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And the children shall lead them: Student journalists make a difference

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by Jane Blystone

Scholastic journalists often make a difference in their school and community by publishing story packages that are live issues in their locale. However, when students choose not to publish something, they still a make a difference in their school, community and in the public media.

By majority vote of the editorial board of the Neshaminy High School, (Langhorne, Pa.) newspaper, the Playwickian voted in October not to publish the name of their school mascot in the paper. This decision has raised much awareness and controversy about a term they believe is racist and is the name of their school mascot (‘Redskins’ hereafter referred to as the “r” word.)

Late in October, I receive d a phone call from Playwickian editor Gillian McGoldrick, who wanted some support and direction from the Journalism Education Association Scholastic Press Rights Commission (www.jeasprc.org) regarding an editorial that her staff had published October 23 about the choice of the editorial board (14-7) not to use the name of their school mascot any longer in their student publication because it was a racist term. (See editorial.) In the same issue the seven students on the editorial board who dissented posted their opinion regarding the ‘r’ word.

The principal had demanded that they continue to use the term in their student publication.   However, that was in direct opposition to Pennsylvania Code 12.9 regarding student freedom of expression: “(a) The right of public school students to freedom of speech is guaranteed by the Constitution of the United states and the Constitution of the Commonwealth.  (b) Students shall have the right to express themselves unless the expression materially and substantially interferes with the educational process, threatens serious harm to the school or community, encourages unlawful activity or interferes with another individual’s rights.”  ( Pa. Code 12.9)

During discussion, we talked about several things she needed to do as the editor. First, she needed to contact the Student Press Law Center (www.splc.org), who could help her with legal council and then go to the JEA Scholastic Press Rights blog and push the Panic Button (see button in menu bar at the top of this page), where she could explain her staff’s situation.  Once she sent that button, we Scholastic Press Rights Commissioners moved into action. Tweets and Facebook posts were launched describing the situation and linking to Playwickian online pages. Student and adviser support came pouring in across the country as SPLC attorneys executive director Frank Lomonte and legal counsel Adam Goldstein moved into action to provide guidance to the students. Read the follow up story here.

Editors were called to a meeting of the principal, which was moved to an evening meeting so parents of staffers could attend. After the two-hour meeting and a 53-page directive from the principal about why they must continue to use the school mascot name, even though they believe it to be a racist term, the students published a November issue.

A firestorm of support for the students moved out into the area media including the The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer. From there it went viral on Twitter and Facebook, ESPN, The New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer as well as other national media outlets. Posts on their Twitter account and their Facebook pages also document opposing positions regarding not using the “r” word.

Students have engaged the Washington, D.C. law firm of Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz to represent them. The firm has informed the school district solicitor that the directive requiring students to use the “r” word in their publication is unconstitutional and that they will go to court if necessary.

Public media in the Neshaminy area are supporting the students by no longer using the “r” word in their publications when reporting on Neshaminy sports and the Bucks County Courier has called on the school board to intervene. “We call on the school board to act, to engage the community in a discussion, and to give students the validation and respect they deserve,” it said.

While student journalists at Neshaminy High School were forced to include the “r” word in their publications, cheerleaders in McCalla, Al. were punished for using the term “Trail of Tears “ on a banner they created for a football game in November. Dr. Stephen Nowlin, superintendent said he was disappointed that students at McAdory High School students used the term, considered offensive and insensitive to Native Americans.  Although an apology was posted earlier by the principal on the school website, it no longer appears.

Editors of the Playwickian continue to educate the public on the Lenni Lenape Nation in Bucks County within their publication to demonstrate the impact of using the “r” word.

For her leadership in the process of removing the “r” word from her publication, 16 year-old editor-in-chief Gillian McGoldrick has been awarded the Widener University High School Leadership award that also carries a $20,000 scholarship if she chooses to attend Widener.

The battle continues and student journalists continue to make a difference.  As one adult in the area shared with me earlier this week, “And children shall lead them” sums up the action of these responsible student journalists.

 

 

 

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