Giving Voice to Students Through Published Words
Educators testify to the authentic learning and 21st-century skills that scholastic newspapers and online publications bring to students’ educational experiences
BY MICHELLE R. DAVIS/School Administrator, June 2020

Students from Rocklin Unified School District in California critique the page layouts of their 2020 student yearbook.
During his years as superintendent of several school districts, Scott Kizner has had student journalists write about immigration policies, teen pregnancy, teenage peers overdosing on drugs and bullying of a transgender student — topics that parents didn’t necessarily want to see covered or that made the school board uncomfortable.

In January, Kizner testified before the Virginia state legislature where he asked lawmakers to protect the rights of student journalists through state law, even though professional organizations such as the Virginia Association of School Superintendents were lobbying against the measure.

“There are many times, let me tell you, that I wish the topic [the students were writing about] would go away,” says Kizner, superintendent of the 30,000-student Stafford County, Va., district. “But you don’t get to pick and choose what is newsworthy to avoid difficult conversations.”

Student scholastic publications — whether that’s a newspaper, yearbook or literary magazine, both in print or online, or a student news broadcast — bring authentic learning to the educational experience and prepare students with 21st-century skills for whatever career they may end up pursuing. Learning how to work collaboratively in groups, think critically about an issue and communicate clearly in speech and writing are requisite for college and career and the outcomes of participation on a student publication.

When schools shut down in response to the coronavirus outbreak, these skills were on display across the country in many student publications. While working remotely and physically apart from each other, student journalists pivoted quickly. They produced digital editorial packages on the crisis, disseminating factual news to the student body, reflecting their unique experiences and reporting from home.

But even school district leaders who clearly see those affiliated values and support students’ scholastic press rights admit navigating these waters is not always simple and straightforward.

Superintendents and high school principals can find themselves as objects of criticism or the focus of unflattering public attention when student journalists analyze school district policies or question practices that leaders may wish went unaired. School and district leaders may need to defend student journalists against harsh judgments from the community, fellow educators and even the school board, says Kizner, who has spent more than 20 years as a superintendent in four school districts.

“So many times the students are far ahead of the adults, and they want to discuss these issues that are important to them,” he says. “You have to trust the students and the staff that has been given the responsibility for advising them, to help them learn and grow.”

Censorship Can Backfire

Not every superintendent or principal feels this way, of course. Some students are required to submit stories to a school administrator for review before they are published. Others describe having their work censored or scrapped when controversial or sensitive topics are raised in student reporting.

But generally, those stances by school leaders don’t serve either the students or the school and district, says Roger Stock, superintendent of the Rocklin Unified School District in Northern California, where the student press in the recent past has spotlighted student walkouts to protest lax gun laws and profiled a “polysexual” student. A journalism adviser at one of Rocklin’s high schools is the president of the Journalism Education Association and Stock’s been vocal about his support of such programs.

“We always want to have a balanced perspective with all of the information,” he says. “You have to engage with student journalists to make sure they have all the different facets and perspectives.”

When Stock learns students are planning to tackle a subject that could raise ire, the superintendent’s first thought is to ensure they’ve talked to people on all sides of an issue and gotten a full range of opinions. He views members of the student press the same way he sees the local news media, and he encourages school board members and others in the school community to take the same approach.

“Censoring a story can boomerang back on you and be worse than the actual story,” he says. “People can really question the district’s transparency.”

Curtailing students’ reporting pursuits, Stock adds, undermines the aim of an effective scholastic program: providing authentic learning experiences in a real-world setting.

Michael Richards, superintendent of the Harrisonburg, Va., City Schools, easily ticks off the important skills students gain from scholastic journalism: research and reflection, presentation and communication, development of voice and the ability to express ideas clearly.

“Journalism is about exploring a variety of sources, being discerning about what is empirically accurate and constructing a story that reflects that reality in a way that is objective,” he says. “That’s not just good journalism — that’s good thinking.”

Michael Ginalski, superintendent of the Corning-Painted Post Area School District in New York’s Southern Tier, believes the ability to write coherently and communicate at a high level is essential to student growth and readiness for whatever follows high school. And student journalism programs teach that in a way that is unlike nearly any other course offered in a high school, adds Ginalski, pointing to a situation where students interviewed state lawmakers about a bill relating to student press rights that was moving through the legislature.

Students often are in the thick of current events. As the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered schools nationwide, student journalists were working with faculty advisers remotely to put out stories more important than ever to their student communities.

“These are experiences that can’t be recreated in any classroom,” says Ginalski, who with two colleagues shared the Journalism Education Association’s Administrator of the Year Award in 2017. “The skills they learn in this activity carry on to all walks of life.”

And it’s not just about the writing itself. Students learn the business and marketing sides of the operation, learn to navigate social media in a professional way and to present ideas through multimedia and video channels. “All of these are essential to the work force today,” says Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel at the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C.

In fact, it’s clear employers value and actively seek many of these skills in their workers. A 2019 RAND report on reimagining the workforce found that employers are struggling to find employees with skills they need on the job such as “information synthesis, creativity, problem-solving, communication and teamwork” and that jobs requiring those 21st-century skills are going unfilled. Scholastic journalism programs teach those things and more.

