Students at Fremont Junior High School in Mesa never saw the latest edition of the school newspaper.
That’s because principal Dwayne Priester, who objected to opinion columns critical of the school’s dress code and the way it is enforced, confiscated all 1,400 copies before they were circulated.
"He has them under lock and key in his office," said freshman Kristen DeBenon, 15, the newspaper’s editor.
She said that she and her staff will write letters to Mesa Unified School District Superintendent Debra Duvall and assistant superintendent Linda Rottman asking for the release of the newspapers, and if that doesn’t work the students will take the issue to the governing board.
"It’s all about (the principal)," said freshman Ashley Morelos, 15, a staff reporter. "He wants the newspaper to look good so he can look good."
Priester was out of town Thursday and unavailable for comment. Rottman said she did not know all of Priester’s reasons for blocking circulation of the newspaper, but she said Priester expressed concern to her that at least one opinion column might stir racial tension on campus.
"It was deemed to be very unbalanced in its reporting," Rottman said.
She said administrators have a duty to ensure student publications are fair and accurate because they are published under the school’s name using public money. District policy in Mesa says administrators may exercise "editorial control" over the content of school-sponsored speech so long as the actions are reasonably related to legitimate educational concerns.
"The principal stands in the role of the publisher," Rottman said. "He exercised his responsibility as publisher."
Rottman said the principal saw the column before the newspaper was published and asked for changes — and those changes were not made. "The
procedures weren’t followed," she said.
The column in question alleged that white students sometimes wear bandannas on campus without being reprimanded, but minority students who wear them are punished under the school’s dress code.
A second column expressed the view that students should be allowed to wear hats.
Anthony Morelos, Ashley’s father, said the school should allow students more freedom to speak their mind.
"They can’t speak their opinions, and they can’t write their opinions," he said.
Felicia Smoyer, the mother of Fremont’s editorials editor, 15-year-old freshman Sarah Smoyer, agreed.
"I think they should be able to speak out about what they feel," she said. "We want them to come to us and tell us how they’re feeling."
The staff members said the principal not only blocked circulation of the newspaper, he also removed the journalism class from registration booklets for next school year.
They said class registration forms are due today, and nobody was able to sign up for the newspaper staff.
Neither Rottman nor Fremont assistant principal Bartley Beckert could comment on the newspaper’s status next school year.
They said they did not know Priester’s intention for the newspaper class.
"The master schedule is still in process," Beckert said.
Staff members also said they are worried their adviser, Cynthia Wong, might face retaliation for standing up to the administration. Wong has taught at the school for seven years and advised the student newspaper for three years.
"Her job is on the line," De-Benon said. "But she’s fighting for the newspaper."
DeBenon said her staff has appealed for help from the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va.
Mark Goodman, executive director of the center, said many journalism advisers nationwide lose their publications assignments when they try to defend their students’ right to free speech.
"You get a very high turnover rate of teacher advisers," he said. "As a result, you get student journalism that is incredibly weak."
Goodman said the U.S. Supreme Court gave administrators control over schoolsponsored speech in 1988, and many principals use that power to turn their school newspapers into public relations tools.
"Many administrators do not see a student newspaper as journalism," he said. "They see it as another device for themselves to get their message out to the public."
Elena DeBenon, Kristen’s mother, said the feud at Fremont has taught her daughter at least one journalism lesson, however.
"It shows them that censorship is out there, and that’s a valuable lesson," Elena DeBenon said.