Too hot for high school

Copies of an award-winning student newspaper on "hooking up" mysteriously disappeared. Was it censorship?

Published February 17, 2009 6:30PM (EST)

When Stevenson High School, in Lincolnshire, Ill., devoted an issue of its award-winning student newspaper, the Statesman, to an exploration of students' hook-up culture, all 3,400 copies of the issue disappeared the night they were published. Perhaps that was because, as the school's administration claims, "students and parents" dying to read about the hot topic "snapped up" the issue's entire run. But maybe, the Chicago Tribune suggests, school officials had more to do with the disappearance than they're saying. Administrators are "sticking to that story," says the Tribune, "even as they institute new policies to increase oversight of the paper." Instead of keeping the content of the paper between the students and their faculty advisor, the school is now requiring that its communication arts program director review all articles.

Though I'm about as anti-censorship as they come, I do understand that the school administration -- which is actually within its legal rights to approve the paper's contents -- may have had some justifiable concerns about the issue: In an earlier article, the Tribune cites a school spokesman's claim that the Statesman included the names and graduation years of several students, many of whom, I assume, are minors and may come to regret discussing their sex lives in such a public forum. He also described one article that followed a male student's quest to bed a young woman at a party as a "how-to guide for sexual predators." (But could it also have provided helpful insight for young women looking to avoid sexual predators?) School officials were also distressed, they say, to find that the paper failed to quote anyone who didn't approve of hooking up. (The Tribune wasn't able to substantiate any of these claims, as it -- wouldn't you know it? -- was unable to get ahold of a copy of the issue.)

What's exciting about the story, though, is parents' reaction to the school's decision to censor the paper. On Feb. 9, about 20 parents attended a district school board meeting -- not to complain about the sexual content in the newspaper their children (supposedly) brought home, but to criticize Stevenson's administration for resorting to censorship. "I know Stevenson has a great reputation," Fern McNamara, whose son is among the Statesman's editors, told the Chicago Sun-Times. "Sometimes they don't want to look at what's really going on in there." Scott Kofkin, another parent, said, "I'm fully in support of any issue that gets the kids talking."

It's encouraging to read that parents see the value in discussing a controversial issue the school would rather sidestep. Clearly, the sexual politics of high school have changed in the past several years, and the Statesman issue may have educated parents, teachers and administrators as well as students. No one knows who took the newspapers -- but even if it wasn't school officials, Stevenson missed out on a major opportunity to talk about an issue of importance to students in an open, constructive and nonjudgmental way. Instead of implementing the censorship policy -- which school administrators are couching as a "curriculum issue" -- perhaps faculty members could have spoken with newspaper staff about presenting all sides of a story. Or how about a schoolwide meeting to address student, teacher and parent concerns about hook-up culture? On the topic of teenagers and sex, adults need to encourage dialogue whenever possible. Unfortunately, Stevenson High School has done the opposite.

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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