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As ETHS administrators tighten the grip,
they may want to heed pastoral advice

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by Stan Zoller, MJE
I had the opportunity to attend an event that was simply called “We the People:  Making Our Voices Heard.”

It featured an “advocacy resource fair” followed by presentations addressing the “State of Our Democracy.”

The first speaker hit the nail on the head about the event’s importance.

“We are doing what we should be doing.  Citizens of the World need to take responsibility of being good citizenry; we need to consider the state of our democracy because an informed citizenry makes good decisions.”

Bravo.

And who made this statement?

A local politician?  Nope.

An educator or school board member?  Nope.

A community activist with a special agenda? Nope.

An impassioned journalist? Nope.

It was Norval Brown. Wait, let me clarify that – Pastor Norval Brown.

Brown is Pastor at Christ United Methodist Church in Deerfield, Illinois, which hosted the event because it hosts community events on a regular basis.

Attendees were area residents and representatives of various civic organizations such as Common Cause and local chapters of the League of Women Voters.

Unfortunately, there were no school districts or school boards represented.

And this is where I erred. I should have extended an invitation to the Evanston Township High School (ETHS) Board of Education.

It might have learned a thing or two about civic engagement and why it is important our voices be heard – including student voices.

As was reported here Oct. 12, administrators at ETHS saw fit to confiscate and prohibit distribution of the Sept. 22 issue of The Evanstonian, the school newspaper because it had articles on student use of marijuana. Students were also ordered to remove the paper from the Evanstonian website.

To recap, several members of the Evanstonian staff along with myself and a representative from a local community activist organization made statements at a school building. If there was a ray of hope, as noted in my Oct. 12 posting, it was that one School Board member, Jonathan Baum, called for the matter to be discussed in open session at the next School Board meeting, Monday, Oct. 23.

The district released the following statement Thursday, Oct. 12:

Statement Regarding September 22, 2017 Evanstonian Articles

On September 22, 2017, the Evanston Township High School (ETHS) student newspaper published a series of articles under the heading The Pot Thickens… The two-page spread features six articles, including 6 Questions for a Drug Dealer and School Stress Causes Marijuana Usage. Both articles promote illegal conduct that also violates school policy. For example, the Drug Dealer article states that a reason to sell marijuana is to make money, as much as one hundred-sixty dollars per ounce. The School Stress article states that using marijuana makes a student funnier and more confident. The article goes on to state that a “feeling of euphoria and bliss” is caused by a chemical in marijuana.

 Dr. Marcus Campbell, Principal of ETHS, collaborated with the ETHS administrative team and legal counsel in reviewing the published articles. Dr. Campbell determined that the articles glorify both drug use and drug dealing, messages that are detrimental to ETHS students.

The U.S. Constitution and the Illinois Speech Right of Student Journalists Act both provide student journalists with certain rights to speech that ETHS celebrates. Those rights are limited. When student journalism incites unlawful acts, violation of school policy, or disrupts the school, the administration has the authority to impose limits. The articles on September 22, 2017 did cross these lines and were removed from circulation for that reason.

The statement has more holes in it than a Dunkin’ Donuts. To begin, the U.S. Constitution does not address student press rights because, odds are there was no student media when the Constitution was written. But why sweat details.

Secondly, there is an abysmal lack of clarity regarding Illinois’ Speech Rights of Scholastic Journalists Act. As noted in my Oct. 12 posting, there are four restrictions on scholastic journalists. They address libel, unwarranted invasion of privacy, violation of federal or state law and incitement of students to commit an unlawful act. Period.

A third component that is most irritating is the procedures detailed in the statement are not what students said transpired. Principal Marcus Campbell approved the issue before it was distributed. It was not until the next day when English and Reading Department Chair Samone Jones ordered the confiscation.

If there was a meeting with legal counsel students, parents, faculty, staff and the public were not made aware of it.  For good reason. It did not occur until after Jones ordered the confiscation. Odds are it also did not occur until after Oct. 9 School Board meeting because school officials were not expecting the subject be brought to light at a School Board meeting.

The statement shamefully infers students lied to the School Board and Campbell did not approve the paper.

The statement was issued Oct. 12. The next day student staff members met with Campbell and Superintendent Eric Witherspoon. It appears the ETHS administration is flexing its intimidation muscle as students and the adviser appear reluctant to respond to emails.  Why? Perhaps because they have been warned against sharing information and fear retribution.

My sources indicated that during the meeting Witherspoon said the journalism teacher was responsible for teaching what he called “journalistic shortcomings.”  Additionally, sources tell me Witherspoon made it clear the school could decide not to offer journalism and that the school could “yank the paper next year.”

Witherspoon reportedly supported Jones’ action, saying she has the responsibility to represent the whole school, and there must be “journalistic integrity” and the Evanstonian was not their “personal blog.”

Campbell reportedly told students they “could have worked through this.” What he forgot is they cooperated by showing him the edition before it was scheduled to distributed.  By saying it “could have been worked out” is like installing a smoke detector after the fire department has been called.

Efforts are under way to gain additional information using Illinois FOI laws.

In the meantime, it’s not clear who Witherspoon, Campbell, Jones and the rest of the Board are going to listen to because they seem to have their own ideas.

There is, however, one person they should listen to.

Pastor Brown.

One Comment

  1. The School Board needs to be made aware of the unique learning opportunities school media run by the students offers. It is the only class that stresses research by interview not just internet. The students must evaluate the information gathered and make sure it is balanced. An adviser offers advice about how to get this balance, but the students learn lots by making hard decisions. They work as a team to produce a product of interest to their audience within a deadline and a budget. These are skills any school board should applaud, not suppress.

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