Editorial: District 66 Superintendent’s Email Misrepresents Student Journalism 

On+Feb.+10%2C+2021%2C+Superintendent+Mike+Lucas+sent+out+an+email+to+all+Westside+High+School+students%2C+staff+and+parents+regarding+%E2%80%9Crumor+control+for+student+journalism.%E2%80%9D+As+Lucas+himself+said+he+feels+it%E2%80%99s+important+for+both+sides+to+be+heard+when+publishing+a+story%2C+Westside+Journalism+students+feel+it+is+important+to+respond.+

Ramya Iyer

On Feb. 10, 2021, Superintendent Mike Lucas sent out an email to all Westside High School students, staff and parents regarding “rumor control for student journalism.” As Lucas himself said he feels it’s important for both sides to be heard when publishing a story, Westside Journalism students feel it is important to respond.

On Feb. 10, 2021, Superintendent Mike Lucas sent out an email to all Westside High School students, staff and parents regarding “rumor control for student journalism.” While the email was intended to clear up rumors regarding the Westside journalism department, it did not provide a student perspective on the situation or explain what “rumors” prompted the email in the first place. As Lucas himself said he feels it’s important for both sides to be heard when publishing a story, Westside Journalism students feel it is important to respond. Lucas begins his email by citing school board policy 5470, which, as the email states, was adopted on April 3, 1973; amended on April 1, 1991; and again on July 12, 2006.

“There is some misinformation making its way around our school district, community, and even at the State Capitol, about our school district’s stance regarding our journalism department at Westside High School,” Lucas said. “Some folks are under the false understanding that Westside has made a recent change to our policy in how we handle ‘student publications.’ That is not true. School-sponsored student publications, productions, and activities are part of the educational program and are not public forums. The superintendent or designee may prevent or restrict publication and production of materials or other student expression where such would be inconsistent with the District’s educational mission or for any valid educational purpose or reason, including but not limited to the standards and objectives set forth in board policies.”

Lucas begins his email by referencing “misinformation” which has been circulating around the community. In order to better contextualize this claim, Lucas is referring to Westside Journalism students’ reaction to Policy 5470, the one he mentions in the email, which puts into place “prior review.” Prior review, as it applies to student journalists, is when school administration reads and reviews content before it is made available to the public. As Westside Journalism students have experienced this year, this practice has resulted in less timely content, a “chilling effect” causing students to stray away from “hard-hitting stories” and required changes to stories and graphics in order for them to be published. 

The reason Lucas’ email explicitly references the state capitol is because five Westside Journalism students recently attended a legislative hearing on Jan. 29, 2021, in order to advocate for LB88, a bill which would override Westside’s policy and designate high school publications as public forums for student expression. A public forum, according to the Student Press Law Center, is a student publication where school officials give student editors ability to make their own decisions about content. Acting as a public forum, without administrative prior review, is widely regarded as a better educational experience for students by journalism and education associations across the country such as the SPLC and Journalism Education Association. According to a statement on the JEA’s website, they reject prior review as it is not helpful for students’ learning and rather harmful. It states:

“The [JEA], as the nation’s largest association of scholastic journalism educators and secondary school media advisors, denounces the practice of administrative prior review as serving no legitimate educational purpose. Prior review leads only to censorship by school officials or to self-censorship by students with no improvement in journalistic quality or learning…Prior review by administrators undermines critical thinking, encourages students to dismiss the role of a free press in society and provides no greater likelihood of increased quality of student media. Prior review inevitably leads to censorship.”

While Lucas’ email states that policy 5470 has existed for the last 47 years, it omits the fact that the policy wasn’t practiced until the start of the 2020-2021 school year. According to Rod Howe, a former Westside journalism advisor from 1990 to 2013, prior review was never used. All Westside Publications had been acting as public forums for student expression by practice prior to this year. While the district did not explicitly create a new school board policy to “handle student journalists” this school year, they did make the choice to begin enforcing a policy which hadn’t been used, in regards to student journalism, in almost half a century.

Lucas then goes on to discuss how Policy 5470 is not unlike the policies in place at other schools in Nebraska.

“Our school district has this policy in place, very similar to most, if not all, other school district’s policies in Nebraska, including public schools in the Omaha metro area,” Lucas said. “Because it helps to protect the safe and inclusive learning environment, culture, and fundamental values we have for all of our students. We know of zero student journalists, or professional journalists for that matter, that while representing a school, business, or media organization get to say and do whatever they want without someone providing oversight and approval.”

It’s true that zero student or professional journalists, representing a school, business or any other media organization, are free to say or do whatever they want without any oversight. However, as with all other journalism publications, Westside Journalism has a dedicated staff of student editors and journalism advisers who are trained in journalism ethics. Prior to the 2020-2021 school year, this team of trained, student editors was able to write, edit and publish quality journalism directly, without having to go to any Westside administration. Nothing was ever published without the approval of student editors or journalism advisors. 

