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School newspaper censored

The offending content: already-posted test data.

By LETITIA STEIN
Published October 24, 2006


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TAMPA - There are few issues in American education as widely discussed as the achievement gap, the racial divide that separates the academic performance of white and minority students.

But not at Hillsborough High School, where the principal pulled an article detailing the school's achievement gap from the student newspaper.

Principal William Orr called the content inappropriate, even though it focused on data the federal government publicizes under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Instead of a story and chart, students found a gaping hole Monday in the Red & Black, the school newspaper.

"If it's something that has a potential to hurt students' self-esteem, then I have an obligation not to let that happen," he said. "I don't think it's the job of the school newspaper to embarrass the students."

Editor-in-chief Emily Matras wrote the article, which included a chart breaking down Hillsborough High student test scores as reported on the state Education Department's Web site. She wanted to let classmates know what the school administration was doing to address the divide, including a schoolwide reading push.

Instead, she learned this lesson:

"High school is not the real world," said Matras, a junior. She understood the decision, but doesn't fully agree with it. "I think that we could have made a case that the story could have run, but we thought not to because we respect Dr. Orr."

Students stayed at school until 8 p.m. Friday cutting the article out of Page 3 in the October edition. It was replaced by a stapled note explaining that the administration offered to reprint the edition, but the newspaper's staff didn't want to delay publication.

Students were told not to talk about the article. The St. Petersburg Times contacted several after learning what happened.

"It did not condone anything immoral. It didn't talk of drug use or pregnancy or teen violence," said Simone Kallett, the newspaper's features editor and a sophomore. "It was a very fact-based article, and we don't understand why it was pulled."

Orr allowed a Times reporter to read the article briefly in his office, but not to quote it.

The Red & Black's faculty adviser, Joe Humphrey, declined to answer questions about the article when they came up around campus.

"We were told not to publish, and by word of mouth or otherwise we have not published it," he said. "Our primary goal when this happened was to still get the newspaper out."

Humphrey, formerly a reporter at the Tampa Tribune and a onetime intern at the Times, said the newspaper staff talked a little about legal ramifications.

In explaining his decision to remove the article, Orr cited a U.S. Supreme Court case giving school administrators broad power to censor student newspapers. But it's not absolute.

Mike Hiestand, a lawyer and consultant to the Student Press Law Center, thought the students at Hillsborough High could win a court case. He said they should be able to cover pertinent issues in public education.

"If it's a problem, it needs to be solved by addressing it accurately and openly, and it sounds like that's what the students tried to do," he said. "You don't fix a problem simply by putting your head in the sand."

The Red & Black is known as one of the more aggressive student newspapers in Hillsborough County. The latest edition features a front-page article about a junior arrested for bringing an unloaded gun to school.

Orr noted that it was only the second time in more than 20 years as a school administrator that he removed an article from a student newspaper. He had two other school administrators review it.

"If it had appeared in the Tampa Tribune or St. Petersburg Times, we wouldn't have thought anything of it," said Bertha Baker, assistant principal for administration. "But a student newspaper has to be a little more sensitive to the feelings of the students."

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or 813 226-3400.

[Last modified October 24, 2006, 09:56:41]


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