Great story in Buzzfeed from Springdale, where a high school newspaper has been suspended and a teacher was threatened with termination after the newspaper’s investigation into the transfer of five high school football players within the district.
In late October, the Har-Ber High School Herald published a months-long investigation into the transfer of five varsity players from Har-Ber to Springdale High School, its arch rival within the Springdale Public Schools district, during the school year in 2017. The story raised questions about the decision by the district to approve the transfers. The district was not happy with the scrutiny, Buzzfeed reports:
“They are like, ‘Well, you raised an uproar, we’re going to try and silence you,’” Halle Roberts, 17, the editor-in-chief of the Har-Ber Herald, told BuzzFeed News. …
“Once it dropped, everyone was talking about it,” said Roberts. “Parents were mad, students were mad. It just caused a chain of events.”
Those events include the Springdale Public Schools district officials demanding the story be removed from the school website — despite Arkansas state law protecting the rights of student publications. Several school and district officials didn’t return requests for comment.
On Tuesday, Paul Griep, the principal of Har-Ber high school, announced the newspaper was suspended from publishing while the school district writes new protocols for student publications. Roberts argues that the school district is violating her and her classmates’ free speech.
“They are trying to change the policy, which takes away our First Amendment right,” she said.
Under district policy, a student a student can only transfer and play sports via a legitimate academic transfer; they cannot be recruited to transfer or transfer simply to play on a different team. The Herald — staffed by a newspaper class of ten students — dug up documents showing the parents’ letters of request to transfer for academic reasons, but the student reporters had previously conducted interviews with two of the student-athletes themselves, who seemed to suggest that their reasons for transferring had to do with football. The Herald story also reported on a video it acquired, in which one of the parents at a bonfire party at the end of the football season burned Har-Ber gear and yelled complaints about the school’s football coach.
The article, written by students Jack Williams, Molly Hendren, and Matteo Campagnola, ran alongside an editorial criticizing the district’s process for transfers.
As the students worked on the story, the teacher who advises the newspaper took some heat from school officials, Buzzfeed reports:
The principal of Har-Ber knew the controversial football story was coming and asked the newspaper’s teacher adviser, Karla Sprague, to show him a copy of the story before it was published. She refused.
Once published, the district got involved, and from the school took a more heavy-handed approach:
Three days after the story was published, the deputy superintendent for Springdale Public Schools asked Sprague to take the story down. She complied.
Sprague and the journalism staff tried to get the district to allow it to be republished.
But on Monday, Springdale Superintendent Jim Rollins wrote in a letter to Sprague that the story would not be republished because it was “intentionally negative, demeaning, derogatory, hurtful and potentially harmful to the students addressed in those articles.”
Rollins also called it “extremely divisive and disruptive” to the school district.
Griep, the principal of Har-Ber, sent a memo to Sprague Tuesday saying that from now on, nothing could be printed without prior review by school authorities while new guidelines for student media were being created.
“This includes the issue of the Har-Ber Herald scheduled for publication later this week,” he wrote.
Griep also noted that if the Herald continued to publish, the student adviser, Sprague, could be terminated.
An attorney for the Student Press Law Center told Buzzfeed that the district’s actions run afoul of the law:
School officials at this point seem to me to have completely thrown up their hands and said, ‘We’re not going to listen to what the law says in our state, and we’re going to do what we want.’
The Arkansas Student Publications Act mandates that, “student publications policies shall recognize that students may exercise their right of expression” — making Arkansas one of 14 states in the nation with such protections explicitly established by state law.
I suspect there will be more to come on this.
More at Buzzfeed: read the whole thing.
FYI: If someone wants to pass along the Herald article, or a copy of it, we would be happy to share it on the Arkansas Blog — where it can live on, free from the prying eyes of school district minders.