HSJ Headline News
Reaction to student journalist was overkill
June 13, 2007
Suspended from Cascade High School for 10 days, underground newspaper editor David Whittemore knows he broke the rules.
"I pretty much got what I deserved," the teen told a Herald reporter last week.
Yes, he broke rules; he disregarded Everett School District edicts that are both heavy-handed and wrongheaded.
No, Whittemore didn't get what he deserves. I'd say the 17-year-old managing editor of the Free Stehekin deserves applause.
His offense? Fighting? Carrying a weapon? Hardly. The Cascade junior was barred for using a school computer to do some work for a student newspaper unsanctioned by the district.
Hurried and in need of an Internet connection, he downloaded some files for the paper from his e-mail account onto a personal laptop.
Early in the school year, Everett Superintendent Carol Whitehead made plain that students weren't to use school resources for independent publications. A popular Cascade creative writing teacher, Kay Powers, was also recently placed on paid administrative leave. Whittemore said the teacher's was apparently placed on leave for not enforcing the rules.
The press-freedom dispute has been stewing for two years at Everett's high schools.
In 2005, Everett High Principal Catherine Matthews, then new to the school, said she'd exercise her authority to review the student newspaper before publication. She demanded that The Kodak, which had a long history as a student-run paper, remove a statement identifying it as a "student forum."
Two former Kodak editors, calling prior review a violation of free-speech rights, sued the district. A trial is scheduled for July 23 in U.S. District Court in Seattle.
The Everett School District, supported in part by my taxes, spends its energy and money as it sees fit. Someone saw fit to use a sledgehammer approach in dealing with Whittemore.
This is a kid, when asked what his mom thinks of his suspension, said, "She knows I know I did something wrong." This is a kid with a grade point average of about 3.6. He's worried about missing homework.
The label "underground newspaper" may conjure thoughts of the 1960s, when a Berkeley Barb hoax article created a stir over the psychedelic powers of banana peels. The May 24 issue of the Free Stehekin is packed with relevant news.
It covers the Cascade campus reaction to the Virginia Tech tragedy. There's a story about kids using chewing tobacco. It details the successes of Cascade athletes. There are "Teacher Features," including an interview with departing Principal Jim Dean. There's no smut or profanity, nor hardly a barb at the administration.
Under "Editorial Policy," the Free Stehekin does say: "Cascade students refuse to produce the Stehekin under conditions of censorship."
When I praised the paper, Whittemore said, "I think that's one of the points we try and make. We don't have to have the administration's prior review and censorship."
If you think that's a radical notion, drive down I-5 to Mountlake Terrace. There, Mountlake Terrace High School journalism instructor Vincent DeMiero is the faculty adviser for The Hawkeye. In 2006, it won Best of Show in a National Scholastic Press Association competition.
DeMiero is a passionate champion of free-speech rights. Early on in the Everett dispute, he wrote an opinion piece published in The Herald.
"The student newspaper at Terrace operates as an open public forum because as a learning community - particularly at a public school - we long ago concluded that this is sound educational practice," DeMiero said in The Herald on Nov. 6, 2005. "The official journalism curriculum of this state has as its first goal that students 'understand and exercise the rights of and responsibilities of free speech in American society.'"
DeMiero's students learn the real-life lesson that responsibilities - and legal consequences - go with rights. Ironically, Whittemore said he read DeMiero's piece at Cascade. "We copied it and read it in a journalism class," the teen said.
In bold print, the Everett School District's Web site tells us: "Welcome to one of the best school districts in the country." These days, I am not convinced of that.
Who's teaching students to tolerate censorship?
And another question: Does the federal court have a sledgehammer of its own?
Copyright 2007, Herald. Reprinted with permission