HSJ Headline News
School Newspaper Controversy: Amityville officials critical of student editorials, reviews
December 10, 2003
Amid its rush to boost Amityville's test scores and repair a deteriorated elementary school, a new district administration also has taken on a more mundane task that faculty critics contend is best left to others.
Administrators have embarked on line-by-line editing -- some students and teachers would call it outright censorship -- of the high school's award-winning newspaper, Echo.
In recent months, student editors and their faculty adviser have been bombarded with official memos and vocal complaints on issues ranging from the monthly newspaper's reporting on school board candidates, to its review of a school production of the musical "Grease".
The district superintendent, Brian De Sorbe, and his aides have begun personally reviewing articles and red-lining errors of punctuation, grammar and spelling -- actions that have delayed publication several times.
While conceding that Amityville, like other districts, enjoys broad legal control over student publications, opponents call these tactics totally unnecessary in light of Echo's superior track record. The newspaper won a first-place award in 1998 from the New York Press Association and has received consistently solid ratings from the National Scholastic Press Association and other groups.
The district's intensive monitoring also is said to discourage student journalists from fulfilling a basic requirement of the news business -- reporting the bad, along with the good.
"The district wants everything to be positive, and I wished we lived in Utopia, but it's just not true," said William Oquendo, president of Amityville's teacher union.
"I understand Dr. De Sorbe has some right to review since the paper is paid for by the school district," said Daniel Winkler, 17, a senior and the newspaper's editor in chief. "However, I feel the entire quality of the paper as well as its reputation has been degraded and ripped apart because of his role."
Like most student newspapers, Echo in past years had checked occasionally with school officials before publishing articles it considered especially controversial. But De Sorbe, who became superintendent last year, began reviewing each issue prior to publication, in response to several student-written articles that he and school-board members disliked.
One article criticized the district's enforcement of federal Title IX regulations requiring equal sports opportunities for females, without specifically labeling this as opinion. Another reviewed a high-school production of "Grease" in mostly positive terms, but described one student actor as "a little too smooth and polished" for his role.
Stephannie Andrews, the school board president, contended this was inappropriate for a school publication, because it criticized a student by name. She rejected the idea that the board was engaged in censorship, however.
"The board is not putting any pressure on the paper," said Andrews, a nurse, who has served on the board seven years. "What the board expects is that the articles will be accurate."
Intensified scrutiny of Echo is just one of many recent actions taken by De Sorbe's administration, in attempts to raise test scores, improve student discipline, repair buildings and polish the district's public image. Scores in the 3,200-student district, while improving in some areas, remain among Long Island's lowest.
Since last year, the district has stopped allowing high school students other than seniors to leave the building for lunch. It has started requiring teens to take Regents English exams twice, in an effort to raise scores, and has pushed for speedier renovation of the long-vacant Parkway School.
Students and staff give such initiatives mixed reviews, calling some worthwhile and others excessive. De Sorbe did not respond to phone calls from Newsday, but a top aide insisted that the administration would not be distracted from its other priorities by the monitoring of Echo.
"I'm here till 9 o'clock at night," said Michael Cohen, an assistant superintendent, adding that the administration took pride in the newspaper's awards but wanted to ensure balanced news coverage.
Copyright 2003, Newsday. Reprinted with permission