Furor erupts over sex, drug stories in school paper

Parents blast district, MVHS officials 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, a vocal group of 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. And all were upset that the those in charge of the high school and the district -- "the adults" -- were not providing proper oversight and guidance to the students.

"Mistakes were made," Groves said at the meeting, and board members assured the audience that action would be taken in response.

Parents outraged

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 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.

During the discussion, Oracle staff writer Cerys Holstege, admitted that "mistakes were made," while defending her paper's merits.

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 told the Voice.

Many of the upset parents took issue with Cunniff's story, as well as portions of other articles, which they said were 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 rights as parents to educate their children -- not Cunniff's or the district's -- about the subjects covered in her article.

In a statement, Oracle advisor Amy Beare apologized, saying, "As a newspaper staff we made mistakes in this issue that we regret and we will move forward with greater care to ensure that we are true to our goal of provoking thought, not outrage."

Beare also defended the student staff, calling them "a thoughtful, civic-minded, articulate group of young people who are passionate about journalism."

"They are learning about their world in a way we as educators should encourage, through investigation of ideas, interaction with all kinds of people and the process of writing about what they see," her statement continued. "If they cross a line of decency that their readers find offensive, they are open to learning about that too."

Round two

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 seriously -- 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's response

Superintendent 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 Beare, the Oracle adviser and an MVHS English teacher.

"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."


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Posted by Sean
a resident of Sylvan Park
on Feb 15, 2013 at 7:17 pm

I feel sorry for the younger freshman kids, but with the internet,social media sites, smart phones the information is always a click away anyway.

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Posted by Wo\'O Ideafarm
a resident of another community
on Feb 15, 2013 at 8:18 pm

Wo\'O Ideafarm is a registered user.

IMO, the most interesting question that the recent articles by Nick Veronin raise is this: Do parents have the right to control the ideas that their children and teenagers are exposed to? Do parents have the right to "shelter" their children and teenagers? What is the essential nature of the job of parenting a teenager, anyway? Is the parent of a teenager only a meal ticket and nothing more?

My opinion is that parents do have the right to completely control the ideas that their children and teenagers are exposed to. Parents do have the right to shelter their children and teenagers.

The concept of sheltering does not just apply to minors. It is the essence of the conflict over the definition of "marriage", i.e. over whether some forms of queer sexuality should be legitimized. Somehow, we must reconcile our desire for freedom of speech with our desire to be sheltered, to not be exposed to ideas that we disagree with or that put us on the defensive.

2 people like this
Posted by Paul Kandell
a resident of Rex Manor
on Feb 15, 2013 at 11:14 pm

Paul Kandell is a registered user.

As journalism advisers working in Bay Area high schools, who regularly work with student journalists covering controversial subjects, we can tell you that it is a huge disservice by the Mountain View Voice and MVLA district staff not to ground this discussion in the shining light of California Education Code 48907 (Web Link), which grants students in California what are essentially the strongest press rights of any students in the world.

Supt. Groves says he takes "ultimate responsibility" for what is published in the Oracle, but that is in large part not possible. Ed. Code 48907 — which supercedes the more popularly known (and restrictive) Hazelwood standard — states quite clearly that student editors — not district employees — are responsible for the content of campus publications, "whether or not the publications or other means of expression are supported financially by the school or by use of school facilities."

The only allowed limitations on students are for work that is "obscene, libelous, or slanderous ... or that so incites pupils as to create a clear and present danger of the commission of unlawful acts on school premises or the violation of lawful school regulations, or the substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school."

We doubt very much that this standard has been breached by the Oracle staff. The only specific charge parents are making that seems relevant is a violation of the obscenity standard, but there would never be a finding by a court that what was published in the Oracle was obscene because nobody can agree on what that standard should be.

Ed. Code 48907 and its companion legislation Ed. Code 48950 are crystal clear: If a journalism adviser, principal or superintendent move to interfere with student publications without just cause (see the very limited acceptable causes noted above), then those school staffs put themselves and their institutions at risk of being hit with legal action.

