Abrupt changes to Mountain View High School's journalism program have some students and community members questioning whether administrators are attempting to exert greater control over students' news stories.
In recent weeks, the school announced that the advisor for the Oracle, Mountain View High's student paper, will be replaced next fall and an introduction to journalism class will no longer be offered.
The Talon, Los Altos High's student newspaper, reported last week that some suspect the changes are a response to an Oracle article about sexual harassment that Principal Kip Glazer allegedly took issue with.
At a school board meeting Monday, May 8, two local journalism advisors and an Oracle editor questioned the motives behind the changes.
"This sounds a little like someone is trying to kill your journalism program and to exercise control over it until it dies," said Paul Kandell, a journalism advisor at Palo Alto High School, who said he was representing the Journalism Education Association of Northern California.
Oracle student journalists interviewed by the Voice stressed that they have no proof of a link between the changes and the sexual harassment article, but said that they are worried about the future of student journalism at Mountain View High.
Naina Srivastava, one of the Oracle's editors in chief, told the Voice that she doesn't think the advisor reassignment and class cancellation was specifically caused by the sexual harassment article, but instead that it is part of a broader effort by Principal Kip Glazer to "steer free of controversy."
"It's so important to have a student newspaper that accurately reports what's happening and tells the truth and really gives a voice to students," Srivastava said. "I think that's more important than what Glazer wants, which is to mitigate the controversy."
Glazer did not respond to multiple requests to comment for this article.
Superintendent Nellie Meyer responded to interview requests with a brief statement, which said that the principal decides staff assignments and schedules based on various factors, prioritizing the interests of students. Meyer declined to comment on reassigning the Oracle editor, citing privacy concerns.
Fewer students signed up to take introduction to journalism next school year. Meyer said the course isn't considered an "A-G course," which refers to those that count for admission to University of California and California State University schools.
"The district is committed to supporting the teachers involved in the courses so that we have a robust and strong journalism program," Meyer said.
Current Oracle advisor Carla Gomez told the Voice that her reassignment came as a surprise.
School Board President Phil Faillace said that he doesn't believe Gomez's removal as advisor was retaliation for the Oracle's content, but rather was part of the district's push to expand what are known as "career technical education" (CTE) classes. These courses are meant to prepare students for jobs. Faillace described journalism as a natural fit to be part of the school's CTE program.
Gomez doesn't have a CTE credential, although she told the Voice that she is open to obtaining one. Her replacement, Pancho Morris, teaches theater classes at the school and has a CTE credential, although he said he believes he'll need to obtain a different one for his new role. CTE credentials are industry-specific.
As for whether Gomez's reassignment was the result of the sexual harassment article, she said that she can't know the principal's internal reasoning.
"I think people will have to look at the timing for themselves and decide what they think," Gomez said.
Students' reporting prompts pushback from principal
This school year is Glazer's first at Mountain View High and student reporters describe her as seeming to want more involvement in the newspaper's operations than prior administrators.
The newspapers at Mountain View and Los Altos high schools have long been run by students, with student editors assigning articles, editing content and deciding what to publish.
When the Oracle pursued an article about students' experiences with sexual harassment this spring, Glazer asked to see a draft ahead of its publication and sent feedback on parts she objected to, students said.
In an email viewed by the Voice, Glazer objected to the phrasing of a sentence in the story and more broadly questioned the need to include details about alleged harassment incidents.
"As I stated during our meeting, I am extremely concerned about the potential negative impact of this article on our school community," Glazer wrote.
Glazer also came and spoke to the Oracle class before the article was published, students and Gomez said. Glazer told them that their job as student journalists is to "uplift" the school community, according to accounts from multiple students.
"I think we all kind of disagree with that, because a journalist's job is to share the truth. It's not to just uplift the school," Srivastava said. "Sometimes sharing the truth means you're not uplifting the school and that's okay because it's necessary."
Gomez agreed and said that her role as advisor is to empower students to be able to tell the truth in an ethical way, even if the truth is difficult. She also expressed concerns about what Glazer told the class.
