The Playwickian, the student newspaper at Neshaminy High School in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, recently published an investigation on the questionable filing method for sexual harassment and assault complaints against its teachers. Outgoing Editor in Chief Grace Marion published the investigation after discovering that Neshaminy School District hid records of sexual misconduct in student files, rather than in those of its teachers, as a matter of policy.
Marion’s previous investigations and reporting for The Playwickian have attracted at least one threatening phone call to her home. Both the reporter and her work, however, are remarkably assured. When she was in tenth grade, Marion reported on funding being cut from certain organizations like The Playwickian but not as much from others. During her time at The Playwickian, the paper’s editorial board voted to ban the name of the school’s mascot, “Redskins,” from its pages, and published an editorial calling the name “racist” and “a term of hate.” CJR covered the story in 2014. In an interview with the Student Press Law Center, Marion expressed concern that tension around the editorial decision made The Playwickian a target for censorship.
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In her final letter as editor, Marion criticized her school for censorious behavior and alleged that administrators outed LGBTQ+ student-journalists to their families as retribution “for articles that Neshaminy didn’t like.” Principal Robert McGee did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
“I was later pulled out of class for about an hour to sit in a room full of adults and have our principal scream at me about how school papers do not have the rights that the constitution guarantees us all,” wrote Marion. “This wasn’t even the first time that I had gotten that speech.”
CJR spoke to the 18-year-old Marion while she was traveling in Paris, France. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
When was the first time you had the idea of investigating the story about allegations of sexual misconduct and asking for the records?
Last spring. A history teacher was arrested for beating his girlfriend. She was a recent Neshaminy graduate. She had moved in with him a month after graduation. The student body and the teachers knew they had been dating when she was still a student. But there was no proof. I filed the original request to get the sexual harassment and assault complaints against him and a few other teachers that had been in trouble for that in the past. And for him in particular, [the school] told me these records didn’t exist. But as a freshman, I had filed [a complaint] against him. So I knew that a record existed and they were lying to me or they had thrown the record out.
You also discovered there had to be other records.
Oh yeah. I knew a handful of other kids that had filed complaints against him and I knew plenty of girls that had filed complaints that had issues with him.
Was it ever a question about other teachers as well, or was it just this one?
It started out with just a question of him in particular when [the school] said these records don’t exist. Of course we filed for records of other teachers. They told us we couldn’t have them. We knew when they told us those records didn’t exist that there was a real problem in the filing system. After that, I interviewed Dr. [Robert] McGee, our principal, about how the records were kept. That’s how we found out that those complaints are kept in the students’ files rather than the teachers’.
When did you interview the principal?
Summer of last year. It took them whatever the maximum is for them to respond to a right-to-know request [Ed. note: five business days, then an extension of up to 30 business days] and then the interview was done this spring. I had been trying to find other records. I finally just gave up and interviewed the principal.
What were the other records?
I was trying to find other students that filed complaints against a particular teacher, and I knew some, but they didn’t file it for sexual harassment. It was for other things, like religious comments. So we couldn’t find any proof about him in particular. I couldn’t prove that. I’m sure it exists. I couldn’t get it.
After I interviewed the principal, I was talking to a group of my friends and this girl that I’m not really close with, she tweeted what happened to her on the bus that day. And so I interviewed her about that [on] the same day. The next day, I interviewed the superintendent and then I went back and sent our principal a list of questions. He never responded to the request for a secondary interview.
Why didn’t you just publish this story right away?
I didn’t get all the information until the spring. We didn’t publish it right away because we wanted to publish it in our print issue. And we also didn’t want it coming out while the girl who talked about the rape on the school bus—we didn’t want it coming out while she was still a student. It was published the day of graduation. We distributed at graduation.
Was it a safety issue as well?
Yeah. At the same time we don’t really have a need to publish more than two or three times a year. Our budget’s been cut by around $2,000. We have a prior review period of 10 days and then another three days plus editing. Even if it wasn’t a safety issue, we probably wouldn’t have been able to publish until then anyway.
