and copyright with the students, and a few changes were made before deadline.

"It was a good meeting of the minds, and we did this proactively. As a rule, I do not review the paper before each edition," said Sandstrom.

Sandstrom relies on Tokay Press adviser Roger Woo, who was pleased the potential crisis turned into a conversation.

"It was great. That's my job, to teach these kids something so they can carry on with this thing," Woo said. "If you're going to teach press freedom inside high school classrooms, yet deny that to your own student reporters, that's hypocritical."

At Bear Creek, the student newspaper staff is eager to get to work on the next issue.

"There is lots of anticipation for it," said Chang. "We're not going to allow this to scare us off."

Bussey agreed, and said this incident is burned into her memory as a reminder.

"I will never forget to always double-check my facts. I stood behind my story, and I want to always be confident in doing that," she said.

Bussey said the media coverage shows the newspaper staff did the right thing.

"It's flattering. We delivered a calm, thorough and accurate response, and we got our papers back in time," she said. "It's almost a good thing she took away our papers. Now more people are aware of the holes in our safety plan than would be otherwise."

Chang agreed, and was proud of the professional manner of her staff.

"They weren't hot-headed teenagers screaming, 'You can't do this!'" she said. "We know we're supported by the school, if not the administration. We are speaking for the students at the school."

Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at sarap@lodinews.com.

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1 comment:

  • Robert Jacobs posted at 7:05 am on Sat, Feb 16, 2013.

    Robert Jacobs Posts: 298

    So where is the story these students wrote? I mean that's what this story is about? I don't understand the thinking here....



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