The student press, at least legally, is not a free press. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, school newspapers are legally subject to administrative review. As many — including the comic book character Spiderman — have said, “With great power comes great responsibility,” and indeed, we usually count on the good faith of school administrators in these matters of content regulation.
At the Bronx High School of Science, however, whether administrators acted in good faith on these matters is not clear. Last year, I was one of two editors of the Editorial page on the school’s newspaper, the Science Survey. While disputes between teachers and administration have received a high profile in media coverage, here is a side of the story you probably have not heard before.
Trouble In The Math Department
At the end of April 2010, the union complaint the math teachers had earlier filed through the city union was resolved by judgment from an arbitrator. The report more or less corroborated the complaints of the teachers and recommended that both the offending administrator and the union chapter leader, the well liked math teacher Peter Lamphere, be removed from the school. The city’s education department took Principal Valerie Reidy’s side anyway and more or less ignored the arbitrator’s findings. (In December, an arbitrator ruled that Lamphere’s low rating should be discarded.)
At the time, the newspaper, the Science Survey, had just selected its editors for the last issue and next year, and Seán Toomey and I were slotted as heads of the editorial section. As the situation in the math department had again hit the headlines (articles on the arbitrator’s decision appeared in several city newspapers), we all agreed that it would be incredibly unusual if the school paper didn’t have anything to say on the matter. We (this includes the editors in chief at the time and our faculty adviser) set about drafting an editorial addressing the issue.
Getting an article approved in your school newspaper covering an incident that garnered the institution bad publicity citywide is the sort of thing that probably would be a chore in any circumstance. But it was an even dicier situation at the Survey, where the administration took its power of prior review over the paper seriously.
A pre-publication proof of the paper had to be sent to the principal and English department head about a week before publication. They would then take their time combing through our proof pages, ferreting out grammatical errors, but more importantly, criticism. Articles on rather banal school activities had sentences scrubbed because they could be interpreted as critical of the administration, or, heaven forbid, Department of Education policy.
So as we crafted the editorial, we decided right away to not even attempt to take a stand on the merits of the arbitration complaint — we knew that even a straight news article, let alone an opinion piece on the substance of the decision, would be instantly shot down. Instead, we went for a much softer message that school administrators should probably level with students in the event that a faculty dispute makes citywide news. We emailed the principal our intentions, and Seán and I had a cordial meeting in her office to get her side of the situation. I can say that she is more polite in person than press accounts have indicated. We even encouraged the principal to write her own response to our editorial, which we would run unedited, next to our already milquetoast piece.
A week of email correspondence ensued, when we tweaked and shifted the piece on advice of our faculty adviser, the outgoing editors, and rather terse responses from the principal. We were all pleasantly surprised and thought that we actually would be able to run the piece. By the end of the week, we were ready to publish and emailed her for approval. It was “not the editorial we discussed,” she replied.
And so our last issue of the year instead featured a short rant on chairs, the typical senior reflection, and a rather large picture of a folding chair on the opinion page.
More Troubles At The Survey
When the editing staff returned from summer to run the paper full time, we had come to accept the content restrictions and work around them. We became rather good at the practice of self-censorship, for example barely hinting at the teacher turmoil in a “the 2000s at Bronx Science” retrospective we had run the previous year. When the (actual) police were called to respond to an incident at the school during the traditional start-of-year senior event, we were not allowed to mention their calling in our story. We decided to preserve our credibility by not running a piece that omitted the one aspect of the incident most of the students remembered. Opinion pieces on “controversial” issues (the bulk of the disagreement came from the administration on these sorts of things) had to be run as “pro/con” pieces, with a student writing a piece parroting the administration’s position, to create the impression of disagreement among the student body. Examples of this at work include an opinion piece one of our staff did criticizing the increased use of an online grading system. It was widely disliked by students, but one wouldn’t get that impression from the equal billing we had to give both sides.
The biggest dispute over the paper, and the only one that became a big enough issue to leak out as a series of rumors to the rest of the student body, was the controversy last year over the annual April satire issue. In previous years, the administration had typically loosened the grip here, allowing us to run content that actually satirized the administration (one of my favorite covers from the year before I joined the paper stylized the school as a sort of Soviet totalitarian state) and toed the limit of propriety (the cover article on the joke issue our junior year was on a certain well endowed graduate coming to speak at our graduation).
When A Joke Is funny, And Then Isn’t
So no one batted an eye when some of the staff on the paper decided to run a mock “March Madness” bracket in the satire issue. The idea was that a bunch of teachers at the school were written as competing in a series of one-on-one basketball games. The piece seemed to have passed muster with the administrators, as we were allowed to publish.
Nay, how we were mistaken. In the piece, which took up the whole bottom fold of the back page, several portions raised complaint. A male teacher was referred to have lost a game against a female teacher because he was “too focused” on her “body movement.” Later in the piece, two female teachers were noted to have “showed their exquisite ball handling skills, while riding all the way to the final four.” Another male teacher was then noted to have won the tournament, however, by “finishing on top.”
Two of the teachers mentioned — one of them the “focused” male teacher — complained to the administration about the content of the issue, and suddenly, it seemed as if there was an oversight in the content editing process. On our end, of course. The assistant principal of the English department sat in on our traditional end-of-issue debrief, and our faculty adviser seemed to continually hint at what sort of process “improvements” we could make in her moderating of the conversation. The next day, Reidy herself made an appearance at the Survey room to essentially lecture us on our lack of propriety. She made a concerted effort to tell us she was not visiting to “intimidate” us, which as you can imagine at the time rang particularly hollow. We didn’t hear much on the subject after that; rumors swirled that the principal had ordered all copies of the paper still in the school trashed, and our stacks of excess issues suddenly were missing the satire issue.
It is unclear what happened regarding that issue, but I can say that the Survey currently has a different faculty adviser. I do not know whether this had anything to do with the above-mentioned dispute. In my rather non-objective view, she was a capable manager of the paper and excellent teacher, but such is how things go.
When I was contacted by GothamSchools to adapt a post from my blog into this piece, I was asked to include quotes from current staffers at the Survey. I spoke to several students currently on the paper, and all declined to comment, citing the fact that they were still at the school. I can say with certainty myself that exactly one year ago, as this controversy was looming over us as we prepared the final issue, I would not have put my name to this story either.
Abraham Moussako is a 2011 graduate of Bronx High School of Science, where he was an editor of the Science Survey student newspaper. He is currently a student at McGill University in Montreal. This piece is adapted from a post on his blog, Another Note in the Cacophony.