Navigating Legal Issues

In addition, high school journalism study plays exactly into what schools’ mission statements often say they aspire to do — prepare students for life in a democracy, says Candace Perkins Bowen, director of the Center for Scholastic Journalism at Kent State University in Ohio.

Part of that preparation means helping students understand the essential value of a free press, even more important in today’s partisan political climate as the news media faces attacks from many sides. Critical thinking is part of that, but if students are censored by their administration, the development of that skillset will be inhibited, Bowen says, adding. “You don’t learn to think critically if someone is always saying ‘You can’t do that.’”

Two U.S. Supreme Court cases often serve as the basis for reigning in student publications, Hiestand says. The landmark 1969 ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District protects most student speech, laying out two areas, he says, that give school officials the authority to prohibit or ban student speech — when it may be libelous or unlawful, for example, or it would disrupt normal school operations.

In 1988, the high court curbed student speech in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. The regulations of Tinker still applied, but the Supreme Court justices determined that education administrators can censor for a reasonable pedagogical justification, Hiestand says, noting, “That sounds reasonable, but what does that mean in practice?”

The result often means principals or district leaders who want to censor or ban student speech can find a justification to do so.

Protective Measures

In recent years, supporters of scholastic journalism activities have been pushing for what’s called “New Voices” legislation on the state level to protect student speech. Currently, 14 states have such a law on the books and several more are debating them in their legislative sessions, Hiestand says.

These New Voices laws put back into place added levels of protection and provide students with the right to make decisions for publications unless speech is unlawful or disruptive.

Without the state laws, scholastic newspapers and yearbooks are at the mercy of whoever has oversight within the district, according to Tiffany Kopcak, yearbook adviser at Colonial Forge High School in Stafford County, Va. “We have amazing people in place right now and they trust this program,” she says. “But that hasn’t always been the case.”

In past years, student publications in her district were forced by administrators to pull pre-press news stories about student gum-chewing, for example, because there was a no-gum policy in schools. Years ago, when the Gay-Straight Alliance established a club at the school, Kopcak was told not to include it in the yearbook.

Christina Levinson, who advises student news and literary organizations at Bear River High School near Sacramento, Calif., a state with one of the oldest New Voices laws, says those legal protections allow students to “learn their rights, become confident and talk to people in positions of authority,” she says. “They learn that just because you’re a teen, people can’t dismiss your views, and that you have the right to point out problems even if it’s inconvenient or embarrassing to schools.”

Those press rights are seen as an important reason for California schools consistently producing some of the nation’s strongest student journalism. Academy High School in Escondido, Calif., took an in-depth look at student mental health issues in its “Invisible Wounds” spread, which won a Student Journalist Impact Award from the Journalism Education Association in 2019. A year earlier, two of the five top digital stories of the year, awarded by the National Scholastic Press Association, were from California schools. One of those stories focused on the March for Our Lives movement and the other looked at the legacy of retiring teachers.

But it doesn’t mean principals and superintendents should be completely hands off. In fact, a trusted and close relationship with publication advisers often defines successful programs. School and district leaders should spend time with student journalists to understand their aims and goals and keep an open dialogue flowing, says Levinson, whose former principal Amy Besler was honored as the Journalism Education Association’s 2019 Administrator of the Year at a national conference last fall that drew nearly 7,000 high school journalists and advisers to Washington, D.C.

Many advisers say when they have positive relationships with administrators, they give them a courtesy heads-up when a hard-hitting news or feature story is set to become public.

Even though superintendents may not be on the front lines of day-to-day student journalism programs, they play a significant role, says Kelly Glasscock, executive director of the Journalism Education Association. “Leadership sets that culture for the entire district. Coming from the top down, it’s an important message to send.”

Real Stories

Bumps in the road are inevitable, even when district leadership is largely supportive of the student press. For Ginalski, in Corning, N.Y., one of those bumps came on the eve of President Trump’s inauguration when student journalists covered a local protest march against Trump as well as a public protest by teachers expressing outrage over Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as U.S. secretary of education. Student journalists posted their coverage on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, prompting a flood of angry calls to Ginalski from community members who were outraged that student time and school resources were being used to cover opposition to Trump.

While Ginalski knew the students’ posts were protected, parents were irate. So the superintendent asked for a cooling-off period and had the students briefly take down some social media coverage until the school district’s attorney could issue a memo outlining legal protections of student speech.

“It got heated and with the inauguration the next day, the situation had the potential to spiral out of control,” Ginalski says. “The reality is that the public doesn’t understand students’ First Amendment rights, and they don’t care.”

But the incident had fallout. “I was the censorship superintendent,” he says. “It damaged the relationship on both sides.”

Ginalski says he now takes a different approach. “The kids have real stories to tell and we have to deal with whatever comes from that.”

Kizner, superintendent in Stafford County, Va., echoes those sentiments. One of his high school principals objected to a news story proposed by student editors about student bullying, possibly feeling, the superintendent believes, that the school’s “dirty laundry” shouldn’t become public. Kizner permitted the story to be published.

“My response was we’ve got to discuss it,” he says. “If they feel we’re sweeping the issue under the rug, it’s only going to increase the times that students feel unsafe at school.” 

MICHELLE DAVIS is an education freelance writer in Silver Spring, Md.