Furor erupts over sex, drug stories in school paper
Parents blast MVHS for allowing graphic articles to be printed
For the second time in less than a month, high school district officials have come under fire from a group of parents upset over articles published in The Oracle, Mountain View High School's student newspaper.
Those articles, bundled together in two feature packages — the first focusing on student drug use and the second on sex and romance at MVHS — should have never been published, parents argued at the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District's board meeting, Feb. 11.
While the package of articles on drug use at MVHS drew only a handful of parents to speak at the board meeting, the series on sex resulted in a veritable deluge. Administrators made several trips to bring extra chairs to accommodate angry parents, who filled all the seats in the board room and overflowed into the lobby of the MVLA offices. During the public comment portion of the meeting, at least 16 people addressed the board. All but one expressed disappointment in officials at both high schools for failing to stop the latest contentious news package, titled "Sex and Relationships," from being printed. During the discussion, Oracle staff writer Cerys Holstege, admitted that "mistakes were made," while defending her paper's merits in a broader sense.
One MVHS mother, Sarah Robinson, said she had filed a formal complaint with the California State Board of Education, had called Los Altos Mayor Jarrett Fishpaw to complain and was planning to do the same with Mountain View Mayor John Inks.
"We're not here just because we want to air our concerns tonight," Robinson said forcefully, her voice wavering in what sounded like anger and frustration. "We are here because we want to see the board and administrators act. I hope you understand that I and other parents are committed to bringing this district leadership and administrators under real scrutiny until we see real change."
As parents walked up to the podium over the course of the evening, many expressed support for Robinson's assertion, saying that they wanted to see school officials take meaningful action and ensure that articles like the "Sex and Relationships" package, never again find their way into the pages of the Oracle.
Todd Adams, a local father, said he wondered if some of the content in the sex series might be considered sexual harassment, and said he feels that printing of the articles in question suggests that the district tacitly approves of the behavior they described.
"A school newspaper that publishes articles like these gives the idea that the institution is behind and supportive of the type of behavior that happens in schools that can be considered by some as (sexual harassment)," he said.
While some articles in a special "Focus" section of the newspaper discussed typical "High School Relationships," such as "the couples that celebrate anything and everything over Facebook" and "couples who are constantly on again — off again." Another article, "What they teach you in health, and what you really need to know," went into great detail about where MVHS students could find contraception, the so-called "morning-after pill," and quoted a doctor from Case Western Reserve University who posited that "masturbating women tend to have higher self-esteem and significantly less physical and emotional stress."
The point of the article, according to its author, Abbie Cunniff, was to explore "topics briefly covered in sex education classes that I felt needed more specificity to be relevant to student life."
"To the parents who feel that my article was vulgar, explicit, and disrespectful to the MVHS community, I am saddened that they feel I wrote with malevolence. The intention of my article was to promote safe, healthy sex for those who wish to become, or already are, sexually active. I don't think my article did anything to persuade or affect students who are decidedly against sexual activity, because mainstream media and other teenagers do a much better job than I do. I only wanted to provide information for those who want to know more about having safe, healthy sex," Cunniff said in a statement she sent to the Voice:
Many of the upset parents took issue with Cunniff's attempt to educate, as well as portions of other articles, which they found to be lurid, overly graphic and often inappropriate. Many who shared passages they found offensive quoted from Cunniff's piece, and some emphasized that it was their right's as parents to educate their children — not Cunniff's or the district's — about the subjects covered in her article.
Robinson was one of three women who addressed the board at its Jan. 21 meeting — when she called for district officials to do a better job of enforcing current rules, and appealing for more to be done in order to prevent drug and alcohol abuse both on and off campus.
During their presentation to the board last month, Robinson and two other mothers, Christy Reed and Tabitha Hansen, said the district needs to do a better job of enforcing existing rules, which they said were being broken over and over again, without consequence. Music with profane language is being played at school dances, where students are dancing provocatively, students and teachers use profanity in class, and drugs were being used before school dances and during school dances, they claimed.
"We feel it's worth a second look at how effectively the behavioral standards are being enforced" at district schools, Reed wrote in an email to the Voice. "No doubt there is some enforcement, but the consistency and level of that enforcement we feel is worth the district board examining."
The women also recommended that the district consider having drug-sniffing dogs at every dance.
At that meeting, the women called the board's attention to the package of drug articles, which included a story about parents who allow their teenagers to smoke marijuana at home, a collection of informational graphics on what illicit drugs are popular in the Bay Area and where they originate, along with a piece on "Weird Drugs."
In her public comment to the board of trustees, it was clear Robinson did not feel that district officials took her group's previous presentation clearly — so she made formal complaints to the State Board of Education and the heads of both Mountain View and Los Altos hihgh schools, which she said she initiated because the district was not "enforcing behavioral guidelines and allowing articles promoting illegal and obscene behavior to repeatedly be printed in the school newspaper."
District Superintendent Andy Groves told the Voice that he had read and would consider the recommendations made by the women at the Jan. 21 school board meeting, but added some caveats.
A study that the women used in an effort to demonstrate that drug use within the district was disproportionately high compared to other districts had been conducted in 2009; secondly, he said, comparing MVLA to districts in Palo Alto and the Los Gatos-Saratoga area was an imperfect comparison; third, Groves said, some of the information the women used to draw their conclusions was gathered through a survey of "only 34, non-randomly selected students" out of the approximately 3,600 in the district.
However, if Groves and the rest of the board did not take much action last time around, the superintendent said he has plans in the works to talk to the students at the Oracle, as well as Oracle adviser and MVHS English teacher Amy Beare.
"Mistakes were made," Groves said at the meeting, echoing Oracle staff writer Cerys Holstege, and board members assured the audience that action would be taken in response.
"I think there were things in the paper that, upon reflection, should not have been published," Groves said in a follow-up interview with the Voice. Groves said that the language used — especially one crass turn of phrase in the concluding parenthetical sentence of the article, "What they teach you in health, and what you really need to know" — was especially regrettable. However, Groves added, that he was mainly disappointed with the words chosen in certain instances throughout the series of articles, "not the topic necessarily itself."
For all lines that were crossed and for all community standards that were violated, Groves said he takes ultimate responsibility. "As superintendent I'm responsible for everything that happens within the school district, so it's my responsibility to ensure that everything that we publish is accurate and meets community standards."
Groves would not say whether anyone would be censured for not stopping the series of articles from being published. He said he could not discuss personnel matters.
One parent who spoke up at the meeting, Dave Boyce, said he couldn't say what would be an appropriate response for the district, but he added, as the CEO of his own company, if something akin to the sex package were printed with his business' name at the top of it, that he would "put people on notice."