Policy changes can’t interfere with basic rights

Freedom New Mexico

Clovis public schools’ directors are to meet at 5:30 p.m. today to hear arguments favoring a change in the student publications policies.

We believe the only response that board should offer is a lecture telling school administrators to become better communicators. There’s nothing wrong with the school district’s publications policies.

The issue became superheated last month when the Clovis High School yearbook was found to include photos of two self-professed lesbian couples in a feature section called “Relationships.” Some conservative Christians were upset by the depiction and demanded an explanation from high school Principal Jody Balch and school Superintendent Rhonda Seidenwurm.

Administrators said students made the decision under the guidance of a faculty advisor, and declared the principal and superintendent were “out of the loop” regarding content.

Seidenwurm promised nervous and upset board members that she would have a new policy drafted so administrators “would be alerted if there was something that might be damaging to the people we’re writing about” in the future.

So far she hasn’t openly suggested administrators should censor student publications, which could lead to legal issues that could prove costly to taxpayers. But she also hasn’t offered a more practical, common-sense solution: for school and administration leaders to listen more closely to what students and teachers are talking about. Advance communication is always a more logical, and cheaper, solution to a problem.

Do many people think only the yearbook staff of that school knew what was going on? We certainly don’t.

The concern woven through this issue should also be central to today’s discussion: Why weren’t Balch and his assistant principals aware of this issue as it developed throughout the 2007-08 school year? Are they that disconnected from the daily chitchat in their halls?

Seidenwurm rightly should be concerned if she believes a teacher is acting irresponsibly in advising student journalists. She clearly believes that was the case in this instance, which many people believe is the reason teacher Carol Singletary is no longer associated with the student yearbook. (The superintendent says Singletary resigned before the controversy, the teacher’s supporters say she was forced out because of it.)

But since when do personnel issues require policy changes? The answer is obvious: When political heat — and the threat of parental lawsuits — singes board and administrator backsides.

There is nothing in the schools’ publications policy now that prohibits advisors or students from asking advice or soliciting feedback from administrators prior to publication of controversial content.

If administrators don’t know about controversial content in the student newspaper or yearbook prior to publication, it’s because they don’t want to know or because students and/or the advisor don’t want them to know. And if leaders don’t know about these issues, that’s the problem — lack of communications — not the publications policy.

We urge school board members to be cautious about any change in the language for the student publications policy. Changing the words won’t make Balch or his assistants, or Seidenwurm and hers, better listeners.

There is a big difference between administrators asking for prior review — an option they already have in the current policy — and administrators deciding what students can and cannot publish, which has already been established by the First Amendment.