Calmer heads prevail in aftermath of sex discussion | News | Mountain View Online |


Calmer heads prevail in aftermath of sex discussion

Support for student journalists who wrote controversial articles

In order for all area residents to have important local information on the coronavirus health emergency, has lifted its pay meter and is providing unlimited access to its website. We need your support to continue our important work. Please join your neighbors and become a subscribing member today.

Taking care not to offend the offended or overstep California's strong protections for student journalists, teachers and school officials are choosing their words carefully after a group of parents charged that there's been insufficient oversight of the Mountain View High School newspaper.

After the student-run paper, the Oracle, printed a series of articles exploring drugs and student drug use, and, more recently a package of articles on "Sex and Relationships," the parents turned out in force at a February school board meeting to voice concerns and demand that school officials exercise more control over the publication.

Coverage of the controversy in the Voice resulted in a deluge of online comments and emails -- both from students and community members critical of the parents' views, as well as from the concerned parents and their supporters who insist that some of what was printed in the Oracle was at the very least distasteful and perhaps even obscene.

"I believe that as a highly educated school community with expectations for outstanding public education, we are capable of teaching journalism in a way that both supports student's freedom of speech, while also guiding students towards quality and professional writing," Tabitha Hanson, one of the concerned parents, wrote in an email to the Voice. She said that she supported the students' right to explore difficult and controversial topics such as sex and drugs, but added that she felt the way in which the articles were written did not live up to the standards of writing she would like to see.

"As adults, I believe we are also capable of teaching our students that professional journalism includes an awareness and a concern for the audience for which they write (at MVHS, that includes kids as young as 13)," she said.

Another parent, Sarah Robinson, said that portions of the "Sex and Relationships" package met her definition of obscenity.

"Don't be upset plainly because you didn't orgasm," reads one such passage from the article, "Things you learn in health class, and what you really need to know," which both Hanson and Robinson identified as one of the most offensive articles in the "Sex and Relationships" package. "You might feel perfectly fine after missing the climax (assuming you don't have blue balls)."

Community, legal standards

Barry Groves, superintendent of the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District, said he felt that above parenthetical phrase was particularly unfortunate and crass. He also said that in a subsequent talk with the Oracle staff and its adviser, Amy Beare, he had encouraged the budding journalists to be ever mindful of "community standards."

"What do newspapers print and not print?" Groves said he asked the Oracle staff. "Are we just writing to high school juniors and seniors, or are we writing to everybody?" -- including younger children, grandmothers, grandfathers and all other community members. Indeed, certain parents pointed out that the Oracle is delivered to their home and that very young children are sometimes the first to go thumbing through its pages.

But while they admit that "mistakes were made," both Groves and Bear, are adamant that no legal lines were crossed.

As objectionable as the articles may have been to some parents, there is little school officials can do to prevent the Oracle from publishing such articles in the future, according Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center.

"Very, very little can be censored in California," Goldstein said, explaining that while the Supreme Court precedent set in the 1988 case "Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier," dictates that districts can censor school publications, laws have since been passed in the state which supersede that ruling. The only way a school administration could legally exercise prior restraint on an article in a student newspaper, Goldstein said, would be if that article incited students to act in way that presented a "clear and present danger" to the operations of the school, or if the articles were defamatory, libelous or obscene.

While Robinson and other parents have said that they felt certain articles printed in The Oracle met the criteria for obscenity, Beare pointed out that U.S. courts have had trouble defining exactly what "obscenity" means.

There is a good reason behind California's strong legal protections for journalists, no matter their age, Goldstein said. "Whenever you have a question to err on the side of fewer rights or more rights," he mused, "you always produce better citizens by giving them more rights."

That doesn't mean everything students produce is great or even tasteful, he admitted. But, he continued, paraphrasing state Sen. Leland Yee, who authored many of California's student journalist protection laws, "I think the consequences of censoring student speech are greater than the consequences of less than ideal student speech."

Christy Reed, a third concerned parent who addressed the board emphasized in an email to the Voice that she recognizes the rights guaranteed student journalists in California. "I think we lose sight of the complete picture when we talk only in terms of what is legally permissible. The goal for everyone involved is to prepare our students for the future through the most excellent instruction we can give," said Reed. "This is not about wanting to shut down the Oracle or about students suing for First Amendment rights. This is about recognizing that with such significant rights comes great responsibility.

"Topics like sex and drugs are issues of import facing our high school students. Writing about these topics is not taboo. The manner in which they are approached, edited and eventually published to a target audience is what's in question, as well as the important role adults play in mentoring our students."

