Crowd debates high school sex articles
MVLA officials hear from dozens of students, parents about journalism program
When Chloe Tarrasch, the Focus section editor for the Mountain View High School student newspaper, was putting together a special two-page spread on sex for the February edition of the Oracle, she never imagined the controversy that would follow its publication.
"We've had so many conversations and debriefs of what has happened within the past month," Tarrasch said, reflecting on the community's reaction to the package of articles and informational graphics, titled "Sex and Relationships," which ran in her section in the Feb. 8 issue of the paper.
What began about a month ago with a relatively small, but vocal, group of parents and community members voicing their concerns over Oracle articles on sex and student drug use has mushroomed into a community-wide debate about what is fit to print in a high school newspaper.
At the March 11 meeting of the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District's board of trustees, the advisers and editors for the student newspapers at both Mountain View and Los Altos high schools gave a presentation to the board in a venue usually reserved for much larger events. Standing on the stage of MVHS' 375-seat Spartan Theatre, and looking out at the near-capacity crowd, the group led a presentation on their newspapers, which together comprise the district's journalism department.
Like most departmental presentations, the group gave a brief presentation and took questions from the board. But unlike a typical departmental presentation, the group was followed by a district lawyer — who explained that the California Education Code provides some of the strongest legal protections in the country to high school newspapers — and 45 public comments, which generally fell into two categories. Some speakers critiqued the Oracle for poor writing and a lack of journalistic ethics, while chastising district administrators for failing to exercise control over the student body. Others praised the periodical as a shimmering example of high-quality student journalism and accused the paper's detractors for being out of touch, prudish and attempting to muzzle the Oracle staff simply because they were uncomfortable with its candid, straightforward coverage.
Tarrasch said she was excited to see the huge turnout. The meeting, which was moved to Spartan Theatre in anticipation of a large crowd, drew reporters from local CBS and NBC television news affiliates.
"I do think it's a good thing," Tarrusch said, noting with a smile that controversy is very seldom bad for news outlets. But more importantly, the Focus editor said she believed the controversy was proof that she and her colleagues had done what they, as journalists, are supposed to do — get the community thinking and talking about challenging topics
Dave Boyce, the father of a Mountain View High School student and CEO of a local Internet company, had a different take. "
I think we know why we're here," Boyce said. "It's because mistakes were made. You wouldn't get this many people into an audience if mistakes weren't made."
Superintendent Barry Groves used the phrase, "mistakes were made," at a Feb. 11 board meeting and in a subsequent interview with the Voice, saying that he felt some of the phrases Abby Cunniff used in her article, "What they teach you in health, and what you really need to know," might have been overly graphic and perhaps a bit crass. Groves stopped short of saying those words were obscene, and noted he was sure no legal red lines were crossed in Cunniff's story.
Boyce took particular issue with Cunniff's discussion of masturbation and sexual climax. Other parents said they were offended by the phrase "blue balls."
One Mountain View student argued that nothing printed in their paper would have to be edited out of a PG-13 movie, while noting that just about every high school student enters freshman year at 14. But community members and parents, including Boyce, said that because the Oracle reaches beyond the Mountain View High School campus — to local middle schools and homes — children much younger than 13 had access to the paper.
Cunniff, a senior at Mountain View, defended herself forcefully and without apology.
"I did not write this article to marginalize anyone, to promote anything or to educate students in the place of their parents," Cunnif said. "I wrote this article to promote communication on sex in an educated manner."
When it came to the controversial slang term, "blue balls," Cunniff said she didn't chose to use the phrase in order to be "flippant or crass," but because it was the most readily available term in her personal vernacular. She pointed out that the American Academy of Pediatrics recognizes the term, alluding to a report she found online. Indeed, a search by the Voice turned up a 2007 academic paper, authored by Jonathan M. Chalett and Lewis T. Nerenberg for the journal "Pediatrics," which explained that the term refers to pain — sometimes extreme — which young adult males may experience after "sustained sexual arousal" that has been "unrelieved." "It is remarkable that the medical literature completely lacks acknowledgment of this condition," the authors wrote.
Student drug use
Cunniff's article was not the only story that upset parents and community members. An article that appeared in the September 2012 issue of the Oracle, entitled "Teens smoke at home," was also mentioned. This piece, by Claire Johnson, detailed the practice of certain MVHS parents who allowed their children to imbibe alcohol and smoke marijuana at home "in order to educate them about self-control."
Ron Packard said he believed the article did more than simply explore the practice of allowing children to consume drugs and alcohol in the home, but that it actively promoted illegal activity.
That's not how Tom Ashkenazi, a sophomore and staff writer for the Oracle, read the article. "Not a single student started using drugs because of the article," Ashkenazi said. "Our job as journalists is to accurately and honestly report the truth. And this is exactly what we did with this article. Shooting the messenger won't fix anything."
Other students who spoke up in support of the article shared Ashkenazi's sentiment. Kate Kesner, a junior at MVHS, said she trusts the Oracle to provide her with accurate information in language she can relate to. "When you enter high school, it's not this perfect little bubble," Kesner said. "There are people saying things about sex and they're usually inaccurate and sometimes just dumb. When I read the Oracle, I am excited to know it's real information about sex and relationships, provided in an entertaining format."
Where's the line?
Chris Keiner, the attorney and legal adviser to the district who explained California's student journalism laws, had been invited to the meeting because "there was some misinformation in the community about what could be done," according to Groves.
Groves said some parents and community members have asked him directly in board meetings and via email whether they could form a commission to review the student newspaper before it is published so as to ensure that it meets community standards. The answer, Groves told the Voice, is no.
