The high school newspaper adviser has resigned. The entire student staff of the paper has threatened to quit. And the principal will not talk about what exactly has happened in a controversy over censorship at Marshall Fundamental School.
But a debate about what constitutes newsworthiness for the paper, The Eagle’s Eye, filled the halls and classrooms of the Allen Avenue school last week as a result of the last two monthly issues.
One story, on the Jan. 27 opinion page, said students should have a choice of whether to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag.
Another story, on the Feb. 24 opinion page, was a fantasy about why a student was late for class. It contained colloquialisms, dialect including “dat” and “dem,” and references to “spear throwin’ cannibals” in Africa and Brooklyn natives who spoke with a “forked tongue.”
Written by a black student, the second article was criticized for being racially insensitive. Eagle’s Eye Editor Matt Luecke said it has played a role in Principal Joseph Caldera’s request that he review all articles before they are published.
This request, Luecke said, resulted in the resignation Wednesday of the paper’s faculty adviser, Mary Ellen MacArthur, who will remain as head of the English department. She could not be reached for comment.
Caldera provided no specifics. “I’m not going to address any of the issues with you,” he said. “All I can tell you is that today I’m concerned about the integrity, orderliness and continuity of instruction.”
Dozens of protesting students left classes early at one point Thursday, and there was a false fire alarm. The newspaper staff, while distancing itself from those actions, collected 150 signatures on a petition decrying censorship. And Caldera briefed the faculty that afternoon.
Caldera did say in an interview that MacArthur resigned after he had met with her over two days. “I have tremendous respect for her,” he said, “and right now I feel really hurt and disappointed.”
He said he will find a new adviser and that the newspaper will continue to be published.
But two dozen Eagle’s Eye staffers held a press conference Thursday to question whether there would be any more issues of the paper, which has been published for 13 years. “We want the power of the press to stay intact at Marshall,” feature writer Joel Mottinger said.
Luecke said all 31 members of the staff have signed a petition to Caldera saying that they “refuse under any circumstances to participate in the production of a censored newspaper.”
Although no stories have been censored, Luecke said it is clear that Caldera wants the final say. “This year the level of trust has just evaporated,” said Luecke, who is also president of the 700-member student body and has been accepted to attend Princeton University next fall.
Last fall Caldera, 42, took over as principal. Previously he was an assistant principal at South Gate Junior High School, which he said is the nation’s largest junior high, with 4,200 students.
“It sounds like censorship,” said Deputy Supt. J. Philip Linscomb, “but the administration hasn’t censored anything.”
Linscomb and school board President James H. McBath said there have been complaints about racial insensitivity in the Feb. 24 article.
Before reading that story aloud at Thursday’s press conference, the author, Michael Comas, said: “I don’t feel bad about writing the story. I think you’ll agree that it was written not with the intent of racially slurring any nationality or ethnic group.”
One parent who attended the press conference, Antonia Darder, said the story “perpetuated negative images of people of color.” Darder, a Latina who is completing her doctorate in education at Claremont Graduate School, said Comas misunderstood the cultural implications of what he wrote.
However, Darder said she was more concerned about what she called Caldera’s autocratic approach. She said he could have used the articles to raise students’ awareness about racial issues and patriotism. “Instead, he thwarted critical thinking,” she said.
Board President McBath, a USC professor of communication arts and sciences, said: “I strongly support the First Amendment rights of teachers and students.” But he also said it is important to understand the relationship between free-speech rights and civil rights.
McBath proposed that MacArthur reconsider her resignation and that everyone involved participate in a forum led by an outside facilitator. “The school can turn this crisis into an educational event,” he said. “It can be a win-win situation.”