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updated: 4/7/2011 4:58 PM

E-mails say it all on censoring at Stevenson?

Daily Herald: On Guard

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  • Stevenson High School's student newspaper, the Statesman, has been the focus of controversy over the past year.

       Stevenson High School's student newspaper, the Statesman, has been the focus of controversy over the past year.
    Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

 
 

As Stevenson High School students fought with administrators about possible censorship of the Statesman newspaper late last year, the school's superintendent, principal and trustees were publicly silent on the matter.

Aside from one prepared speech by board President Bruce Lubin at a board meeting, Stevenson spokesman Jim Conrey was the school's lone voice during the standoff that began in November and continued until several students quit the newspaper in January.

Behind the scenes, however, Superintendent Eric Twadell, Principal Janet Gonzalez and the seven board members were talking among themselves about the controversy, the Daily Herald has learned.

A Freedom of Information Act request revealed the school's top administrators and the seven board members exchanged more than 400 e-mails with each other, local residents and other people concerned about the Statesman and the administration's oversight of the publication.

"There was a lot of information being passed along, such as how the students were progressing on their work in class," Twadell said in an interview last month.

The school did not release the content of most of the e-mails, many of which were duplicates sent to multiple officials. Citing exceptions to the state's public documents law, officials gave the Daily Herald hundreds of pages with significant sections electronically censored. In many cases, entire e-mail messages were blacked out.

Some of the messages were censored to protect the privacy of the students at the heart of the dispute or the identities of residents who had e-mailed the school, an attorney for Stevenson explained. Other e-mails were blacked out because they contained privileged conversations between school officials and their lawyers.

The Illinois attorney general's public access coordinator. which oversees the Freedom of Information Act, is reviewing whether some of those redactions were appropriate.

Regardless of their content, the documents show the Statesman dispute was on the minds of administrators and board members.

"Certainly it was a matter of concern," Twadell said.

A nationally recognized student newspaper, the Statesman's reputation has been marred over the past year by a succession of controversies.

A January 2009 story about teen sex led to more administration oversight because of what officials said were reporting problems. A few months later, teacher Barbara Thill left her post as the newspaper's adviser.

In November, publication of that month's issue was blocked by administrators because of content objections. School officials later forced students to publish the issue without two stories that had raised concerns. A story was pulled from the December issue, too.

In January, nine students - including several top editors - quit the Statesman by withdrawing from the journalism class responsible for its production. The departures left four students in the class.

Stevenson officials realized the Statesman fight was a big deal when it began in January 2009, board member Merv Roberts recalled.

"Did we know students would walk out? No," Roberts said. "Did we know it could happen? Yeah."

The Daily Herald's request for documents focused on e-mails about the controversy that were sent to or from Twadell, Gonzalez and the seven board members between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31.

E-mails are considered public documents under the Freedom of Information Act. E-mails also fall under the Illinois Open Meetings Act, which ensures elected officials discuss government business publicly.

The newspaper's request aimed to see what, if anything, board members and administrators were saying between themselves about the matter.

But little insight was gained from the large box of printed e-mails delivered to the Daily Herald. At first glance the box seemed to contain printed copies of 439 e-mails, the number cited by the district's attorney, but it actually included many multiple copies of the same e-mails, such as one sent by Twadell to all seven trustees.

The box likely only contained about 50 distinct e-mails, Twadell estimated.

Nearly all of the documents were partially or completely redacted.

In many cases, the only lines left legible were those saying who sent the message and who received it. Sometimes even those lines were blocked, such as when an e-mail was sent to an administrator by a student or parent.

Administrators and board members were publicly tight-lipped about the controversy, Twadell said, because they wanted to protect the students' privacy and their right to keep their school work confidential.

"We understood that would set us up for more criticisms, but we were trying to protect that privacy and confidentiality," he said.

Roberts insisted schools officials weren't trying to be heavy-handed with the students. Like Twadell, he said board members were restricted from speaking freely about the matter and explaining the administration's side of the fight because of privacy concerns.

"We thought we were being fair," he said.

Twadell was disappointed students - including former Editor-in-chief Pam Selman and ex-Managing Editor Evan Ribot - felt they had to leave the Statesman because of the dispute.

Officials had sought to alleviate the situation by working with students to develop guidelines that would give Statesman staffers clearer expectations for their work.

"We had hoped that, given a lot of the public statements the kids made... they were willing to work with the teachers (on the guidelines)." Twadell said. "We were disappointed they didn't want to be a part of it."

Conrey believes the recently enacted guidelines will turn the Statesman fight into something that actually benefits future journalists at Stevenson.

"I think a lot of good is going to come out of this," he said.

Censoring: Most documents sent to Herald were partially or completely redacted

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