Health class

Heather Boyle, a health teacher at MVHS, agrees with Reed that the topics discussed throughout the "Sex and Relationships" package ought not to be taboo. In fact, Boyle said, just about everything discussed in the article, "What they teach you in health, and what you actually need to know," by Abby Cunniff, is fair game for discussion in her health class.

Boyle is not allowed to talk about pornography, which is mentioned in the article. Yet, while Boyle doesn't always bring up topics such as masturbation, the phases of sexual desire, where students can get free birth control and other similarly controversial items, she said that those topics often come up in class, and she is always happy to discuss them.

In fact, she said, the only problem she had with Cunniff's article was its title and introduction, which claims that teachers aren't as candid with kids as they ought to be.

"I don't like to think of myself as someone who teaches in the way she describes," Boyle said, noting that she has always felt comfortable discussing most sexual topics openly. "The state really encourages a comprehensive program and the district has never done anything to hold me back from doing that."

That said, she doesn't really see any problem with the publication of the article. Boyle even made a point to say that while she might not use the phrase "blue balls" in anything she would submit for publication, she understands the writer's impulse to be edgy and try to get a laugh from student readers.

Boyle also offered some caveats to information in Cunniff's article. For example, she said, Cunniff wrote that the "morning after" contraceptive pill can be effective for up to five days after sex. Boyle emphasized that while this is technically accurate, the pill's rate of effectiveness would be greatly diminished five days down the road.

Overall, however, Boyle said she thought that Cunniff's article was "great." Students at MVHS have the option of taking their health units in a variety of ways, Boyle said, and she isn't sure all the acceptable outlets for this information would be as candid as she is in her class or as Cunniff was in her article. "As a health teacher, I want teenagers to have as much information on how to stay healthy as possible."

We need your support now more than ever. Can we count on you?


3 people like this
Posted by Commenter
a resident of Monta Loma
on Mar 1, 2013 at 12:45 pm

Let the flame wars begin!

3 people like this
Posted by Napalm
a resident of Martens-Carmelita
on Mar 1, 2013 at 2:26 pm

Let's keep the kids in the dark reading the bible by candlelight. (and all the sex in that book....)

3 people like this
Posted by Wo\'O Ideafarm
a resident of another community
on Mar 1, 2013 at 3:08 pm

Wo\'O Ideafarm is a registered user.

Has any student used his/her full First Amendment rights to express the viewpoint that sexual activity outside of the context of a mated male and female is morally wrong, is a perversion, and is harmful? Has any student expressed the view that our reproductive equipment exists for the production of children, not for the production of pleasure?

What is the climate on campus for expressing politically incorrect viewpoints on sexuality and gender, including the current attempt to extend the meaning of the word "marriage" to include gay and lesbian couples? Is there really free speech on campus, or is a student only free to speak if he or she speaks the mob viewpoint?

3 people like this
Posted by Dear Wo/'O
a resident of Whisman Station
on Mar 1, 2013 at 3:28 pm

Of course the students have not done that. Because they understand diversity. They understand that your morals are not everyone's morals. I believe your 1st statement to be absolutely incorrect.

Your 2nd statement about having reproductive equipement exists "for the production of children, nor for production of pleasure" may be true. But in reality (a place I know you visit but don't actually live in all the time), that is NOT what they are used for exclusively. And, thank God, because our world is already overcrowded.

In the future, why don't you keep your comments to the actual article and not rant about your own ideals?

3 people like this
Posted by Garrett
a resident of another community
on Mar 2, 2013 at 6:15 am

I don't have any kids, but for them to know when and where to talk. Most important to listen or have someone who listens. Encourage both, don't judge, be supportive.

The student newspaper was reporting on news and events in their (kids) world, sex, drugs, peer pressure, school and their future.

3 people like this
Posted by Wo\'O Ideafarm
a resident of another community
on Mar 2, 2013 at 9:34 pm

Wo\'O Ideafarm is a registered user.

Both of the preceding posts are refreshing in that real dialog is occurring; we aren't just talking over and past each other. There are two opposing viewpoints here. Both viewpoints are reasonable. Both deserve tolerance and serious consideration. It is wonderful that Garrett speaks of the need for us to listen to one another. "Dear Wo'O", even though he/she thinks that I am wrong, said so reasonably and intelligently.

Now, if we can just get completely beyond insulting one another (smile)... and find the courage to use our real legal names, these differences of opinion can become the occasion for us to really connect with one another in true community.

3 people like this
Posted by Paul Kandell
a resident of Rex Manor
on Mar 3, 2013 at 9:29 pm

Paul Kandell is a registered user.