The email again fails to reference the fact that policy 5470 was never enforced, in regards to student journalism, until the start of the 2020-2021 school year. If, as the email suggests, the policy was so vital to “protecting the safe and inclusive learning environment,” why did the district, and Westside Journalism, thrive when the policy was not enforced for the greater part of the last 50 years? From a student perspective, it appears that policy 5470 has never been necessary for Westside to achieve their goal of fostering an inclusive learning environment for all students.

Lucas continues the email by discussing the journalism ethics which publications are expected to uphold.

“Since our journalism department produces material for school-sponsored publications, we expect that these publications will publish content that complies with District policies, respects our educational mission, protects individual privacy rights, upholds journalistic standards and the law and that meets our curriculum objectives,” Lucas said. “In order to ensure our school-sponsored publications meet these expectations, the district will continue to be involved in reasonable prior review.”

Again, Westside Journalism and all of its publications have always and will always publish content which complies with district policy and upholds journalistic standards. This was the case before the 2020-2021 school year, and it has always been the case for Westside Journalism publications. For the past two years, Westside Journalism has won the NSAA State Journalism competition, as well as received multiple state-wide journalism awards for its publications. To say that Westside Journalism, an award-winning program, would be unable to uphold journalistic standards without administration reading its stories is offensive, as shown by the accolades it has accumulated over the past few years.

Lucas then reflects on a meeting between Westside Journalism and administration at the beginning of the school year.

“This past summer our Westside Senior Leadership Team, a few board members, and our Director of Communication, Mrs. Brandi Paul (used to be with KETV Channel 7 news) sat down with our amazing journalism students and their instructors to discuss these very issues and explain our support of the program and the bigger picture,” Lucas said. “We discussed the unfortunate situation that had just occurred where a Westside student used a WHS journalism department social media channel to post a derogatory and demeaning hashtag. We discussed the importance of prior review and accountability.”

Westside Journalism did meet with District 66 administration at the beginning of the school year to express concerns over the implementation of prior review and how it could harm the ability for its publication to produce timely, hard-hitting journalism content.

In regards to the “derogatory and demeaning hashtag posted to a Westside Journalism social media channel,” this is in reference to Westside Wired’s Twitter bio being changed, without the knowledge of student editors, in the summer of 2020. While this incident was unfortunate, the hashtag was discovered by students, taken down, self-reported and resolved in less than an hour. Actions were also put in place to prevent Westside Wired’s Twitter information from being changed in the future, and nothing like this event has occurred since.

Lucas then mentions how it is illegal for school-sponsored publications to officially endorse political candidates.

“We discussed how damaging it would be if the school-sponsored newspaper had no accountability to the school district’s mission or culture,” Lucas said. “As an example, we touched on how divisive (and illegal) it would be if a school-sponsored publication officially endorsed Mr. Trump or Mr. Biden for President.  We discussed how problematic it would be if they wrote an article supporting the defunding of police.”

The Westside Journalism ethical guidelines and conduct explicitly states that “it is the responsibility of [Westside] publications to cover school, city, state, national and international events and issues that affect or concern the campus, its students or its readers in a non bias method.” This means that even without prior review, the kind of inflammatory content which Lucas is describing would not be published on any Westside Journalism publications.

Lucas continues the email by offering “solutions” to writing opinion-based articles.

“Instead, we offered reasonable solutions that are in line with the district’s expectations regarding school-sponsored publications. If our journalism department wanted to publish an opinion piece about defunding the police, we simply asked that an opinion on keeping the police be shared as well so it doesn’t look like Westside Community Schools is doing anything other than letting students share opinions on both sides of the topic,” Lucas said. “We felt our journalism department should find writers to make opinionated arguments why Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden should both be elected so our school district doesn’t violate the law and endorse a political figure in our school-sponsored publications.”

As seen in Westside Journalism’s editorial policy, providing unbiased coverage is a practice which we have always strived to follow in our publications. Prior review of content does nothing to change or “better enforce” that policy, and even without prior review, Westside Journalism would not have published content which “endorses a political figure” in any of its publications without explicitly stating that it was the opinion of a writer and not reflective of Westside Community Schools. The “reasonable solutions” which Lucas suggested in his email were already being practiced by all Westside Journalism publications.

Lucas ends his email by stating his support for the Westside Journalism program.

“We are very proud of our award-winning journalism department,” Lucas said. “We expect them, and all of our programs and departments, to follow board policies and applicable laws and ethical standards. We hope this information clears up any misperceptions caused by the misinformation that has been circulating recently about this topic.”

While likely said with good intentions, this support for the journalism program feels hollow for a number of reasons. As has been stated time and time again, the Westside journalism program has and will continue to follow ethical journalism standards in regards to writing, editing, producing, and publishing content for its publications. However, prior review, and in turn Policy 5470, is harming the program’s ability to do that. If Westside Administration truly cares about their award-winning journalism department, they would allow it to publish content as a public forum for student expression, like it has been for the past 47 years, following journalistic standards and holding itself accountable.

If you would like to hear more about the perspectives of student editors in the Westside Journalism department and their opinions on prior review, you can read more in the article on the Student Press Law Center’s website here.