United States Project

Covering misconduct allegations as a high school journalist

October 3, 2019

On a Monday evening last September, the Burlington High School Register, which bills itself as “Vermont’s oldest high school newspaper,” published multiple allegations of unprofessional conduct against a guidance counselor at the school. Halle Newman, a Register co–editor in chief, had requested documents from the Vermont Agency of Education following an anonymous tip. The agency provided the paper with an affidavit of formal charges against the counselor, which the paper subsequently published. The next day, an interim principal censored the story. 

Register journalists consulted with the ACLU and Student Press Law Center, and then complained that the censorship violated their First Amendment rights, as well as the state’s New Voices legislation. The article was republished within the week, with the addition of an editor’s note detailing the censorship attempt. Over the next several months, the Register continued to cover the counselor, whose license was ultimately revoked by state officials. 

“We didn’t realize how consequential what we were doing was until we did it,” Newman says. “It was really, really huge.” (Administrators from Burlington High School did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.)

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Such administrative pushback is not limited to the Register. Student journalists are subject to harsher publishing restrictions than their professional counterparts, which can make breaking sensitive stories, such as those involving misconduct allegations against officials at their schools, difficult, if not impossible. Free-press rights for student journalists vary from state to state; many hew to the minimal protections stemming from Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, a 1988 Supreme Court decision that upheld the right of schools to censor student news outlets. To date, fourteen states have passed New Voices legislation in order to grant student journalists greater protections against administrative review and prior restraint than those afforded under the Hazelwood decision. Private-school students lack such rights entirely, according to Andrew Koppelman, a professor of law and political science at Northwestern University. At such institutions, says Koppelman, “the First Amendment is not much help.” 

Earlier this year, an English teacher and former Catholic priest resigned from the Masters School, a private school in New York, after a Jesuit group identified him on a list of those with a “credible allegation of abuse.” News outlets covered the resignation, but Tower, the Masters School student newspaper, at first did not. Sophia Brousett, who was news editor for Tower at the time, says administrators initially barred the paper from covering the affair but relented after editors met several times with administrators. 

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“All we needed to do was have a few conversations to decide how to report fairly, and we agreed to leave out student opinion,” Brousett says. “In the end they were completely able to understand why it was important and why, ethically, our newspaper had to carry on the conversation.” 

The Masters School does not read or edit stories prior to publication, according to Brousett; rather, administrators and students work together to reach an agreement on guidelines for stories. The relationship between administrators and student journalists is positive, says Brousett; administrator guidelines are suggestions, not binding, and Brousett does not consider the paper to be subject to prior review or restraint. (The Masters School did not respond to voicemails, but told CJR in an email that Tower “is a student-run paper, independently produced under the supervision of a faculty member. We are proud of the effort our students put into researching and covering stories and the professionalism with which they tackle every topic.”) 

As a student journalist, it’s your job to figure out what the news is, and cover it. If you know what the news is, and it’s important to you, you can get it out there.

In California, which has a New Voices law, Roseville High School’s Eye of the Tiger was the first news outlet to report on a misconduct investigation by local police into the school’s varsity football coach. (Ultimately, no charges were filed against the coach.) Eye of the Tiger published the coach’s name and received significant backlash from readers for its coverage, according to faculty adviser Bobby Ritter.

“You have to do what’s right, no matter how unpopular it makes you,” Ritter says. “I was proud of my kids for knowing that. When you don’t report the truth, you lose your integrity and you lose the trust of your audience.” Ritter adds that school administrators were completely willing to interview for all coverage on the subject. (The Roseville High administration was not available for comment for this story.) 

Movements such as #MeToo pose challenges that are unique to student journalists who wish to cover misconduct. According to a 2012 survey from the American Association of University Women, more than 80 percent of girls and 78 percent of boys in grades eight through eleven had experienced sexual harassment. The student journalists interviewed for this story all said they would feel a responsibility to report on allegations of sexual misconduct involving staff or students at their schools. #MeToo “has landed very squarely on high school campuses,” Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel at the Student Press Law Center, says. “Recently, people have been given the courage to come forward after years, and student media is where a lot of that discussion is taking place.” But such coverage can be especially challenging for those student journalists not protected by efforts such as New Voices. 

Even without such protections, student journalists can still tell stories administrators may be hesitant to see published. Hiestand says coverage that focuses on larger, cultural issues rather than specific instances and identifying details can be an important alternative approach for student journalists, and can also help mitigate concerns about libel allegations. “As a student journalist, it’s your job to figure out what the news is, and cover it,” Hiestand says. “If you know what the news is, and it’s important to you, you can get it out there.” 

Last year, the Patriot Post, the magazine of the private American Heritage School in Plantation, Florida, dedicated its November/December issue to a discussion of sexual harassment within the school. Patriot Post journalists sent their fellow students a Google Form with questions about sexual harassment, and received two hundred and eighty responses. Editors presented data from the surveys, along with an article, photos, infographics, and a “What You Can Do” box with advice for victims, witnesses, and bystanders, in a four-page spread headlined #UsToo. 

“This is one of the most topical issues affecting students right now,” former copy editor Olivia Lloyd says. “Students want to hear about it, and we want to cover it.”

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Avani Kalra is a senior at the Francis W. Parker School in Chicago, Illinois. She is serving in her second year as editor-in-chief of The Parker Weekly, one of the oldest high-school newspapers in North America, and her writing has been published in The Daily Northwestern.