A big thank you to:

1. Voice reporter Nick Veronin, for showing other perspectives in this story, particularly by bringing in the essential references to California Education code 48907 and for contacting (and quoting at length) Adam Goldstein of the Student Press Law Center;

2. Supt. Groves and The Oracle's adviser, for their measured, thoughtful responses to the comments made at the school board meeting;

3. The Mountain View Voice, for the strongly worded editorial "Student journalists get bad rap," which also appeared Friday, and which makes it clear that the Voice's editorial board stands firmly with the students. (Here's the link to the editorial, in case you missed it -- an easy thing to do considering that it wasn't posted on the front page of the website and and was not labelled as an editorial: Web Link)

The opening and closing of the editorial say it all:

Opening: "The students who wrote the 'Sex and Relationships' stories and the adviser who allowed them to be published in Mountain View High School's student newspaper may have used bad judgment in a couple of cases, but certainly don't deserve the flood of criticism that has been heaped on them by a few uptight parents. Rather than being pilloried, these young journalists should be commended for having the courage to take on a timely, but extremely sensitive subject in a frank and compelling way."

Closing: "As journalists it would be our hope that the Oracle staff would learn from this process, but not be intimidated by it. The outraged parents must understand that they cannot impose their will on the entire student body of Mountain View High School."

Everything in between is worth reading, too. Thank you, Voice, for your support of The Oracle and it staff.

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

3 people like this
Posted by Wo\'O Ideafarm
a resident of another community
on Mar 3, 2013 at 9:59 pm

Wo\'O Ideafarm is a registered user.

Mr. Kandell, perhaps you will be kind and answer a question that I've posted several times but have not received an answer to. Much is being made about the full First Amendment rights of public school pupils (of all ages). But do we have a truly open and healthy environment in which students can freely voice all viewpoints, or is it a mob environment in which students are only free to voice the politically correct viewpoint?

The acid test is this: Has the school newspaper published the writings of even one student who embraces the "marriage norm viewpoint", which holds that sexual activity outside of the context of a male-female couple is morally wrong, a perversion, an abuse of our reproductive equipment, and/or harmful to the individuals involved or to the community? Has even one student held a sign or done any other kind of speech activity in opposition? Do we really have a marketplace of ideas on the school campus, or is it just closed minded, repressive mobbing?

If someone does not answer in the affirmative, or if this post of mine is censored away, that pretty much establishes "how it really is".

3 people like this
Posted by Wo\'O Ideafarm
a resident of another community
on Mar 4, 2013 at 7:24 pm

Wo\'O Ideafarm is a registered user.

So, we celebrate high school students who speak a viewpoint on sexuality and gender that attacks and destroys the marriage norm viewpoint. We call it "freedom of speech" and applaud the faculty and administrators who have created and presumably encouraged this attack. But it is a repressive mob environment that does not tolerate the voicing of an opposing voice, a voice that says, for example, that sexual activity before marriage is morally wrong and harmful, and that "marriage" refers to the important and distinct intimacy between a mated male and female.

MVHS is a closed minded, repressive mob, just like the adult community that hosts it. These students are being exploited and used as tools to promote the queer political agenda. This selfish exploitation of children disgusts me.

Don't make pronouncements about "freedom of speech" until you can show me that the expression of ALL viewpoints is tolerated and that the campus is a vibrant marketplace of ideas and not just an institution for brainwashing.

3 people like this
Posted by Don't insult oracle
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Mar 5, 2013 at 11:15 pm

The oracle had brought forth some amazing evidence through the years at MVHS and these stories about drug use and sex education are just topics that need to be addressed. Would you as a parent like your child to know sexual statistics from reading them in a reliable school newspaper or on some website that they look up on their own and probably is showing statistics from the early 2000's. all these parents that are trying to get a change from the oracle, guess what! They already apologized and said that they wrote in a way they shouldn't have... It was a mistake get over it. They said they are going to take more time editing next time and forever after the fact. You cannot deny the right to students for writing an article that they would want to write. The teacher and the administration allowed it for the reason that it isn't being offensive and it is definitely not telling people that sexual harassment is ok!!!

On another topic, dances. You cannot change our dances all because some of your kids are feeling unsafe at a dance because they don't dance, or "freak" as some other students do. It isn't against the rules of our dances to freak or grind during dances so the parents are asking for a huge change that would take an extreme amount of monitoring for many years to make the change. The easiest way is to tell your children that is their choice to go to a dance and it is their choice to grind or not; if they choose not to grind no one will tease them. Turning up the lights or adding more enforcement on the kind of dancing that is allowed during a dance will not solve a problem it will cause one. Students would then decide that they must hide that they are grinding during a dance which leads to greater acts of secrecy.

