Students at Lake Braddock Secondary School who are trying to learn the ins and outs of what it’s like to be journalists learned that Fairfax County’s policy on student freedom of expression might not be so free after all.
The Bear Facts, Lake Braddock High School’s student newspaper, published stories in its March 3 edition that not only turned some heads, they created a controversy at the school and within the community. Three articles in particular caused several parents to contact the school and question whether the newspaper’s content was appropriate for their teenage children.
"We do one or two serious topics, and at least one or two controversial stories every year," said Monika Joshi, assistant front editor of The Bear Facts and a senior at Lake Braddock next year. "Since ninth grade, I’ve never had this problem."
In the cover story of the March 3 edition, the topic of transgender and transsexual lifestyles and struggles raised eyebrows. The feature story continued on to discuss homosexuality, revealing answers to an anonymous student survey that asked 46 students about their feelings on the subject.
But the content did not stop with the sexual and gender orientation story. An article exploring the positive and negative reactions to a controversial film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival also shocked some parents. The student writer, Pauline Thamsiri, writes about the controversy that surrounded the film, a documentary about bestiality, or sex between humans and animals.
What she found was that writing about controversy can also create it.
The school and The Bear Facts staff received several complaints from parents, claiming the journalists had entered a territory beyond the boundaries of tasteful and appropriate journalism.
"These types of articles bring no redeeming qualities to the table, except to show the loss of our innate moral compasses in life," wrote Mark Gottlieb, a Lake Braddock parent, in a letter to the editor that ran in the March 30 edition of The Bear Facts. "So unless someone is trying to promote a perverse agenda, these are totally out of place in a high school newspaper."
Gottlieb, and other parents, also pointed to an article about Ouija Boards, the popular slumber party game that attempts to contact dead spirits, wrote by staff writer Neome Gangi. In the story, Gangi writes that the 2 billion followers of Christianity in the world likely believe the game is against Bible scripture, since the game is often thought of as a form of divination. Joshi said one parent wrote in and complained that the Ouija Board story encouraged "talking to the devil."
Some parents complained the overall publication was promoting homosexuality, while another parent questioned the newspaper staff on "what our obsession with gays" was, said Joshi.
"There’s a fine line with pushing things to the edge," said Dana Gorman, a Lake Braddock English teacher, the high school’s yearbook sponsor and the middle school’s newspaper advisor last year. "Maybe it’s that edge that is undefined; maybe in different parts of the country, the edge is kind of gray."
PRINCIPAL LINDA BURKE responded to parents and students in a letter she sent out on March 27. Burke told parents that the goal for Lake Braddock student publications is "to ensure that they inform and educate students, faculty and the community." She goes on to state that the newspaper drew criticism "on a variety of grounds, including the obvious failure to adhere to the standards and expectations that I, my colleagues, and the community agree are the hallmark of good student journalism."
In the letter, Burke claims the students didn’t adhere to the School Board’s regulations regarding student publications. She places blame on Daniel Weintraub, the newspaper sponsor, without specifically naming him. Burke wrote that the sponsor is responsible for reviewing the content to make sure it complies with the county policy, and later wrote that an obvious failure to adhere to the standards that are the hallmark of good student journalism occurred.
"The school was probably evaluating the needs, wants and wishes of our community, which I would say is probably a conservative community," said Gorman, who left her positions at Lake Braddock to free up time to spend with her family, she said, and will be teaching English at Frost Middle School next year.
Weintraub will no longer sponsor the newspaper next year, but he will continue to teach English at Lake Braddock. Fairfax County Public Schools spokesperson Mary Shaw would not comment on why there would be a new newspaper sponsor. "It’s a personnel matter, not for discussion," she said.
Weintraub declined to be interviewed for this article, and Fairfax County Public Schools only allowed a spokesperson, Shaw, to comment on the matter on Burke’s behalf.
Joshi said she and the newspaper staff know that Weintraub was removed from the position following this controversy. The students aren’t happy about it, and Joshi said "it basically goes against the values we’ve been taught about freedom of expression."
