Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Story Told, Part III: Tension and Termination

Please take a gander at Parts I and II, or you're just going to be lost here.

I left that second meeting after assuring the principal and vice principal that we would make a concerted effort to check news items with them and get their stance when applicable. But I also made it clear that we would continue to seek out and report on stories of interest to the student body, whatever they may be.

From then on, things got frostier. Our first edition of the new year (2006) was led by the headline "December Brings Freshman Violence Epidemic." We reported on a spate of five altercations during the month, replete with student accounts, no doubt further endearing ourselves to the administration. In addition, we ran a feature article on school violence/safety in general. At the wrap-up meeting, we decided that we were running the risk of beating a dead horse, and concluded that we wouldn't run anything more about fights unless something extraordinary happened.

The edition also included an editorial about how abstinence-only education was harmful, and a letter from a vice principal that pointed out an inaccuracy in a past issue about the funding of agenda planners that were given to students at the beginning of the year. I wrote to the V.P. privately and thanked her for holding my reporters accountable for their mistakes; I couldn't possibly catch everything they misunderstood or just plain got wrong. I smelt a brief whiff of progress; this was the free press in action and consequence.

Then came issue #7 in March, and from then on out, things were pretty much hostile. We scored a major coup by getting a hold of a student's schedule which showed that he was slotted to be in a "systems management" class. This would essentially have made he and another student school-wide tech support. For some unknown reason, the administration had moved both students into other classes.The Claw had been banging the drum all year over the lousy state of campus technology, and now we had irrefutable proof that the administration not only hadn't tried to make things better, they'd actually made things worse. The article contained several quotes which attributed the schedule change to a specific V.P. We tried repeatedly to get a statement from her, but she dodged us, and we ended up with a "no comment."

It was student journalism at its finest, but it was more egg on the face of those who run the show.

Even more controversial was the article on the dangers teens faced on the social networking site The article itself was fairly tame; what happened behind the scenes surely helped me along the road to reassignment.

The kids had caught wind of a sophomore runaway; the rumor was she left home in order to meet up with an older man she met on myspace. I checked the web; there was a story in a local paper citing the girl's name and situation. One of our reporters called the girl's mother, who had apparently contacted major news organizations railing against myspace. She went off on the perils for teens due to the website's lack of oversight but would not address how it had affected her daughter personally.

After the writer got off the phone with her, the mother called our principal and demanded that we not print anything about her daughter's disappearance (the girl had since returned unharmed and resumed classes). I received a memo from the principal instructing me not to allow my reporters to write anything about the girl or her case. She claimed she didn't want us "to get sued."

I was almost positive what she had done was illegal, but I wanted confirmation. I emailed an organization called The Student Press Law Center in Virginia. They wrote back and informed me in no uncertain terms that the principal had committed "prior restraint," which is, in fact, illegal. It violates two sections of the California Education Code, along with that pesky First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

I went back to the editorial board and presented them with their options: We could run the story using the girl's name, we could mention her case but keep her anonymous, or we could leave her out altogether. I couldn't have been prouder of the decision they made. They believed the fact that a CP student ran away because of a connection made on myspace was relevant, but they didn't see the need to put her name out if she didn't want it (she refused to comment for the story).

I sent a letter to the principal, informing her of our decision. It read, in part:

Since your memo to me re: the (student's name) situation, I did some research. You’ll find attached an email from the Student Press Law Center in Virginia, a resource I found in an accredited guidebook.

At an editorial board meeting today, The Claw decided to pursue the story. We will give (student) and her mother the option of anonymity, although, legally we do not have to. We will be talking to both on Friday. Regardless, her situation will be a significant portion of a larger article on the potential dangers of and how it relates to CP. We think it’s an important story that needs to be told.

Please read the attached email; it spells out quite clearly what your responsibility is as principal. If you have any information or clarification to add to the story, feel free to let us know.



