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School newspaper drops a V-bomb
Grover Cleveland High School Principal Bob Marks has his limits.
On Thursday, it was the labeled diagram of a vagina splashed across the front page of the student newspaper's Valentine's Day issue.
Flustered teachers rushed to confiscate the publication, but with some copies already in circulation and the Reseda campus in an uproar, it quickly became a hot read for the school's roughly 3,700 students.
And some of the contraband issues made their way home, getting a quick reaction from parents.
"My phone's been ringing off the hook," Marks said. Only one parent asked why the paper was taken away; the others called to say they were offended, he said.
The drawing in question ran under the hot-pink headline "Have a happy Vagina Day!" and the four-page edition included stories titled "Ending shame for nature's gift" and "Rejected!!!!!!!"
The paper's editor-in-chief, 15-year-old Richard Edmond, said he was trying to raise awareness of violence against women with a lead story about playwright Eve Ensler's "Vagina Monologues."
"I didn't think it was going to be that big a deal," Edmond said. "But they are really upset."
Edmond said administrators did not explain to his satisfaction why this copy of Le Sabre was unfit for distribution. He said he was told by administrators: "This is not in the taste of the school; this is a high school, not Hollywood Boulevard."
"As far as I was concerned," Edmond said, "they were wrongfully taking our papers away."
But Marks said he and other adults at the school thought the student journalists had clearly gone too far.
"To me, and to others, that was tasteless," Marks said. More significantly, he said, he believed that continued distribution of Thursday's edition "could be a potential disruption" to the school day.
California students are some of the only in the country with special state laws protecting their rights to free expression in school, said Mike Hiestand, attorney and legal consultant to the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va. Six other states have similar laws, he said.
Typically, Hiestand said, students can publish whatever they like, as long as the speech is not unlawful or "seriously disruptive."
The bar for disruption, he said, is high: "It has to be more than just heated discussions or hurt feelings."
Hiestand, who said he was unfamiliar with what took place at Cleveland High, said he would have to learn more to determine if that bar had been met.
Normally, the monthly newspaper is delivered to administrators and teachers the day before it is handed out to students, Edmonds said. But a production glitch delayed its arrival, he said.
As soon as journalism students began delivering the issue to classrooms, teachers barraged Marks with angry phone calls, prompting school officials to quickly intercept the bulk of the 4,000 copies.
Edmond said some students reported that security guards snatched papers out of their hands. Marks said he had heard similar reports, but did not witness any such incidents.
Even so, the paper circulated widely, and some students brought copies home, which drew complaints from parents. Marks said he plans next week to send a letter to parents explaining what happened. He already has written to the faculty, he said.
Marks said he discussed the incident with journalism advisor and English teacher Coleen Bondy, who could not be reached for comment Friday. School administrators now plan to convene a committee of students and teachers to review questionable articles and other journalistic content before publication of future issues.
The committee, which is stipulated under policies of the Los Angeles Unified School District, "should have been in existence," Marks said.
L.A. Unified District 1 Supt. Jean Brown, whose district includes Cleveland High, said she believed Marks' action was appropriate.
But Brown said she thinks student journalism has educational value and called the situation "unusual."
"I've been superintendent for almost three years," she said. "This is the first time an experience like this has occurred."
But student editor Edmond wasn't about to let administrators have the last word: After a flurry of overnight MySpace bulletins, he and other students showed up at school Friday wearing homemade white, black and pink T-shirts reading "My vagina is obscene."
Similar fliers were taped to backpacks and posted around school. When Edmond, who describes himself as a community activist, and two other protesters refused to change their clothes, school officials sent them home.
The rest of the students in Edmond's journalism class were less combative when Marks met with them Friday afternoon, he said, and they discussed the incident.
For Marks and the rest of the Cleveland faculty, the V-Day bombshell has made for "a very interesting two days," he said. The school, which includes a humanities magnet program, plans to hold a student-teacher forum next week to discuss the issue of violence against women. Edmond said he accomplished one goal. Now, he said, at least people are reading.