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LA Times

James Rainey

Write Away, Student Journalists 

There’s hope for high school papers, especially with the new state law that protects teachers.

Not so long ago, a journalism foundation surveyed American high school students and found about half believed the government could legally censor the Internet. Three-quarters expressed ambivalence toward the 1st Amendment. More than a third said it went too far in guaranteeing our most basic rights.

What’s afoot in the land of Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson? We’d like to be nurturing the next Edward R. Murrow, but it sounds like we’ve got a bunch of kids auditioning to be Robert Mugabe’s information minister. Frightening.

Some of us were lucky to be soaked in the values of free speech and a free press when we were young. It happened at the high school paper, where we wrote not only about bad cafeteria food and sewer sliding, but the evils of apartheid and the need to integrate our student government.

High school journalism has suffered some blows in the three decades since I was editor of the Samohi.

When schools cut electives, some papers disappeared. There’s less money, so many publish once a month or less, instead of weekly, as we did at Santa Monica High School.

The sheen of those post-Watergate days has faded too, so fewer young people seek the thrill of sitting down with the principal or superintendent and demanding answers: Why can’t we have more Advanced Placement classes? Do you really think you can pacify the students by emptying the vending machines of Mountain Dew?

This could all be pretty dispiriting, but a couple of recent developments give me hope that student newspapers will continue to cajole, inspire and have a little fun along the way.

A new state law, taking effect with the new year, prohibits administrators from retaliating against advisors who try to protect student press freedom. And a nonprofit has spelled out plans to help students distinguish fact from the furious fulminations that, more and more often, pose as news.

State Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) sponsored the Journalism Teacher Protection Act because too many school principals retaliate against energized journalism students by exiling their best teachers to driver’s ed or freshman English.

Accounts of such puny, punitive actions are legion.

Administrators at South East High School in South Gate booted journalism advisor Darryl Adams a couple of years ago after he supported a student whose editorial contended that random drugs and weapons searches were conducted unevenly.

The bosses at Rialto High School told Rick Whited his student journalists were “too negative,” pushing him out as advisor even after he offered the creative compromise of teaching a separate class in public relations.

Janet Ewell’s crime at Rancho Alamitos High School in Garden Grove? Letting her students write about filthy bathrooms, bad cafeteria food and teachers who did not make enough time to help students. She got the boot in 2002.

(Administrators overseeing those teachers either could not be reached or declined to comment.)

Those supporting the Yee legislation compiled 15 stories about high school journalism advisors being pushed aside. Doubtless many others have not come forward for fear of being reassigned, or worse.

Charismatic teachers often get replaced by someone with less verve or experience and almost certainly less stomach for pushing student rights.

I’d like to think administrators only crack down when students write something truly disruptive. But in nearly three decades of newspapering, I’ve dealt with too many principals and superintendents who tend toward the officious and hidebound. (Why are they always the ones who, armed with featherweight PhDs, insist on being called “Doctor”?)

Ewell said she has seen poor rural and urban schools, typically with large immigrant populations, frequently lose out when journalism is cut back.

“And they are kids who most need to come to understand 1st Amendment freedoms,” Ewell said, “to understand they can have a voice.”

Since the principal pushed Adams out as advisor to South East High’s Jaguar Times—where the students are the sons and daughters of working-class Latinos—journalism enrollment has dropped to about a quarter of what it once was. After changing to another new advisor, Rialto High has not printed a paper this school year.

The founder of the News Literacy Project thinks the explosion of news on the Internet makes this a time when students need more, not less, understanding of how to find the truth.

Beginning next month with pilot efforts in New York and Maryland, the project will send professional journalists to teach middle and high school students how to “distinguish verified information from raw messages, spin, gossip and opinion,” said Alan Miller, a former L.A. Times reporter who conceived the project.

Amen. Maybe when it spreads the curriculum around the country (as planned), it will begin to put a dent in those e-mails I keep getting from those happy dunderheads who just know something is true because “it’s all over the blogs.”

Then, if we can get a few more kids in journalism classes, their teachers protected from censorship by The Man, we might see more high schoolers agreeing that old 1st Amendment is pretty cool after all.