"Administrators have a lot of power," Gomez said. "Even though it's a student-run publication, hearing those kinds of things, it always makes me worry that students might be afraid to speak the truth."
Faillace, the board president, said that he disagrees with the idea that uplifting the school should be the only or primary purpose of student journalism, although he said it's nice when that's the effect of its coverage. Student journalists' key purpose, Faillace said, is to inform readers in a factual way, including about areas that need improvement.
Because Faillace wasn't there to hear Glazer's remarks to the class, he said that he doesn't know whether her comments overstepped any boundaries.
While Glazer did not respond to interview requests for this article, she is quoted in the Talon's article as expressing support for student journalists.
“I believe that the purpose of public education is to create an educated populace for the protection of democracy, and I believe that the role of the press is extremely important,” Glazer told the Talon. “Democracy doesn’t exist without a robust and free press.”
In the end, reporters did make changes to the story before publication, including removing certain identifiable details about students who were mentioned, Srivastava said. The edits in some cases were made to address legal or ethical concerns, students said.
Srivastava and other Oracle staff members emphasized that these changes were ultimately their decision to make.
In a statement that Oracle leadership posted online, the students wrote that "There was no direct censorship from administration."
"Administration requested prior review which involves looking at the article before publishing. It was the Oracle’s executive decision to remove some identifiable details from the story for legal safety," the statement said.
Myesha Phukan, one of the piece's authors, said that while the administration didn't directly alter the article, she did feel pressure to make changes.
The article was published in the March 31 print edition and online on May 8.
In California, student journalists have legal protections allowing them to control the content that they publish. Under state education code, administrators aren't allowed to censor public school publications unless the content falls into specific prohibited categories, including being obscene, libelous, slanderous or posing a "substantial disruption" to school operations.
While censoring student publications generally isn't permissible, administrators are legally able to require that students let them read articles before publication, according to Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel at the Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit that defends the rights of student journalists.
The Student Press Law Center worked with Oracle students before the sexual harassment article was published and has also been in contact with the advisor since she was reassigned, Hiestand confirmed.
Hiestand added that while "prior review" by administrators may be legal, that doesn't mean it's considered good practice.
The Journalism Education Association, a national organization for journalism teachers and advisors, publicly opposes 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," the organization states on its website.
Changing the advisor to prioritize career technical education
On April 24, Gomez said that she was called into the principal's office during lunch and told that she wouldn't be the journalism advisor next school year because she lacks a CTE credential.
"The reassignment came up pretty suddenly," Gomez said, adding that prior meetings had focused on addressing low enrollment in the school's journalism classes. "Never was the idea that I wouldn't be teaching the class next year even remotely discussed."
According to Gomez, she is open to getting a CTE credential and met with the district's CTE coordinator last fall to discuss next steps. Glazer nonetheless decided to replace her with Morris, the school's theater teacher.
According to Gomez, she asked Glazer to reconsider, explaining that she had specifically interviewed for the position when Amy Beare, the former advisor, decided to retire. To ease the transition, Gomez and Beare jointly taught Oracle for a full school year before Beare left at the end of the 2021-22 school year. This has been Gomez's first year as the solo advisor. It's a role that she said she had long wanted.
Morris, the incoming advisor, told the Voice that he asked Glazer if Gomez could stay on for another year, so the two could also co-teach the class. According to Morris, his request was denied, with Glazer citing scheduling issues.
Faillace, the school board president, said that creating a high school class schedule is complex and defended the decision to switch advisors, noting that the board and superintendent have made clear that the district's CTE program needs to be expanded. In November's election, multiple school board candidates ran on platforms that included expanding job training opportunities for students.
"My own belief is that the principal is carrying out the wishes of the board and the superintendent to scale up her CTE offerings at Mountain View High School," Faillace said. "How she goes about that is the business of the superintendent and the principal, not the board."
Making student journalism part of the school's CTE program would expand access by giving students who don't plan to attend college another way to get English credit and develop their writing skills, Faillace said.
When asked why the school didn't wait for Gomez to get her CTE credential, Faillace said he wasn't sure if she could have gotten it in time for next semester and that it is a district priority to get more CTE classes up and running as swiftly as possible.