I tried to be nice about it, but I wasn't backing down. I didn't hear back from her. What could she say? She had clearly overstepped her bounds. I still have a copy of the memo.

The next issue was our traditional April Fool's satire issue, known as "The Flaw." It contained the usual Onion-style tomfoolery, and I found myself in the office yet again after we delivered it. This time, there were "several complaints" (none to me personally, of course) about one particular item. Our managing editor, Tomo Hirai, had dressed in drag, dolled himself up, and created a fake personal ad. His "likes" were "rich old men, kitties, and puppies." His dislikes included "homophobic people." It was pretty tame stuff, unless you consider the mere act of cross-dressing potentially offensive.

The principal apparently did. She was worried that the school's gay students would be insulted. This was especially laughable if you knew Tomo at all. He was about the least likely member of the staff to denigrate the gay community; in fact, he was responsible for the article earlier in the year about being gay on campus. I told the principal that I felt she was worried for no reason and promised to ask the LGBT club on campus if they were miffed by the ad. The outfit's president told me the whole group thought it was funny as hell. Crisis averted.

In the next couple months, there was a bell schedule controversy where the principal became upset that I was revealing the content of faculty meetings to my reporters, who were then going to ask her questions about what she had said. Even though we tried to keep the administration in the loop and give them the chance to go on the record, as I'd promised back in December, they almost never responded to interview requests. A lot of times we were forced to run the standard "despite repeated attempts, so-and-so was unavailable for comment," as with this story.

The final straw came after the annual multicultural assembly. A group of Latina girls had caused a disturbance by coming out of their seats and down to the floor, dancing. One of them had been chased around half the gym by one of the campus supervisors, in full view of the half the student body who attended that assembly.

We had already planned on writing a story about the assembly, and now we had an angle. My reporters went to work interviewing some of the girls involved. One of them claimed the school was racist in persecuting the Latinas for merely showing their spirit. She wished to remain anonymous in part because of her inflammatory comments and also because she had ditched class and gone to both performances, in violation of school rules. We also interviewed the campus supervisor to get her take.

The principal caught wind of the thrust of the article and asked if she could see it before we published it. This could also be construed as an infraction of the California Ed. Code; a principal does not have the right to preview content before it goes to print. It's called prior review. However, she hadn't demanded it, so I decided to play nice in the spirit of diplomacy and let her see a rough version of it. She wrote me an email about it with the heading "Personal and Confidential," so I won't reprint any part of it here. However, I'll let you fill in the blanks by showing you what I wrote in response. It's easy to see now that this email sealed my fate:

To address your points:
As for the matter of these being "confidential" issues dealing with student discipline, they cease to become confidential when the students themselves tell
reporters about them and the information is gathered in a legal and ethical way.

As for what is or what is not "responsible journalism," that is obviously a subjective matter. You are right; it is my job to teach them ethics, and they
know that anonymous sources are not preferred but are only tolerated when there is good reason for the person to remain anonymous (all newspapers do this). In this case, we believed there was. I should also note that I had them cut part of the girl's quote where she had said "(The campus supervisor) should be fired," and explained to them that we should not allow this girl to slander specific people while choosing to remain anonymous.

I allowed them to run the incendiary comment you referred to because while I do not believe that College Park is a racist or sexist high school myself, I do understand that it is a representative view of at least this group of students that it is. That is newsworthy. Again, another person might see this differently, but that is what my seven-plus years of journalistic experience and instincts are telling me.

Another part of teaching them journalistic responsibility is getting both sides
of the story (being "fair to all," as you said). The reporters went and interviewed (the supervisor) after talking to these girls. She gave her side. We printed it. This is another of the issues I was trying to get Ali to let you comment on for additional representation, but you two never connected.

A controversy (two sides disagreeing) is what makes a news story. I understand that as the primary representative of the school, you would prefer not to have controversy exposed or highlighted. Again, that is not the objective of the free press, even a student newspaper. Journalism is not about avoiding controversy. It is about finding out what's on people's lips and minds and investigating the story. After the multicultural assembly, few students were talking about the content of the assembly- most were talking about this girl being chased by (school officials). I actually never witnessed it. It was entirely student motivated. I don't believe the article was unfair, unethical, or irresponsible.