There’s a censorship period by the school, you know, “prior review.” That period really sets all the coverage really far back. [Prior review] didn’t say anything about the story but they did say something about the unsigned editorial that we published discussing this story.
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What did they say about the unsigned editorial?
They just threw a fit and they said, “There’s no way this was a unanimous vote [by the editorial board of The Playwickian].” Of course, it got through because it was a unanimous vote. It was kind of a silly thing for anyone to vote down. The column explained how there’s a poor culture of handling sexual misconduct cases in Neshaminy and the community needs to work together to fix it. I think it’s the only op-ed piece we published that month.
Was there a similar kind of reaction to your editor’s letter claiming LGBTQ students were outed by administrators?
There was no reaction from prior review or from the administration before it was published. Which is surprising, [because] it’s pretty harsh. There’s been a large community reaction. Mostly negative results for the sexual harassment article; mostly positive for my farewell.
Nobody can really respect a principal that outs gay kids to their families.
When it came to the timing [of publication], did you know you were going to be in France?
I planned my trip before I decided to write that editorial. So it was kind of a mix of decisions. I just didn’t want to be associated with the whole atmosphere of the school.
The students in general supported the investigation. They already knew what was going on. Most investigative pieces like that, it’s already common knowledge. I tried to interview teachers to get comments. None of them talked to me. They were all afraid to talk about it.
What were the other resources outside of the school you turned to for help with this investigation?
I contacted Frank LoMonte of the [Student Press Law Center] for help with checking the legal privacy issues.
For the sexual assault article, [LoMonte] put me in contact with education reporter Bethany Barnes from The Oregonian. She helped me go through and check everything and she put me in contact with [Charole] Shakeshaft who was quoted in that article. So that was really helpful contact. And they both read for things like grammar and made sure it was OK.
With issues like censorship, the National Scholastic Press Association, the Pennsylvania School Press Association, and the Journalism Education Association, all those organizations have been super helpful.
You told the SPLC “about a dozen articles were stopped from printing” during your time with the paper. Is censorship something The Playwickian anticipates it will have to deal with going forward?
Absolutely. The SPLC is working with us to file a lawsuit on the censorship. I don’t think until that lawsuit is won on our end that anything will change.
Do you hope other news organizations will follow up on your investigation?
I hope they not only follow up on it, but also force the school to do something. With enough public outrage they’ll have to fix something. Or at least pretend to fix something.
For other student journalists thinking about doing a similar investigation, what do you wish you had known when you first started?
Turn off your Facebook notifications as soon as you post the story. We got a lot of harassment and backlash and personal attacks. A lot of people calling for the paper to be abolished. I stopped reading them.
Were they other students or parents?
Parents and adult community members mostly. The students in general supported the investigation. They already knew what was going on. Most investigative pieces like that, it’s already common knowledge. I tried to interview teachers to get comments. None of them talked to me. They were all afraid to talk about it.
After all the harassment and backlash, why do you want to keep being a journalist?
It’s the fourth pillar of democracy. It’s what keeps government in check with the people.
Is there a particular area that you think you’ll specialize in?
Yeah. I love corruption investigations. I have a problem with authority figures.
Is there any other advice you have from your experience at the student paper over the past four years?
This is going to sound terrible, but my advice is to listen to gossip. If the same thing is happening over and over again and the same people are having the same issue, it’s a story. I know a lot of journalists hate gossip and don’t want to be associated with that, but if I’m hearing the same story every year from the same kids about the same sports team or same teacher, it’s a problem. You have to know what’s going on in your community. And if that means listening to things like that, you have to do it and get used to it.
ICYMI: While speaking to CNN, a writer for Capital Gazette was brutally honest about the phrase “thoughts and prayers”Karen K. Ho is a freelance business, culture and media reporter, based in New York. She is also a former Delacorte Fellow at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @karenkho.