Dexter's Laboratory
April 28, 2010 11:17 AM   Subscribe

Dexter High School's student newspaper causes parental squall. An anonymous parents group called Clean Up DHS wants to quash student free speech because of an article in a recent issue of the student-run The Squall. The article in question (p. 4, February 2010) is about a local teens-only club. Where's the rub?

Well, the rub is that most of the complaints raised by the parents group date back to issues published in 2008, and the battle dates back to the 2000 year presidential election cycle for the paper's faculty advisor and the school board's policy advisor, a for-profit consulting group, NEOLA (warning: Front Page circa 1997), that sells boiler-plate policy manuals for school districts, and has taken aim at school newspapers apparently as a method to gain interest at school board meetings. (In a 2006 article on the Student Press Law Center's details the problems then facing Dexter's Rod Satterthwaite:
Lake Shore’s decision to pull its student newspaper’s open forum editorial policy has Rod Satterthwaite of Dexter, Mich., nervously counting his blessings.

Satterthwaite advises The Squall, the student newspaper at Dexter High School, a paper that, like The Shoreline, has been a practicing public forum for four or five years despite its more restrictive district policy. Dexter Community Schools is another NEOLA client, and its student publications policy employs many of the same template options as Lake Shore.

Despite facing an unsupportive assistant principal and superintendent a few years ago, the paper has managed to avoid many of the restrictions of the NEOLA policy.

Satterthwaite said he has drafted a proposal of the kind of policy he would like to replace the NEOLA one. But due to a high rate of principal turnover over the past few years, he has not been able to build the support he says he needs to take the policy to the school board.

“We want principal backing,” he said.

So, should the anonymous parents' group or NEOLA force The Squall to "clean up"? What do the locals think? A poll on the website shows that 70% of 999 votes say: The Kids are All Right!
posted by beelzbubba (25 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I was a student newspaper adviser/high school journalism teacher for 3 years. I loved every minute of it. You want to talk about empowering students through education? When you teach them all about their First Amendment rights, and how to operate within the limits of those rights, when they can hold in their hands the product of their labor, when the school reads and discusses ideas they've put into print - students respond.

Allowing students to tackle sensitive, sometimes risque issues opens their minds, but also forces them to think critically and creatively about the ways in which they tackle those issues.

My reporters frequently challenged decisions the principal made, the operation of the ASB program, questioned school rules and policies, and occasionally even pushed some hot buttons in terms of immigration, teen pregnancy, and even politics. And they did so with no pushback, because as the adviser, I kept it all within defensible terms of First Amendment protections for student journalism.

I have faith that this adviser is doing the same. It seems like they just have one of those parent communities with entire beehives in their bonnets.

God I miss student journalism.
posted by mdaugherty82 at 11:46 AM on April 28, 2010 [6 favorites]

I'm simply agog. Yet again idiot parents believe that shielding their kids from IDEAS will somehow protect them from the big, bad world.

That newspaper is tight! You should see the mess that was published twice during my tenure as a high school teacher. And I say that with love since one of my very good friends was the Facutly Advisor for the newspaper.

The paper is excellent (for what it is) and the kids are learning great things about publishing and writing.

As for the parents, why don't you concentrate on your own child, and bring him or her up to understand your own values. If you've taught your family's values well, reading about something contrary to them won't cause your kid to cast aside all teachings and run naked through the halls.

I'm just sayin'
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:57 AM on April 28, 2010

Well, let's hope the school administration has a spine and supports the kids. I'm pretty sure it's been held that high-school student newspapers can, in fact, be controlled and censored as the administration sees fit.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:59 AM on April 28, 2010

This is the money quote, for people here that don't want to figure out the strange Flash viewer:

"The small dance floor [at the teen club] is packed with sweaty, thrusting teens, while the hip-hop music blares and colorful beams of light flash across the room. It seems like two different worlds, in comparison to the most recent school dance, Coming Home, with an attendance of 12 that turned into a teacher karaoke party."

Remember, parents, your kids are far more likely to have sex and get pregnant and smoke the drugs and stuff if they're doing something enjoyable. They must be prevented from enjoying themselves at all costs.
posted by dammitjim at 12:13 PM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Another article in the same issue of The Squall was about the controversy over a Harry Potter-themed prom. This seems like a school district where people like to make a fuss.

Having said that, I think this is a first-rate student newspaper. The layout is clean and pretty, and the writing is solid.