What’s more, the law also makes it clear that students may not be punished for engaging in expression that would be protected by the First Amendment AND that it is illegal to dismiss, suspend, discipline, reassign, transfer, or otherwise retaliate against a school employee (for instance, a journalism adviser) for supporting students’ Constitutionally protected free speech.

Hold fast, Oracle staff. You are on firm legal ground. The Student Press Law Center, which offers free legal counsel to students facing censorship, should be your next phone call and will tell you as much.

Paul Kandell, Mountain View resident
- Board member, Journalism Education Association of Northern California
- Member, Student Press Law Center steering committee
- 2009 Dow Jones News Fund National High School Journalism Teacher of the Year

Ellen Austin
- Board member, Journalism Education Association of Northern California
- Chair, Student Press Law Center steering committee
- 2012 Dow Jones News Fund National High School Journalism Teacher of the Year

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Posted by Wo'O Ideafarm
a resident of another community
on Feb 16, 2013 at 6:32 am

Wo'O Ideafarm is a registered user.

[Post removed due to disrespectful comment or offensive language]
[Post removed due to promoting a website]

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Posted by Rachel B.
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Feb 17, 2013 at 12:09 pm

Rachel B. is a registered user.

Thank you for your comments, Paul Kandell, specifying the legal protections for student speech in school newspapers in California. It is unbelievable that the MVLA school district and the superintendent present at the last meeting did not mention the role of the law in how the school will handle the disgruntled parents' complaints. Even more unbelievable is that the article in the Mountain View Voice failed to recognized the key issue in the facts being reported. The school board members are parents who understandably may not regularly contemplate the potential issues between the press and the right to free speech, but shame on the Mountain View Voice for being so ignorant.

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Posted by CBMV
a resident of Shoreline West
on Feb 18, 2013 at 3:42 pm

CBMV is a registered user.

I finding it very amusing that the same parents that fight fiercely to get the best education for their kids are the same ones fighting one of the best schools in the area over such a inoffensive school paper article.
We have the privilege of living in a community where diversity of cultures, opinions and backgrounds is not only a fact but also an asset for a well-rounded education. Mountain View High is an incredible place, where students not only thrive intellectually but are also serving as an example to their parents’ generation on civility and tolerance. Our students are smart, well informed, open-minded and capable. Limiting them on what they do or say is not only wrong, but also ineffective.
Do you really want to be an involved parent? Stop closing your eyes and let your kid get educated about sex before it is too late.

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Posted by Skuborssy
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Feb 19, 2013 at 4:34 pm

Skuborssy is a registered user.

I completely agree with CBMV.

Being a recent graduate at MVHS, I know that these issues talked about in the Oracle are in fact issues that need to be addressed. With the technology we have these days, kids are learning about sex and drugs at younger ages. Are these parents against Sex Ed in health class as well? What about social media and tv shows such as Teen Mom and The Real World?

If anything, these articles should be praised. Kids are becoming sexually active as early as middle school and promoting safe sex should not be frowned upon.

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Posted by Wo\'O Ideafarm
a resident of another community
on Feb 19, 2013 at 7:26 pm

Wo\'O Ideafarm is a registered user.

This discussion has not shown respect for and comprehension of the opposing view. Teaching children and teenagers about sex is one thing. Promoting sexual activity is another. No one is taking issue with sex education. The issue is whether the student body and/or the administrators have created an environment that promotes sexual activity, including sexual activity such as masturbation that is widely, in the larger community, viewed as harmful both to the individual and to society.

The "marriage norm viewpoint" says that no one, and especially not teenagers who are still on the formative path to becoming adults, should masturbate. It is difficult to see a student newspaper article on masturbation other than as an attack on the marriage norm viewpoint. Does that newspaper provide equal time to the opposing viewpoint that students should not engage in any sexual behavior before marriage (male to female) and that masturbation is prohibited for life? Is the viewpoint that our reproductive equipment exists for the production of children, not for the production of pleasure, given equal time in student speech on campus? Are students familiar with the view that masterbation, promiscuity, and same gender sexual intimacy are abuses of our reproductive equipment and are harmful perversions?

In short, is there vigorous, respectful discussion on campus on sexual mores, or do we just have a mob environment that silences anyone who would oppose group-think?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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