If you want someone to be advisor who will never allow the school to be portrayed in a negative light or will suppress information or opinions which could be considered controversial or troublesome, then I am not your man. I believe strongly in the ideal that the press should be independent and especially report on things that the people in power don't want exposed. My favorite quote on this subject is from Dan Rather, who said, "It's only news if someone doesn't want people to hear it. Otherwise, it's just advertising." I will not be in charge of a propaganda publication, no matter how good its cause. It just doesn't interest me.

It will perhaps please you to know that I am going to make communicating with
the administration and getting better representation from that faction a primary goal for next year, if indeed I am still adviser.

You may also be pleased to know that in the final draft of the multicultural
article, a quote has been added from (the girl) where she tries to explain away the
fact that she was at both assemblies in a clear violation of school rules. She
comes off like a real brat.


There it was. I made my ideals clear, once and for all. I had told the kids I would fight for them, and I would not compromise or bend to the will of the people who controlled my fate. Looking back, I was basically daring her to take me off the paper. However, I still don't regret what I wrote or the stance I took. I still believe in every word.

The final issue came out on Friday, June 9th, the last week before finals. Ironically, in my last "Nolan's Rants" column, I thanked the principal for "not making it personal" even when the paper's content "found the crosshairs squarely upon the administration." I ended by writing that, "I consider her a friend."

The following Tuesday, during the last week of school, I was called into the office for the last time. I honestly didn't know what to expect; although, I knew it probably wasn't good. As you can tell from my documentation of the events, I was still shocked and angry.

June 13, 2006

8:39 AM

I was given an official memo to meet at 8 AM this morning with (the principal and vice principal). When I arrived, the principal immediately informed me that she had decided my “professional and educational training were better suited to the core curriculum.”

My job assignment from April (4 classes of American Threads and the journalism class) was recanted, and I was assigned an English II class in journalism’s place.

I let the principal know that I was disappointed and told her how hard I’d worked and how many hours I’d spent trying to make The Claw a better paper. I asked for a better explanation that the one she gave me, because that was a politician’s line, a beaurocrat’s line. She said she was sorry I felt that way, but in terms of the “big picture” (including that students tell her I’m the best English teacher they’ve ever had) that me “professional and educational training were better suited to the core curriculum.”

I told her I felt betrayed, that this was a stab in the back. I also told her I knew that this was not about the core curriculum, this was about me not being the journalism adviser anymore. She would not engage me, only saying that she’d thought about this for several months and decided it was what was best.

At no point did she offer a criticism of my work as journalism adviser. At no point did (the V.P.) say anything.

This is all told to the best of my recollection, 45 minutes after the fact.

-Andrew Nolan

Tomorrow: What happened next.


megan said...

I'm still reading... and I'm dying to find out how the story ends. I'm secretly hoping that the resolution will mirror the plot of "Newsies," where the journalism class prints an underground paper and distributes it to the students who can read. Then, after you are restored to your position, Teddy Roosevelt will pull up in a sweet car and shake your hand, and the entire student body will cheer and start dancing.

If only.

Chiaki Hirai said...

Hell, if a crossdressing girl who likes rich old men, kitties, and puppies is offensive. I'd be the most heathenous person out there right now.

Anyway, to point out, I would make sure to change July to June. I don't think we were in class on July 9th.

Also, Megan, that is a ridiculous idea; Roosevelt is dead. We would have had Bush Jr. coming up in a hummer to shake Nolan's hand, and that's a TERRIBLE prospect.

Bitch move was, you were called in and we, as in the seniors, found out after school on our last day. We were off to graduation ceremonies that very next day, cutting any mobbing we might have done.

Michael Tucker said...

I think you should begin work on a screenplay version asap.