CTE credentials come with substantial requirements that can take time to complete. Among the criteria is having three years (or 3,000 hours) of work experience "directly related" to the industry sector in which a credential is being sought, according to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.
As a professional actor, Morris received his credential in the "arts, media and entertainment" sector this year. However, he said that the district has told him that he would need a CTE credential in the "manufacturing and product development" sector.
Within that sector is the "graphic production technologies pathway," where students learn about "printing and manufacturing processes and systems common to careers in the graphic arts and printing technology industries."
The Voice wasn't able to confirm whether Oracle will qualify as a CTE course next school year. Faillace initially said it was his understanding that it would, but when asked about the credentialing questions specifically, he referred the issue to the superintendent. Meyer didn't accept an interview request for this article, instead sending a brief statement, which didn't address CTE.
In the course catalog for next school year posted on Mountain View High's website, no journalism courses are listed in the career technical education section, but are instead listed as English classes. However, that course catalog still includes introduction to journalism, which is no longer being offered.
According to Oracle students, the introduction class is being combined with publication design. In the course catalog, publication design is listed as an arts course, though the class description notes that the curriculum is "based on the California Career Technical Education (CTE) - Manufacturing and Product Development Industry Sector Standards (pathway: Graphic Production Technologies) and is aligned with the 2019 California Arts Standards." Publication design, according to the course catalog, focuses on producing the Olympiad, the school's yearbook.
Having a CTE credential doesn't appear to be a uniform requirement across the district to advise student journalism. Michael Moul, the longtime advisor of the Talon at Los Altos High, confirmed that while he is interested in obtaining a CTE credential, he doesn't have one yet.
Moul spoke at Monday's school board meeting, telling the board members that while he and Los Altos High Principal Wynne Satterwhite haven't always agreed, she's always made him feel respected and heard.
"I've always felt we were on the same team. That's the MVLA way," Moul said. "My sincere hope is that the journalism advisor at Mountain View is being treated that same way."
Picking a new advisor
Morris, a Mountain View High alum himself, told the Voice that when Glazer initially offered him the position, he thought it was a bad idea given his own lack of journalism experience. While in high school, he was on the Oracle for three years and served as humor editor his senior year. Otherwise, Morris said that he doesn't have experience in journalism, beyond making short-form, humorous political videos.
Despite his qualms, Morris said that he considers himself a "yes, and" type of person and was excited by the potential to add a broadcasting component to Oracle.
Based on his experience in television and film, Morris said that he'd asked the administration earlier this school year if he could help create a broadcasting class. He hadn't intended that to be part of Oracle, but when Glazer told him he'd be the next newspaper advisor, Morris said "it was characterized that Oracle was dying as a paper and needed to be reborn again as a 21st century publication."
According to Morris, he asked Glazer if she was sure she wanted him in the role and was assured he was the right person for the job.
"I am going to apply myself the best that I can if this remains the situation," Morris said. "However, I will say that this controversy gives me pause."
When Morris watched this week's school board meeting, he said that he found himself agreeing with the speakers who raised concerns about the change in advisors.
"If this had happened when I was on the Oracle, I'd be just as concerned as they are," Morris said. "As a student journalist you should be suspicious of power grabs … you should question authority – that's what I was taught, that's what my wonderful advisor taught me."
Morris added that he has no evidence there is a scandal, but that the people closest to the situation have concerns and he believes that they need to be heard.
"There may be a totally and authentically rational and principled decision here, but we can't just take someone's word for it – there needs to be inquiry," Morris said. "When I was a student on the Oracle newspaper, I would have expected that."
When asked what he believes the role of student media to be, Morris immediately said that it is to question authority, rather than to uplift the school.
"The role of student media is to question the administration," Morris said. "Even if the administration bats a perfect game and are the sweetest sweethearts in the world, that is your job, you have to be held up to scrutiny."
As for what he would have done if he had been the advisor when the sexual harassment article was being written, Morris said that he wouldn't necessarily have done anything differently.
"Honestly, if they asked me to quash that story, I would have been very polite and then gone and called a lawyer," Morris said.
