Sunday, October 08, 2006

Censorchimps: A Kansas Subspecies?

A school district in Kansas is embroiled in a controversy over what is and is not appropriate content in the local high school year book:
Some Derby parents and residents concerned by the content of last year's high school yearbook will take their objections to the Derby school board Monday night.

The yearbook has generated criticism from parents who think it glamorizes potentially destructive behaviors, contradicts school policies and devalues academic achievements.

The controversy also has attracted defenders who praise the quality of the yearbook and say it portrays high school life realistically. They also argue that the student writers have exercised their rights to free speech and press.

Sheri Hills, one of the parents organizing opposition to the yearbook, said it emphasizes negative behaviors without showing consequences.

"It presents an unwed mother in her teens," Hills said, "but doesn't provide the statistics that an unwed mother in her teens has a 77 percent chance of being on welfare."

Courtney Unruh, who was student editor of the yearbook, said she thought the publication reflected what was going on in her school. She said she didn't think teenage pregnancy should be hidden from the public.

"We decided to cover it because a lot of people were affected by it in our school," she said.

The book contains a two-page spread with photos headlined "Teen pregnancy, a day in the life," that reproduces one day's diary from a junior who had a child in October 2005.

Hills said the yearbook "also presents students who have gotten tattoos behind their parents' backs, but doesn't show that tattoos are a major cause of Hepatitis C."

On pages 18 and 19, a feature headlined "Modifying the student body" offers photos of students' tattoos and piercings, their explanations for getting them, and their views about body art. One student admits going behind her father's back for a tattoo.

Unruh said the pages on tattoos and piercings reflect the realities of high school life.

"A lot of people do get them," she said.

Along with Hills, Karen Runyon has organized a petition to protest parts of the yearbook.

They plan to present a letter of objection and the petition at the board meeting. Additionally, five parents have signed up to speak about the issue. The board is expected to take the matter under consideration.

"We'd like to let the Derby school district know that they're displaying things that have a negative impact on education," Runyon said. She thinks student writers should emphasize academic rather than social aspects of school life.

Wayne Burke, assistant superintendent for Derby, said "there are always going to be two sides to every issue."

According to Burke, the yearbook complies with the Kansas Student Publication Act, and students have exercised their rights in producing it.

The act, which protects students against administrative censorship, states that "material shall not be suppressed solely because it involves political or controversial subject matter."

Burke also expressed support for yearbook adviser Jill Chittum, a journalism teacher at the high school and a former Eagle staff photographer.

"When an adviser meets with students, they talk about free speech, they talk about whether there will be controversy or consequences that go along with that," he said. "Our adviser did that."

Chittum said she has been asked by district administrators not to comment.

For Burke, dealing with controversy and learning about the consequences of writing are part of students' education in journalism.

Susan Arensman, spokeswoman for the Wichita school district, said she couldn't recall similar objections to a Wichita school yearbook from the community.

Wichita student journalists and instructors also follow the guidelines set out in the Kansas Student Publication Act, she said.
Personally, I'm less worried about what goes into a high school year book than what goes on in a high school's class.

Having said that, I can understand the need for any material that is published under school auspices to reflect the community's standards.

Is this a new species of Censorchimp?

You make the call
See our latest EduPosts here and this date's Extra Credit Reading there.