Furor erupts over sex, drug stories in school paper | February 15, 2013 | Mountain View Voice | Mountain View Online |


Mountain View Voice

News - February 15, 2013

Furor erupts over sex, drug stories in school paper

Parents blast MVHS for allowing graphic articles to be printed

by Nick Veronin

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.

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 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.

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 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's response

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."


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Posted by Michal Krupa
a resident of Rex Manor
on Feb 15, 2013 at 1:10 pm

The way in these situations are handled is atrocious. Instead of directly making a case to the staff at the Oracle, these parents lodge formal complaints with the California State Board of Education and call the Mayor of Los Altos?

It's time we stop playing bureaucratic games and learn how to address issues head on.

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Posted by Observer
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Feb 15, 2013 at 1:33 pm

I applaud these parents for standing up against this.

Abbie Cunniff certainly thinks she is a position of power to do what she pleases. And Groves certainly doesn't have much of a sense for the anger swelling against his sense of leadership and his assertion that only he will have the last word on what goes on in the high schools. Both her and Groves need to go!

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Posted by Johnny Depp
a resident of Rex Manor
on Feb 15, 2013 at 1:56 pm

I think you all are whack jobs and take life too seriously. Without sex none of us would be here, so endorse it.

Like this comment
Posted by Jillian Snyder
a resident of Martens-Carmelita
on Feb 15, 2013 at 2:37 pm

Groves is a fantastic administrator and great with students. Observer, you have no right to ask him to leave over this matter. Krupa, you are getting to the heart of the issue.

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Posted by Michal Krupa
a resident of Rex Manor
on Feb 15, 2013 at 2:42 pm

Observer, you seem to feel that Abby and Groves are entirely accountable for this situation. Which is funny, considering you won't even put accountability into your own opinion, and instead shield behind the pen-name "Observer".

The Oracle is peer-edited before publishing, and in this case should stand behind its writers and their opinions. The opinions of writers obviously are not representative of the views of certain administrators, but a school should facilitate freedom of speech as long as it is not putting anyone in danger or harassing individuals.

A school paper has the right to publish articles on issues that they think are important, rather than having to undergo continual scrutiny from an administrative censor. That type of published material is nothing more than administrative propaganda.

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Posted by nicole
a resident of Rex Manor
on Feb 15, 2013 at 3:20 pm

nicole is a registered user.

Did these parents who also opt out of sex education for their children? Have they perhaps read the studies that say states w/o sex education have the highest rates of teen pregnancy? Kudos to the paper for expanding on education relevant to teens. I will acknowledge that my kids are much younger than high school and do NOT want to hear anything about sex at this age. Why can the author never seem to find opinions from the other side?

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Posted by MVHS parent
a resident of another community
on Feb 15, 2013 at 3:46 pm

MVHS parent is a registered user.

I attended the school board meeting referred to in the article and have to say that once again, the reporter crafts his story with inflammatory language such as "Furor erupts" and "parents outraged," when in reality the school board president Judy Hanneman thanked the parents more than once for their respectful behavior and comments. Does Nick Veronin think his readership needs something akin to scandal in order to be interested in learning more about what is going on at our schools? We are all more intelligent than that.

Also not mentioned in this article was the subsequent response from the school board at the end of the board meeting that affirmed these parents’ concerns. The school board asked to 1) have the journalism departments in the district give a report to the school board, including the adult review process for the papers, and 2) have the school board review the district-wide behavior policies.

Despite this newspaper reporter's attempt to create his own "furor", it was clear to anyone at Monday night's school board meeting that there are some legitimately concerned parents in our district and that the school board values their input and suggestions. Several parents re-iterated that their concerns were not about the teenagers’ behavior, but instead about the lack of adult guidance in matters like the journalism class…amongst many other things at the high school.

Most kids at the high school have teachers who curse in class (sometimes at the students), or let kids listen to music during instruction time, don’t care about the dress code, don't return student or parents emails, etc. There is a bigger problem at this high school, and finally some parents are talking about it and hopefully the school board continues to listen. There is a lot more to the background of this story than simply a few articles about sex - the broader issue is really about adult leadership at the HS, or the lack thereof. This highly-educated, involved and resourceful community has every right to demand an excellent standard of education and adults that do their job for these great kids!

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Posted by Michal Krupa
a resident of Rex Manor
on Feb 15, 2013 at 4:52 pm

Michal Krupa is a registered user.

You assume that cursing in class is a failure of adult leadership. As if we've never heard anyone curse in an office or outside of a school. Do the students themselves feel threatened? Is this disruptive to the learning environment? I'd like to have a student speak out if they feel there are issues in their classroom educations. There are no parents sitting in on those classes-how are they to know what the real situation is?

Kids listening to music during instruction time is an issue? As long as it is during an appropriate time and not distracting to others learning, I can't fathom why anyone would take issue with this.

"...don’t care about the dress code, don't return student or parents emails, etc."

It seems like you are trying to use a single issue to platform an entire agenda. Just because emails aren't getting returned doesn't mean that there is a discipline issue. People sometimes get too busy to reply to all their emails. But a student can very easily approach teachers about questions. If you need an email response the same night you sent it, you probably are asking questions that should have been addressed during class.

You think that there is a lack of leadership because students are given freedom and taught the value of their opinions? The school school board is there to set legal and legislative policy. You instead seem to think their job is to go into classrooms and discipline students and teachers about the use of iPods in classrooms.

You want teachers to be setting good examples and cooperating with your needs? Perhaps try approaching them directly instead of going over their head every time to the central administration. I can't imagine why a teacher, who gets undermined every time there is a disparity in the way you feel about their operative role, would not want to answer your emails.