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Scholastic journalism enhances critical thinking, exploration and leadership;
Hazelwood promotes none of it

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by Bob Button

Hazelwood stories: The Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood is arguably the worst blow to scholastic journalism in our lifetime – primarily because it struck a hammer in favor of control and against education in America’s schools. 25 years of Hazelwood art

Having grown up in an era when student newspapers were seen as PR tools for the school, when I moved to Grosse Pointe, Michigan, for a full-time journalism position, I asked my new principal in our first meeting what the guidelines were for what could and could not be printed.  He looked at me and said, “I thought that was why we hired you!”  That was in the late ‘60s, just as students were beginning to challenge everything.

What followed was a career supporting students as they explored topics of interest or importance in their lives – even if they were potentially controversial – and encouraging students to cover subjects in depth or take a stance in editorials or columns with a full understanding of the issues involved.  That is critical thinking at its best and it promotes leadership.  Never did an administrator tell us we could not cover a subject, even if it put the school in a poor light.  But with freedom comes responsibility.  We made some mistakes, which led to one of the first staff-written editorial policies in the country, putting in writing the student editorial board’s responsibility for serving the newspaper’s readers.

Students cannot learn critical thinking if that thinking is limited arbitrarily.  Students cannot learn responsibility or leadership if they have no freedom to make decisions.

Too many principals then and now think they teach responsibility when they exercise control.  They do not.  They simply relieve students of responsibility.  When students have no control, they respond either by acquiescence to the demands of those in power or by challenging the power in some other way.  Neither is a desirable outcome.

With the Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood, many principals simply maintained the control they had always exercised, or established control they had relinquished under Tinker.  My principal didn’t change a thing.  Hazelwood does not mandate control – it permits it – and my principal was more interested in education than in control.  But in the 25 years since Hazelwood we have a whole generation of administrators who see control as their first priority, of teachers forced to be concerned first and foremost with test scores, of students who think of school newspapers as an exercise in innocuous comment.

Sure, there are wonderful administrators, great teachers and challenging students fighting the good fight.  But Hazelwood promotes none of it.

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