WINCHESTER — The Frederick County School Board unanimously voted Tuesday to give the School Board oversight over student publications.
The decision to give administrators and board members more defined oversight over school-sponsored publications occurred during the Frederick School Board business meeting on Tuesday. Before the vote there was no discussion, although board members did ask a few clarifying questions, on the policy change.
The change on Policy 313P, Student Publications, was prepared by Steve Edwards, the school division’s coordinator of policy and communications. Edwards said in the meeting that the policy update is to reflect recommendations from the Virginia School Board Association. The changes were reviewed by the School Board’s legal counsel.
Frederick County Public Schools has school publications at two schools.
Millbrook High School has a yearly printed newspaper with a website called The BlueXpress and a corresponding quarterly printed magazine called BX Connects. Frederick County Middle School has an online monthly online publication called The Trojan Times. Both publications are paid for by Frederick County Public Schools.
Before the change, Policy 313P just generally stated “The principal shall be ultimately responsible for such publications” sponsored by the school.
Now, the policy update says school-sponsored publications “are not intended to provide a public forum for students or the general public.”
In the case of school-sponsored publications, the School Board is the publisher, the principal is the editor, the faculty sponsor is the co-editor and students appointed by the co-editor may serve as assistant editors and journalists, according to the policy update.
Any materials expected to be controversial to some members of the community should be carefully considered before publication by those involved and brought to the attention of the principal, the update said.
Students writing and editing for school-sponsored publications are also now responsible for publishing material that is “not lewd, obscene, defamatory, sexual or an invasion of privacy.”
Azrael Stavely, 17, a senior at Millbrook High School, took a journalism class at Millbrook last year and said it was already difficult enough for students to write about what they wanted for the student publications.
“Students should be able to write about what they care about and not be censored,” Azrael told The Star.
In Azrael’s case, she said she had an article and an opinion piece rejected for publication at Millbrook. Her article covered the local Women’s March in January, and she wrote about how it was organized by area high school students.
The story didn’t get published, because Stavely didn’t interview the president of the school’s Young Republicans Club, as she was asked to by a faculty member. Stavely didn’t think it was necessary to interview the president of the Young Republicans Club because the club president did not attend the march. Meanwhile, the president of the Young Democrats Club, who she interviewed, did organize the event.
“It just didn’t make sense to me,” Azrael said.
She also wrote an editorial on Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh regarding the allegations of sexual harassment that had been made against him. That editorial also did not get published. Azrael said she was told there was a fear she would get harassed by other students for her piece.
That second rejection frustrated her even more. The updated rules on school-sponsored publications would further prevent students from writing about issues beyond the school environment, she said.
“They just want it to be for the school,” Azrael said. “I don’t like that, because journalism is not just about one thing.”
If students cannot write about their surrounding community, Azrael said it’s less likely they will want to be a part of such a student publication.
“How are you supposed to learn to write about politics when all you can write about is school stuff,” Azrael asked. “They don’t want their students to talk about things that really matter in a way, and that makes me mad.”
She’s worried student interest in journalism will die off. In fact, Azrael said she’s given up pursuing a career in journalism following her experiences at Millbrook.
Frederick School Board Chair John Lamanna told The Star on Wednesday that the policy update doesn’t tighten limitations, it just better spells out the rules. He added that this policy will just better help students “do the right thing.”
Lamanna said he believes the role of student publications is to report on the issues and concerns of the school accurately without bias. But students should also be allowed to cover the surrounding community, he said.
Winchester Public Schools last updated its policy on student publications in 2003. The policy states that the principal has the right and responsibility to edit or deny publication of materials in a school-sponsored publication. It also states that the School Board does not have any oversight over student publications. The school division, however, doesn’t have a regularly published outlet for students.
Clarke County Public Schools does give its School Board oversight of student publications as publisher, but there are currently no student publications in the division.
All three local school divisions cited in their school-publication policies the 1988 landmark Supreme Court case of Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. In a 5-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment does not prohibit school officials from exercising reasonable authority over materials meant for school-sponsored publications.