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County Scrutinizing Student Newspapers

County to offer journalism seminars to students, advisors and principals after questions of ethics and responsibility were raised last year.

Fairfax County Public Schools is paying closer attention to the way its high school newspapers are run, especially after some content in the student-run paper at Lake Braddock Secondary last spring that caused uproar in the community.

A countywide policy-change will not occur, per se, according to Paul Regnier, spokesperson for FCPS. Instead, seminars will be offered to journalism students, advisers and principals to ensure that everyone is "on the same page," he said. In addition to the Lake Braddock incident last year, another school newspaper included questionable advertising material, said Regnier, though he declined to identify the paper in question.

"Legally, the principal is responsible for what’s in the paper," said Regnier.

Regnier compares the decisions facing FCPS student newspaper staffs, advisors and school principals to the famous Pentagon Papers case in 1971. The New York Times, followed by the Washington Post, began publishing a series of articles based on pilfered copies of a classified government study about the United States’ decision-making process on Vietnam policy. The attorney general tried to stop the publication of the stories, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. The newspapers won and were allowed to continue the publication of the material, however the court did not rule that prior restraint is necessarily unconstitutional in such cases. It did rule, however, that prior restraint was unnecessary in the Pentagon Papers case.

Regnier compares the decisions that the Times and Post editors and publishers faced at the time of publication. Ben Bradlee, executive editor of the Washington Post during the Pentagon Papers publications, had to make a judgment call on whether to run the material. Katharine Graham was president of the company, or the publisher. Most of the time, said Regnier, "Bradlee ran the paper the way he wanted to," but when the publisher’s input became necessary, Bradlee sought Graham’s guidance. The coverage went on to receive a Pulitzer Prize.

"My question is, who’s Ben Bradlee and who’s Kay Graham [within each Fairfax County high school]?" he asked. "Kay Graham is the principal, and Ben Bradlee is the [newspaper] sponsor … 99 percent of the time, the students make decisions with oversight from the sponsor, and everything works fine."

What didn’t work fine, though, was a March 2007 edition of the Lake Braddock student newspaper, the Bear Facts. In that issue, the students published four controversial stories about homosexuality, the Ouija Board, transgenderism and a review of a film about bestiality. When complaint letters from parents began flowing into the principal’s office, the Bear Facts sponsor, Daniel Weintraub, was removed from his newspaper adviser position. He remains an English teacher at the school.

Daphna Motro, one of the Bear Facts editors-in-chief for the upcoming school year, said the newspaper staff has been left in the dark about what it specifically did wrong. Motro recognizes that publishing four controversial stories in one edition was probably a bit overzealous, but the staff still doesn’t believe it acted irresponsibly or inappropriately.

Prior to Weintraub taking over as adviser, the paper was a lot more conservative, said Motro. Weintraub encouraged the students to write feature stories and expand on the topics covered, just like professional journalists do, said Motro.

"We were just so excited with all the freedom we had," she said. "I remember thinking, like everyone else, that I was so excited about [the March edition]."

Regnier said the county wants to make sure students are handling things responsibly. It’s part of the principal’s job to make sure the newspaper advisor is someone he or she can trust. The advisor’s judgment has to be sharp in order to detect inappropriate, or illegal, material before it is published.

Motro said Weintraub was a great adviser, and that the staff learned a lot from him. The students are upset that he’s gone, because they believed his judgment was spot-on, although maybe a little too liberal for the conservative community, Motro said.

"I think we wrote great stories. I guess we just overwhelmed the community," said Motro. "I’d rather have him back than to have run those stories."

Weintraub still teaches at Lake Braddock and would not comment on the matter when reached by the Connection. But Motro said the school never told him, or the students, what exactly went wrong. Weintraub was removed as soon as the letters to the school started pouring in, she said, so "it’s obvious that was connected."

"[Administration] doesn’t talk to us, that’s the biggest problem," said Motro.

Dana Gorman, the yearbook adviser at Lake Braddock for the last several years, said she frequently sought Weintraub’s advice on handling certain situations, and vice versa. "I found him to be extremely knowledgeable," she said.

"I think both the newspaper and the yearbook do a really good job of reminding students of journalistic standards," Gorman said.

LAST YEAR, Gorman encouraged her student editors when they made a decision to stop running senior superlatives in the yearbook. She knew the reaction from some students would be negative, but her editors stuck to their guns and didn’t let up.

"We’re practicing sound journalism, and it’s not a popularity contest," said Gorman.

Motro said the Bear Facts staff meets once a month to discuss their story ideas for the upcoming edition. Unless a story poses a legal concern, such as libel or slander, the students can write about what they choose, said Motro. At least that’s how things ran last year. However, Motro said nobody ever comes in and starts brainstorming about "what can we sensationalize about."

"Something has to happen; it’s real-life situations," Motro said. "There are homosexuals at our school, [the March edition] was not completely off-topic. It’s real-life stories; we’re not trying to be like a tabloid."

Regnier said the county isn’t concerned with controversial material, but rather with responsible and ethical journalistic standards. He said that the student newspapers need to be "curriculum-based," since the writers are all part of each school’s journalism program.

"The school system is responsible for overseeing what goes into these student papers, and some things are explicitly forbidden," said Regnier. "Controversy is not the problem. There’s plenty of controversial items dealt with in student newspapers."

The Lake Braddock administration still hasn’t told the Bear Facts staff what they did that may have been explicitly forbidden. Motro and other staff members are left to suspect what happened: complaining parents put pressure on the school to act on the matter, so it did.

"We’re not mad at the administration, we’re just confused," Motro said. "We’re not 5-year-olds. Nobody has told us if we’ve legally done something wrong."

Fairfax County Public Schools has hired the Bill Of Rights Institute, based in Arlington, to come in for three, daylong seminars in September. Journalism students, advisors and principals will be invited, he said, to the seminars dealing with journalism ethics and legal matters.

"We’re teaching responsible journalism here," Regnier said. "In the real world, the buck stops somewhere … principals are responsible [in FCPS schools]."

Motro said she hasn’t heard about the seminars yet, but students learn all of those things in ninth grade journalism class. That’s when students receive formal journalism training, she said, and then they write for the newspaper for more "experience training." One thing she knows she learned is that administration "can’t tell us not to do something, unless it’s against the law."