Students pointed out that Morris lacks tenure, meaning he has less job security and potentially making him less able to push back against administrators. That's a worry that Morris openly acknowledged, noting that when he was offered the job, he didn't feel in a position to say no.
"The incentives are there for me to even on an unconscious, subconscious level try to make favor with the administration," Morris said. "I completely understand the rationality of that argument."
At the same time, Morris said that he believes in his ability to maintain his own integrity and is someone willing to take risks.
Faillace pushed back on the idea that Morris' lack of tenure is an issue, noting that teachers are notified by May 15 of their second year whether they have been awarded tenure. It wouldn't make sense for the school to switch advisers just to gain a partial year of influence, Faillace said.
Beyond the impact on the new advisor, Gomez said that she also fears the chilling effect the changes to the program may have on the students themselves. Since the changes to Mountain View High journalism have gotten public attention, Gomez said she's heard concerns from some Oracle staffers.
"Some of the students in Oracle are expressing fear that maybe now the program will be cut even further," Gomez said. "That's the kind of thing that makes me most upset. They shouldn't feel as though they have to fear for their program for telling the truth."
Kandell told the board that regardless of the principal's motivation for changing the journalism program, her comments to students pose a problem.
"Her behavior during the production of the article and the timing of this reassignment sends a clear and dangerous message to student journalists," Kandell said.
Schools can sometimes use the close relationship that typically exists between an advisor and their students to pressure students to change coverage, Hiestand of the Student Press Law Center said.
"In many cases, the way to get at students is to go after the adviser. … When students are concerned that their reporting is going to get their advisor in trouble, they will often pull back – and school officials know that," Hiestand said.
California tried to address that, Hiestand said, by adding legal protections for advisors. California education code prohibits retaliation against an employee "solely" for protecting student journalists who are acting within the law.
Gomez said that she's been in communication with the Student Press Law Center about her reassignment. Hiestand said that as far as he knows, a challenge to an advisor's removal has never been litigated in California.
Faillace said that he doesn't believe Glazer's actions constituted any kind of retaliation. Faillace also pointed to the word "solely" in the law, noting that the reassignment was meant to aid in the expansion of CTE courses.
"Why would the principal retaliate? I read the sexual harassment article – didn't upset me," Faillace said, adding that the only concern he could think of is whether it was possible to identify the students being accused of harassment, who are referred to with pseudonyms in the article.
Faillace also noted that student journalists have legal rights that they can take advantage of to protect their coverage.
Removing introduction to journalism
Oracle reporters are also raising concerns about the removal of introduction to journalism.
Gomez and Morris both said that they had heard concerns from administrators surrounding low enrollment, an issue that Superintendent Meyer also cited in her statement for this story.
According to Gomez, earlier this school year, she had met with administrators about finding ways to get more students to sign up. While Gomez advises the Oracle, she doesn't teach intro to journalism.
The decision to cancel intro to journalism coincided with the timing of the sexual harassment article, Gomez said.
Students say that they've heard the plan is to combine introduction to journalism with the production design class. However, in an email sent to families, the school told those who had signed up for intro to journalism that the class will not be offered. The Voice viewed a screenshot of the message, which did not mention that publication design can be taken instead.
Introduction to journalism is the class students take before joining Oracle. If students don't know about the alternative, Srivastava said she is concerned that there won't be many students prepared for Oracle after next school year.
"That to me sounds like a recipe for … enrollment to drop and then Oracle to no longer be able to cover things to the extent that we do right now," Srivastava said.
When told about the concern, Faillace said that it will be important to publicize the alternative class that is available for students.
Students questioned why they weren't included in the process of deciding these changes or notified earlier.
"It gives me a sign that the administration isn't valuing our opinions as much as they did in the past or as much as they should be," Phukan said.
Hanna Olson, one of next year's editors in chief, said that she has deep concerns about the short notice that was given to students and that while she understands the administration wants more CTE classes, she doesn't understand the need to do it so abruptly.
"What we really want is to have stability and security and ability to publish the articles that we want," Olson said. "I think that the goals that Dr. Glazer has for the Oracle are just really different from what the students have for the Oracle."