Keiner said that it is unlawful for any California district to censor or exercise prior restraint upon a student publication, unless an article is libelous, slanderous, obscene or incites students to act in such a way that presents a "clear and present danger" to the normal operation of the school.
In a previous email exchange with the Voice one of the first parents to express concern over articles in the Oracle said she felt that some of what had been printed in Cunniff's story was obscene. And a speaker at the March 11 meeting, Moe DeLuca, said regardless of whether a legal line was crossed, the article demonstrated poor oversight that warranted repercussions.
"I'll be pretty point blank," DeLuca said. "If those articles were written in a company newsletter — I'm originally from the East Coast, so I'm going to use an East Coast term — in about a New York second that employee would have been terminated."
In response to this critique, Tarrasch noted that there is a big difference between a corporate newsletter and a newspaper, but even if there weren't, the law is on the side of Oracle advisor Amy Beare. California school districts are barred from firing or censuring any employee for articles that appear in a student newspaper.
Ethics and quality
Some who were upset with what has been printed in the Oracle argued that the whole controversy could have been avoided if the students on the paper, and, more importantly, Beare, had kept a closer eye on quality and journalistic ethics.
"I don't have any problem saying 'masturbation,' I don't have any problem talking about sex with my children," said Tabitha Hanson, one of a group of three mothers who, along with Christy Reed and Sarah Robinson, addressed the board in January with concerns that school administrators were not doing enough to enforce district rules and community standards — presenting as evidence the Oracle article on students smoking marijuana in the home. Hanson insisted that she didn't have a problem with the newspaper tackling difficult issues in its pages.
"I have no interest in shutting down the Oracle. My sole interest is elevating our journalism program at Mountain View High School. ... This is not a question of moral conversation, this is a question of curriculum and style," she said.
Hanson said she has researched other high school journalism programs over the past month and has concluded that what other programs are producing is "far superior in quality" to the Oracle. Hanson said she would like to see the student paper move on to become an "award-winning" high school journalism program. However, she said she is convinced that before that could happen, administrators and student writers would need to "make sure that each article is in line with your journalistic code of ethics"
Fred Turner, a Boston-based freelance journalist who is currently an associate professor of journalism and communication at Stanford University, countered Hanson.
"I heard earlier the phrase, 'mistakes were made,' and I want to disagree with that," Turner told the board. "I think, on the contrary, these folks are doing exactly what good journalists do."
The Oracle is "exceptionally well written, exceptionally well sourced, carefully and thoroughly vetted by staff, and something that I would be proud to be associated with if I were," he said.
Henri Boulanger, a senior at MVHS, drew loud applause with a public comment pointing out that as a high school newspaper, the Oracle has run poorly written stories for as long as he has been reading it and questioning why parents and community members had suddenly become so vocal in critiquing the paper.
"I wanted to figure out why this issue — why is this happening now?" Boulanger later told the Voice. He noted that the quality of writing in the Oracle hasn't changed much since he has been attending Mountain View high.
"A lot of parents, it seems — at least the most vocal parents — seem to be making this an issue of professionalism." He said that could be fair and acknowledged he felt some recent articles could be seen as unprofessional.
"I think what I'm driving at is that people are hiding behind this veil that it's just about professionalism," he said, speculating that at the root of all the criticism is that some parents and other community members "like to think of the world, society, this town as a place where ideals are norm, and it's not. Whether that's for better or for worse, we live in an imperfect world and the Oracle is writing about that."
A matter of balance
Asked whether she felt the Focus section was balanced in February's "Sex and Relationships" package, Tarrasch answered in the affirmative. She also said that writers, editors and other editorial staff on the Oracle represent a wide range of political beliefs — from liberal to conservative.
But one former Oracle writer and Mountain View resident, Amanda Carmack, isn't so sure. Carmack, who wrote for the paper in the early '90s, said she remembers the newspaper being truly balanced back then. Carmack said that while she didn't agree with Cerys Holstege's opinion piece arguing that so-called "abstinence-only" education isn't effective, she "did not take any issue with her article."
Carmack also recalled working on a package on sex when she was at the Oracle. She said that she wrote an article about her choice to be abstinent in high school. "That was a balanced ... spread," she said. "When I looked at this spread, I did not see balance." Carmack said she would have liked to see a student voice, "because I know there are students at Mountain View High School who are choosing abstinence at this time."
Steve and Linda Tabaska, who have a daughter at MVHS, agreed with Carmack. After the community comment period, they told the Voice that they know there are students who were offended by the "Sex and Relationships" package.
Steve Tabaska said he has spoken to numerous teens who felt that a line had been crossed with the "Sex and Relationships" spread, suggesting that perhaps the Oracle hadn't tried hard enough to find a student willing to lend a divergent view.
After the meeting, Tarrasch said that she and her fellow Oracle colleagues would strive to give more balance to the topics they cover — something she said they already work very hard at — but beyond that, she said she feels the paper is already doing a great job and wouldn't change much.
Tabaska said that it "remains to be seen" whether the board of trustees had actually heard their voices heard at the meeting. As for the students and Oracle staff, a woman standing around outside the theater as the crowd dispersed said she was skeptical that the the teenagers had really listened to what the concerned adults had to say.
Regardless of whether the board takes any significant action, Tabaska said that he fully expects that teens will continue to be push up against the rules and parents — like he and his wife — will always be there, ready to push back.
Superintendent Groves made it clear he's not looking to overhaul his district's journalism program.
"I trust our sites to make good decisions about our student publications" and intimated he had no plans to change the way oversight is handled at the district's two papers.