EDITORIAL When someone — quite possibly a faculty member or administrator — poured pink paint on a gay teacher's computer at Lowell High School and left a racist, homophobic note, the administration tried to keep it quiet. Teachers say they were told not to discuss the hate crime with students. Other than a tiny notice in the San Francisco Chronicle — and whatever rumors may have been swirling around campus — the students at the city's premier public high school had no idea what was going on.
That was terrible judgment on the part of the interim principal, Amy Hansen. When this sort of thing happens on a school campus — particularly a school like Lowell in a city like San Francisco — the administration should immediately go public, make an announcement to faculty, students, parents, and the larger school community, arrange for discussions in smaller groups, and make it clear that intolerance won't be tolerated.
Instead, the incident was allowed to fester — until the student paper, the Lowell, defied administration wishes and did a story.
The report was fair and accurate, and it gave everyone on campus some insight into what had happened.
The hate crime report was one of several scoops that got the students in hot water this year. Earlier, a Lowell reporter had learned the identity of a student who slashed a teacher's tires and reported why the student did it — but refused to reveal the offender's name to the administration. Reporters, the student journos said, are not agents of the police, and they have every legal and ethical right to protect confidential sources.
Hansen was unhappy about those stories (and several others) and required the Lowell’s staffers to meet with her while she expounded on ethics. Fortunately, neither the Lowell staff nor their faculty advisers backed down an inch.
There are two important lessons here. The first is that student journalists have the same rights as professionals and that school administrators ought to respect those rights and not try to intimidate the campus press.
The other is that student newspapers are an essential part of any high school community.
In the past few years, with money short all over, the San Francisco Unified School District has taken a lackadaisical attitude toward campus papers. Today only eight of the city's 21 high schools have active papers. The hate crime incident at Lowell demonstrates exactly why that's unacceptable.
Student papers are obviously a wonderful teaching tool. They get kids to think about writing in a different way; they open up opportunities and stimulate debate. But they also serve a community purpose: the students know (often better than anyone else) what's really going on in a high school and with proper support and guidance can hold administrators and teachers accountable, prevent the spread of misinformation and rumor, and make the school a better place.
Student papers don't have to be expensive items. Printing isn't free, but with a bit of prodding, we suspect the dailies in town might be willing to do the work at a steep discount. And Web publishing is practically free. Giving one teacher the time to serve as an adviser isn't going to break anyone's budget.
The school board ought to establish a policy that every local high school have a functioning campus newspaper — and ought to tell the administrators to refrain from trying to censor the student press.
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