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Newspaper controversy is a ‘teachable moment’ for all involved at Bear Creek High School

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Posted: Saturday, February 16, 2013 12:00 am

It's not rare for strong-willed principals to collide with campus journalism students or advisers, especially when those journalists are doing their job.

Such a dust-up happened recently at Bear Creek High School in Lodi Unified School District, where principal Shirley McNichols briefly confiscated copies of the school newspaper, the Bruin Voice. McNichols was worried that a front-page article about campus security plans might incite panic. She got a second opinion from higher-ups, who didn't share such concerns, and the paper was released.

The young journalists and their adviser, Kathi Duffel, were upset. They felt McNichols invoked prior restraint without adequate justification.

They may be right, and they are to be commended. Sadly, journalism on most high school campuses these days is dwindling. Witness Lodi High, where The Flame, the long-standing student newspaper, was extinguished several years ago for lack of interest.

On the campuses where journalism continues to thrive, two ingredients are typically in place. There are passionate and driven advisers, such as Duffel at Bear Creek and Roger Woo at Tokay High. And there is a corps of very bright, inquisitive students, such as those who produce The Bruin Voice.

We can't help but pause here. It is our conviction that newspaper classes on campus are uniquely valuable. Where else do students learn to think critically, communicate clearly and work in teams?

So Duffel and the students deserve laurels, in our view, for producing probative reporting at a time when campus papers have either vanished or become fluffy and feeble.

Yet we do sympathize with McNichols. Under California law, principals may halt distribution of a campus paper if they feel it presents a "clear and present danger of the commission of unlawful acts on school premises or the violation of lawful school regulations or the substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school."

Since the horrific assault in Newtown, Conn., everyone seems jittery about school security. That makes it an especially ripe subject for young journalists. Yet it may have also heightened McNichols' sensitivity regarding safety coverage.

We don't fault McNichols, and the delay in distribution was hours, not days.

Still, we reflected this week on comments from Jim Ewert, counsel for the California Newspaper Publisher Association, which were included in the story we published by Sara Jane Pohlman.

Ewert pointed out that young journalists need to understand the consequences of what they print.

"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," Ewert said.

He also referred to other situations involving campus journalists and administrators that have resulted in "teachable moments."

Maybe it's not too late for that at Bear Creek.

Perhaps McNichols can meet with the band of stalwart journalists and their very capable adviser. Perhaps they can share viewpoints, discuss their respective concerns, and build trust.

Maybe McNichols could be invited to write a column explaining her actions and her concerns.

Who knows? Maybe this could be a learning moment for all concerned.

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