"I don’t see why [the school administration] would take such an abrupt action," Joshi said. "Obviously, they don’t have a problem with his teaching [since he wasn’t fired from his teaching position]."
THE STUDENT REGULATIONS on freedom of expression state that students have the responsibility to ensure the expressions do not disrupt or interfere with the educational program. The material cannot be obscene, as defined in the Code of Virginia, slanderous or libelous.
"We want to encourage our student journalists to learn and grow as much as they can," said Shaw. "But we do have a program of studies that basically lays out the ground rules and the School Board regulations, and we have to keep those in mind as well."
But according to the county regulations on student publications, in instances in which the principal deems there is a likelihood that a student expression will cause disruption to school activities, "the principal shall notify all parties concerned, in writing, of factual findings and evidence upon which such a determination is based … ."
Joshi said the newspaper staff wants to know where the factual findings and evidence are, because they still don’t know what they did wrong, and believe they did not do anything wrong. They wish the principal would sit down with them to talk it over and tell them how they specifically violated the regulations, Joshi said. But Burke never did before the end of the school year and had about three months to do so. They want to know why Weintraub won’t be their advisor anymore, and they want more communication from the administration as a whole, Joshi said.
"We were all really shocked," said Joshi. "This happened really fast."
BURKE SAID, in her letter, that The Bear Facts sponsor and school administrators will be "working closely to guarantee improvement in the newspaper’s quality and to ensure that our students obtain the maximum educational benefit from their newspaper experience." When asked if that meant the administration would be editing the newspaper’s content in addition to the sponsor and student editors, Shaw said administration would not be doing extra editing, but went on to say, "I’m not sure what they’re doing."
Joshi said Weintraub received an e-mail from administration telling him the March 30 issue of The Bear Facts couldn’t be mailed until further notice. In that issue, the staff published a feature story about Post Secret, a phenomenon of anonymous postcards sent to Post Secret’s creator in Maryland. Joshi said it was the first time since her freshman year that she’d ever seen administration review the paper prior to its mailing. The administration also told the staff it must submit the questions to any of its student surveys to administration ahead of time, she said.
"It just makes us believe [the censoring] will get worse," Joshi said.
Rebecca and Jim Worthington, Lake Braddock parents, wrote into the newspaper to express their disappointment when their daughter told them Weintraub was fired from his newspaper position. Rebecca Worthington wrote that principal Burke never attempted to adhere to her own letter by working closely with the advisor to work out the differences — an advisor the Worthingtons believe has "done a good job of training the novice student journalists."
"The principal of a school is supposed to interact with her students and staff members, not just quietly hand down decisions," wrote Rebecca Worthington. "You should not try to replace the current advisor with a more conservative one, because that is not going to solve any problems."
TORY ALTMAN, the editor-in-chief of The Bear Facts, and Rachel Rudebusch, associate editor, stand by the work of their fellow classmates and journalists. The transgender and homosexuality story dealt with a relevant high school issue, wrote Altman and Rudebusch, in an editorial response to the complaints in the March 30 edition of The Bear Facts.
"Though controversial, [homosexuality and transgenderism] exist in our school, and many students deal with them as an everyday part of their lives, and as parts of their experiences at LBSS," the editors wrote.
As for the other subjects, the editors stood by the piece on the Sundance Film Festival controversy surrounding the film about bestiality. The topic of controversy surrounding an artistic form of expression in an independent film festival "definitely fall under the realm of concern for our entertainment section," wrote Altman and Rudebusch.
The Ouija Board story was not inappropriate either, according to the editors. Students have heard of Ouija Boards, many even use them regularly, and the writer of the story presented a balanced view by showing that many people also believe them to be a form of divination, wrote Altman and Rudebusch.
"Education is the basis for shaping informed and thorough opinions, which we feel every student has the right to have," wrote Altman and Rudebusch. "We hoped to provide an informative and insightful look at an issue that affects the student population every day. This is what we feel any student newspaper should strive to do."