Finally the issue about alcohol and drugs at dances is an issue but there isn't much we can so about it. We already have random breathalyzer tests through the line and if someone isn't wearing enough clothes they cannot enter. We cannot violate a persons privacy especially if drug sniffing dogs are brought onto campus and walked up and down the line of students waiting to get into the dance. The only way I think we could cut down on the amount of alcohol consumption at a dance would be to have a person randomly breathalyzer people once they exit the restroom where most alcohol could be consumed.

Do not go after students. They didn't do anything wrong except write a report an out sex education and drug use. Ok they wrote in a bad way yada yada.... Forget it. They apologized and I care about them since they are just trying to show statistics to some students are probably not aware of prior to the article. I will be at the meeting on Monday the 11th of march and I will defend these students to the end of the earth since they are all amazing, bright students that care about others and they try their hardest.
Love u oracle <3

3 people like this
Posted by MVHS Parent
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Mar 6, 2013 at 4:34 pm

Why isn't anyone listening when the concerned parents say OVER and OVER and OVER that this isn't about attacking students. All the issues mentioned above come down to a need for better adult leadership at the high school. No one wants to censor student rights or avoid important topics like sex or drugs, they want guidance so that students can write great journalism without having to be apologizing for mistakes that adults should have helped prevent. These are indeed bright and fantastic students who deserve the best possible journalism departments and high school atmosphere, and MVHS can do better than what they are doing now. Community parents ought to look at the quality of other local high school newspapers and compare them to the Oracle, and I think they will find that other local high schools with the exact same first amendment rights, the exact same teenage interests and experiences are creating a far superior paper that reflects well on them, on their journalism program and on their community.

I'll be at the meeting too and look forward to modeling a respectful, mature and productive example of community civil discourse. Our kids deserve to learn how to tackle these difficult community disagreements in ways that are productive and not combative.

3 people like this
Posted by Wo\'O Ideafarm
a resident of another community
on Mar 6, 2013 at 7:39 pm

Wo\'O Ideafarm is a registered user.

I agree. What you refer to is a subtle kind of name calling. In a public forum such as this one, it is never appropriate or constructive to say anything negative about anyone else, unless the person is a public figure (such as for example our corrupt pretend reformer district attorney Jeff Rosen).

I'd like to see civil discourse right here. People post writings here as if it is their minute of fame on television. Someone on television cannot connect meaningfully with anyone in the audience, but in a forum such as this one, connection one to one is possible, especially if people use their real names.

3 people like this
Posted by Tim G.
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Mar 8, 2013 at 8:26 am

When I went to school, we learned math, reading, writing, science and geography. My generation sent astronauts to the moon and back.
What are they teaching in schools today? Diversity and deviations of human sexuality? As Mr. T would say "I pity the fools". The leaders of tomorrow will be completely unprepared for their roles.

3 people like this
Posted by Wo\'O Ideafarm
a resident of another community
on Mar 8, 2013 at 9:04 am

Wo\'O Ideafarm is a registered user.

The cultural norms exist for a reason. Discarding the norms of gender and sexuality is folly. The rules of gender and sexuality are the foundation of the family, i.e. of the raising up of children into good, strong men and women. That, in turn, is the foundation of self government, of an empowered population that guards vigilantly against government corruption and that has "what it takes" to compete successfully in the economic, political, and social arenas.

These students are being used as tools to promote the queer political agenda. This is an outrage because these students are being used to destroy their own future.

It is unconstitutional for a public school to fail to accommodate all viewpoints, especially viewpoints associated with religious teaching. Until the "marriage norm viewpoint" becomes a part of the civic oonversation on the MVHS campus, until ALL viewpoints are fairly represented and considered, the claims of freedom of speech made by the students, faculty, and administrators are without merit and only serve to conceal the true state of speech on campus. It is a mob environment in which only the politically correct viewpoint can be spoken.

Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.


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

Get fact-based reporting on the COVID-19 crisis sent to your inbox daily.

Singapore's oldest cafe was about to open in Palo Alto. Then, the coronavirus hit.
By Elena Kadvany | 2 comments | 5,441 views

Coronavirus Food Safety Update + New! Insider Tips
By Laura Stec | 7 comments | 5,272 views

A Pragmatic Approach to A Trillion Trees
By Sherry Listgarten | 4 comments | 4,186 views

Repairing a Disagreement with your Beloved & “Physical” vs. “Social” Distancing
By Chandrama Anderson | 2 comments | 2,872 views

The University of California’s flexible policies during COVID-19
By John Raftrey and Lori McCormick | 6 comments | 2,739 views



The 34th Annual Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest is now accepting entries for Adult, Young Adult and Teen categories. Send us your short story (2,500 words or less) and entry form by April 10, 2020. First, Second and Third Place prizes awarded in each category.

View Details