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Controversial article yanked from Parker High student paper

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Frank Schultz
November 19, 2013

JANESVILLE—The Parker High School principal ordered the student newspaper reprinted last month because of an article about some inappropriate T-shirts.

Principal Chris Laue said the article included major inaccuracies. He gave the newspaper staff two options: rewrite the story to correct inaccuracies or pull the article.

The result was that no one saw the Oct. 28 edition of The Odin. The paper was reprinted and distributed Oct. 31, minus two photographs of the offending T-shirts and the article about them.

The controversy was over T-shirts that some students had printed. The shirts included a sexual reference and a vulgar expression.

On one side of the shirt: “The boys are hot/The girls are fine/We're the class of 6+9.”

On the back: “KISS OUR C1AS5.”

Laue saw the article and images after the paper was printed but before it could be distributed. That same morning, he spoke to the newspaper staff.

“They opted not to run the article. I never directed them to do that. I just gave them the opportunity to get the correct information,” Laue said.

Laue said he offered to reprint the paper from his school budget. The cost was between $400 and $500, he said.

“I tried to approach it from a learning standpoint,” Laue said, adding that the teacher in charge of the paper is new and the paper's staff is largely inexperienced.

“I wanted them to know that if they ask questions, we will give the correct information, … but you can't publish things that are inaccurate,” Laue said.

The article was about students who had worn the shirts to school. As with all clothing that is deemed inappropriate, the students were given the choice to wear something else, turn the shirts inside out, or have a parent bring them clothing, Laue said.

The Odin article said some students chose in-school suspension rather than cover up.

“I didn't want the story to be depicted as the kids were not willing to be compliant because that wasn't the case,” Laue said.

The article did not include any information attributed to school staff or administration.

The article said 55 students wore the shirts to school, and 35 students were sent to in-school suspension. Laue said those numbers could not be confirmed.

“We talked to a number of kids,” he said, some in the halls, some in the office, and at one point seven were taken to the in-school suspension room so officials could talk to them.

One student called a parent, who took the student home. The rest of the students complied, Laue said.

The article quoted a student as complaining that school staff let students get away with other inappropriate clothing.

Laue said he told the newspaper staff that: “Every (clothing) issue that's presented to us that we see or hear about, we address.”

Teachers are told to send clothing issues to the principal or assistant principals, which makes for more consistent application of the rules, Laue said.

Laue said he didn't want to give credence to a shirt that was not approved to be worn at school.

Laue said it wasn't appropriate to reproduce the shirt's words in the paper. He could not remember, however, whether he specifically forbade students from using the photos in the revised edition.

“My suggestion was, why wouldn't you use the approved shirt?” he said.

All classes had school-approved T-shirts printed for homecoming, he said. The shirts are checked for inappropriate content.

Laue said he encourages the newspaper staff to take on newsworthy subjects. “I just ask that it's accurate and tasteful.”

Laue said that in the past, he has reviewed The Odin either before or after it was printed. In the future, he said, he will always review it before it's printed.

“I wasn't trying to strip them of their freedom of speech,” Laue said, adding that as principal, he can control the paper's content.

The U.S. Supreme Court gives public school principals limited authority to censor student publications.

Superintendent Karen Schulte said in an email that “courts have, for many years, held that school districts have a responsibility to protect minors from exposure to vulgar and offensive language. The school newspaper is not a public forum to which anyone can contribute. It is a district-sanctioned publication and, as such, the district can, constitutionally, regulate its content.”

Also, “articles that refer to student discipline are not permitted due to student and family privacy concerns,” Schulte wrote. “Finally, by featuring the unsanctioned T-shirt, the article exceeded the district's policies against content or material that tends to be obscene, offensive and inappropriate for a school environment.”

Schulte continued: “Student opinion regarding how some students choose to represent themselves and their school is an interesting and important topic for a school newspaper. It is certainly worthy of an opinion piece or an editorial. However, the writing must be factually accurate, respectful, appropriate for a school environment and compliant with district policy and with the law. We will invite the student writer to submit another piece on the topic that meets these requirements.”



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