No, seriously. I really, really like that layout (pics in the first article).
posted by brina at 12:30 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Dexter has a few weirdoes, that's for sure. I haven't been there for about 30 years, but I remember they had parking meters that took pennies.
posted by warbaby at 12:42 PM on April 28, 2010

Is Dexter ill?
posted by slater at 12:55 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Degrassi did it!
posted by Sys Rq at 12:57 PM on April 28, 2010

I think it might be a good thing overall. There's no better way to instill in young people the value of a free press than letting them experience and struggle against censorship at the hands of petty tyrants themselves.

My only question is whether a newspaper is really the best venue anymore — I get that some skills, like being able to meet a deadline, write an article, conduct an interview, or perform research are applicable to many things and are of great value — but the page layout, printing, and physical distribution side of things? They're becoming about as relevant as the videos my friends growing up in towns outside of Pittsburgh watched, about the great jobs they'd have in the steel mills after graduation — years after those mills had shut down for good. Let's try to keep up with the times a little bit, please.

They could still develop the same writing and meeting-deadline skills if they replaced "newspaper" with some sort of blog or community forum, and they'd perhaps also learn some useful information-economy skills, whether on the web programming side or on building and maintaining/moderating the resulting community. (I think the latter is probably the more valuable skill.) They'd probably produce something that would be more useful and reach more of the student body as well.

And, as an additional bonus, it would be that much harder to censor if they did it right. (Of course, if they did it wrong they'd perhaps get to learn a Valuable Lesson on how shooting your mouth off on the internets can hurt you in the real world...)
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:45 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Remember, kids, "face-to-face, with some space", and everyone's happy. Carry on.
posted by gene_machine at 2:13 PM on April 28, 2010

I wonder if the prom committee got to install a maze - and if Voldemort killed anyone.
posted by Cranberry at 2:45 PM on April 28, 2010

Where's the rub?

Is it that horrible, horrible interface?
posted by Jawn at 2:58 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Interesting.. the day this initially hit the paper here in Ann Arbor a couple of weeks ago, happened to be the day I was meeting with the Superintendent of Schools and the high school principal in Dexter. After the meeting, discussing some other issues, the superintendent mentioned that he had just learned about this...

As we discussed it, the consensus was that the "school paper" could be a haven for kids that don't find creative/personal outlets in things like sports and other activities. He was all for some freedom for these students (of course, as good a job as he does, he's heading out of the community in the spring to take a position as Superintendent of one of the most wealthy communities in the state)

Dexter is a good community, a lot of creative people...but, there are enclaves in nearly every little town around here (and, I'm sure in other locations as well) of very conservative, very christian individuals that want the schools to reflect their every view....

Good for Dexter if they can put the lid on those types of idiots.
posted by HuronBob at 4:38 PM on April 28, 2010

The rub is that the "anonymous concerned parents" group is total bullshit.

I live in an affluent suburban community where the very conservative, very Christian individuals want the schools to reflect their every view—and I can tell you for free that those parents have no qualms whatsoever about attaching their real full names to their protests and complaints.

Truly activist parents (and again, please believe me that I know from truly activist parents) understand that attacking the school administration and school board anonymously will never, ever work. You have to be passionate enough and concerned enough to attach your name... so that those who can effect change realize that you are actually a tax-paying district parent.

None of this CleanUpDHS blog passes the smell test.

The very top line of the blog says "This is just a homespun public information site..." Really? Is that to assuage those of us who immediately wondered if this was actually corporate Astroturfing? Methinks they doth protest too much.

The whole "meh meh, we're anonymous because we're getting death threats..." ...what? How did you receive the death threats in the first place? You were always posting from behind a pseudonym, from the very first entry.

Take this comment allegedly submitted by an angry and anonymous freshman girl. This does not actually read like the writing of a 14-year-old, angry or not. It reads like an adult trying to sound like a freshman girl.

I don't have time to go all NYT-Photoshop on them, but I will eat my hat if that anonymous blog is not actually a front for the NEOLA school board management company.
posted by pineapple at 5:46 PM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

"This seems like a school district where people like to make a fuss."

It is, I assure you.
posted by John of Michigan at 6:01 PM on April 28, 2010

And this is what the Student Press Law Center is for.
posted by meta_eli at 6:42 PM on April 28, 2010

Um, correct me if I'm wrong here, but high school newspapers aren't like real newspapers with protection under the first amendment, right? They've always been subject to the ridiculous whims of school administrations. At least that was what I was told when I was forced to quit publishing my k-rad underground 'zine in 9th grade. They always used to tell us that some constitutional rights don't apply to kids in schools, which I guess is true, just as they don't apply to members of the military, etc. Not saying that any of this is right - I think it's just as much of a load now as when they told it to me then - but this isn't anything new.
posted by DecemberBoy at 7:58 PM on April 28, 2010

School board management company?

