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Riding out the storm:

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Find your way past roadblocks to save stories only YOU can do best

by Candace Bowen, MJE

Unfortunately, the pandemic is the perfect storm for high school media. Students have important stories only they can tell, but administrators really don’t want all these stories out there. On top of that, some admins are already finding ways to hamper reporting – or stop it altogether.

Being aware of these tactics and knowing how to combat them is vital as student journalists and their advisers start back to school this fall. Whether remote, face-to-face or some hybrid, the basic plan is to be sure student media coverage is thorough and professional, able to stand the scrutiny it might have to face.

So far, we’ve seen the usual – students threatened with suspension and punishment, even in states with New Voices legislation. But we’ve also seen more than usual budget-cutting and financial excuses for eliminating student publications. Then, too, FERPA – NOT an act that applies to student media – may again be an excuse to try to limit coverage, and HIPAA, also not applied properly, may become another excuse. 

Read on to see how to react and what you may be able to do to stay safe and counter some of these strategies.

Sophomore Hannah Watters told CNN, “I know I’m doing the right thing, and it’s not going to stop me from continuing doing it.” However, she received threatening messages, even from friends. Eventually, the school dropped her original 5-day suspension.

The first case to hit the headlines, though not student media, concerned a sophomore at North Paulding High School in suburban Atlanta. Her post of a packed high school hallway with few masks ran on social media because, as sophomore Hannah Watters told CNN, “I know I’m doing the right thing, and it’s not going to stop me from continuing doing it.” However, she received threatening messages, even from friends. Eventually, the school dropped her original 5-day suspension. Details are on another post on this blog from Jan Ewell.

Several advisers from schools across the country, including at least one in a New Voices state, have been instructed to talk to their principals about their policies. “Is this about prior review?” one asked. The answer was affirmative, even though this publication has never been prior reviewed. 

To counter these situations, make sure you know your media policy and any state laws. You often know far more than your principal does. Just because he or she doesn’t like the content isn’t a valid reason to be able to censor it. Even under Hazelwood, if your publication is a designated public forum in policy or practice, no administrator can suddenly swoop down and say you can’t publish something. The justification has to be “reasonably related to a legitimate pedagogical concerns.” Is there an educational reason to prohibit a photo of how crowded the halls are? Not likely – it’s something the community has a right to know, and student media is performing its watchdog role by reporting on the situation.

Finances, while a ploy at times in the past to cut “troublesome programs,” might be even bigger hazard this year. The Student Press Law Center is already concerned about this and has devoted a section of their website to “Financial Survival Strategies.”

“SPLC has always focused on legal questions and issues of overt or indirect censorship, including unlawful budget cuts, and we will continue to do so. However, the current economic climate forces us to be more proactive about how we can support, promote and defend the very existence and survival of student journalism itself. Securing the short- mid- and long-term financial viability of student media speaks to broader issues of civic engagement and democracy,” the site explains.

To that end, know your financial situation. Yes, it’s a tough time for many districts with unexpected expenses and ongoing uncertainty. But is the football team still getting new helmets? Are other curricular areas untouched? 

If you believe you’re being targeted, be sure to read the SPLC’s “High School Budget Advocacy Toolkit” and, by all means, report on situation to them on their budget tracker.

The whole alphabet soup of FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, and HIPPA can be confusing. Sometimes the line between personal student privacy and the public’s right to know something sees a little vague. Not everything in a student’s record and certainly not aggregate numbers relating to students are protected by FERPA. Again, some clear guidance from the lawyers of the SPLC is vital, and their white paper on the topic is very useful.

HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, refers to privacy when it comes to health issues, thus, not surprisingly, it’s being used as a reason not to provide information about COVID-19. In an Aug. 9 article, “Despite federal guidance, schools cite privacy laws to withhold info about COVID-19 cases,” The USA Today Network shared a long list of examples of information schools have refused to share with the public about the illness in the name of privacy concerns.

However, the article also shares a link to the U.S. Health and Human Services site that states HIPAA rules doesn’t apply to elementary and secondary schools, a good thing to cite if an administrator doesn’t want to share information about COVID-19 at your school.

With any of these issues, contacting the SPLC is vital to get legal help via a phone call or using a hotline form. In the meantime, while you’re waiting to talk to a lawyer, try JEA’s Scholastic Press Rights Committee Panic Button to get advice from experienced advisers about what to do – or not do – right now.

Student media have important information to convey, this year probably more than ever. In far too many communities, school media are the only source of such information in a news desert created when local and sometimes even larger newspapers have folded in recent years.

This is a chance to show what you can do to fill the void. But you have to know where the roadblocks to coverage exist and how to avoid them – or find your way around them

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