How is it that the US, the UK, and Canada seem to always fuck up so badly? It's like we want to fail our children.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:17 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

You are partially right, DecemberBoy.. The crux of this and other "battles" over freedom of high school press is whether the student paper is considered an open forum or a closed forum. The NEOLA group promotes the closed-forum model. Dexter has been operating under the open-forum model for many years. The Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier supreme court decision provides the background for that difference.
posted by beelzbubba at 4:15 AM on April 29, 2010

beelzbubbaPoster: "The NEOLA group promotes the closed-forum model."

It's worth noting that NEOLA does this just to drum up business. By finding a controversial article in a student paper and stirring up drama and parental angst around it, they can back-door their way into attention from the ISD school board, to whom they can then pitch their soothing cure-all... a pre-packaged set of school policies (complete with your very own analyst and consultant!) that would make all this nasty community uproar go peaceably away.

It's really a despicable business model. It makes the Givewell astroturfing look like a quiet dignified Nobel campaign.
posted by pineapple at 6:00 AM on April 29, 2010

This is a really interesting story, but it seems like the OP really buried the lede here:

Sleazy corporation tries to sell worthless consulting crap to local school boards by attacking student newspapers with anonymous fake outrage. [more inside]
posted by straight at 8:20 AM on April 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Reading the links more carefully (upon receiving a polite nudge from beelzbubba), I wish I could amend that oversimplified summary because:

1. NEOLA may be targeting student newspapers to create a problem for which they can hard-sell their product as a solution, but it may be a separate Christian activist group behind the "anonymous fake outrage" in this particular case.

2. As sad and creepy as it seems that school boards would hire companies to write their policy manuals, I don't really know if it's "worthless crap." Some administrators seem to think it's a worthwhile service that saves the school districts a lot of time and money compared with trying to do it themselves.
posted by straight at 9:02 PM on April 29, 2010

Why would a school district not (a) already have all the usual stuff figured out already and (b) have most of it dictated at a State level anyway?

Most everything that isn't "the usual stuff" is stuff that needs to be dealt with uniquely, so a store-bought solution doesn't work anyway.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:35 PM on April 29, 2010

And Jesus said: "Do ye as the Corporation dictates, for I shall not be with you always, but Business shall, and business shall rule thee, for thy own good, and My Glory." (Benito, Chater 3, verse 4)
posted by Goofyy at 5:49 AM on April 30, 2010

fff, while many of the curricular and financial guides are indeed set at the state level, in most states (including Michigan) the local school board sets many of the local policies. School boards are elected locally, and many folks are not experts in education, human resources, management--although there may be some. And something that applies in most businesses as well is that there are a plethora of state and federal and local laws that don't overlay particularly well. School boards can create those manuals, but they are volunteer positions that meet monthly. Have one or two events that happen where the local solution is later found to be in conflict with a state or federal reg leads to the one thing that most school boards dread--litigation from parents.

So, some entity comes along and can boast of field reps who are mostly former school admin officials (as NEOLA), who promise to make all those worries disappear and provide a manual that seems to have an answer for any conceivable situation, and BAM! Problem solved. School boards fear controversy and litigation. NEOLA's manuals (in my opinion, as well as it seems yours) cannot anticipate every situation, but as in the case of free speech for students, they have a researched opinion that in effect eliminates both controversy--if you are silent you can't provoke thought or controversy--and litigation--again, if you say nothing...

And I'll give you an example of why school boards would cede their responsibility for an outside solution--though this goes up the education chain. At a local uni, a student died in her dorm room. There was doubt at first as to whether it was the result of homicide or by natural causes. There is and was a federal policy to follow in a number of areas, including the notification of parents, rights to information, information chain, and so on.

The policy was in the hands of the Public Safety department. But if you've ever worked in any large organization, every department has policies that can be weighed by the tonne and no one person expert in all of it. The administrative VP was unaware of the policy and operated in what he thought was the best available path in part through consultation with Public Safety and the local sheriff.

End results: the entire administration was toppled, huge fines incurred from violating the federal policy (and several other higher profile schools have also run afoul of the policy), lawsuits from the parents, and not the least, a muddled and muddied investigation of the students death.

I can argue that even with a comprehensive manual and well-regulated policies, this entire situation could still have unfolded exactly as it did. But the illusion of control is what most people seek.
posted by beelzbubba at 6:14 AM on April 30, 2010

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