The controversy over censorship at Marshall Fundamental School ended last week not long after Marcia Luecke invoked a Greek fable.
Luecke, the mother of the editor of the high school’s newspaper, had been chosen to represent parents who were worried about possible censorship of the monthly paper. The Eagle’s Eye was under fire for articles that were alleged to be racially insensitive and unpatriotic.
During a two-hour, closed meeting Tuesday, Luecke said she was the last to speak among the nine participants with vastly different and strongly held viewpoints.
Luecke, a Los Angeles County juvenile court referee and mediator, compared the 13-year-old student newspaper to the goose threatened with death if it didn’t continue to produce golden eggs.
In the case of the newspaper, she said, brass eggs had been recently laid, much to the dismay of some adult readers in the high school community. And, she said, principal Joseph Caldera was like the farmer whose natural instinct was to perform surgery on the ailing goose.
But, she said, that cure could very well kill the goose.
Luecke said she then drafted a statement that seemed to reflect the group’s consensus. It said that Mary Ellen MacArthur, who heads the English Department, would resume her role as newspaper adviser, a position she reluctantly resigned a week earlier. It also said that Caldera would not review articles before they are published.
Fit to Print
These assurances were based on pledges that the staff and adviser of The Eagle’s Eye would better police themselves on determining what is fit to print.
One of the controversial stories that was printed advocated the position that students should be able to choose whether to recite the pledge to the American flag. Another article, written by a black student, used colloquialisms and dialect.
“There were very strong feelings on both sides,” said Luecke. “It was really admirable the way that everyone essentially buried the hatchet.”
"(Luecke) wore her hat as a parent well,” said Caldera, but she was fair to everyone.
Only days before the meeting, there was talk of publishing an underground newspaper. Lawyers sought out MacArthur with advice on First Amendment law and proposals on how to seek a court order to block any censorship.
Cartoons were circulated with unfavorable portraits of the principal. And even though the newspaper staff had nothing to do with it, some students briefly disrupted classes with a walkout on March 2.
A Press Conference
That same day, the student journalists, to the consternation of the principal, called a press conference to discuss the matter. Hundreds of students signed petitions in support of the newspaper. And all 31 staffers pledged not to help edit, or write for, a censored periodical. Caldera vowed that the newspaper would continue to publish.
There were pleas for resolution from Amy Bauer, president of the parent-teacher-student association, and from school board President James McBath who had proposed a bringing in an outside mediator.
Compromise had seemed impossible, yet on Tuesday agreement came from all quarters.
Teachers union president Saul Glickman and California Teachers Assn. official Robin Rose, who were representing MacArthur’s interests; Deputy Supt. Philip J. Linscomb; faculty representative Janean Preston; attendance dean Betty Harrison; editor and student body president Matt Luecke; MacArthur and Caldera agreed they wanted to end the controversy.
The joint statement they released said: “All parties agree that the primary goal is the quality of education of students, including their full First Amendment rights of freedom of speech, balanced with responsible, voluntary, self-policing of potentially volatile issues.”
As part of the agreement, everyone agreed to restrict public comments to ensure that fragile feelings not be bruised further.
The controversy erupted last month when Caldera began to get complaints from parents and school staff members about articles in The Eagle’s Eye.
Two opinion page articles were mentioned in their complaints.
One, in the Jan. 27 issue, expressed the views of a student who thought that reciting the Pledge of Allegiance should be optional. In a subsequent issue, however, the opposite viewpoint was taken. The topic carries special significance for Marshall since the school, with an enrollment of 1,350 students from 6th through the 12th grade, has always placed an emphasis on citizenship and traditional educational values, Caldera said.
The other article, in the Feb. 24 issue, was a fantasy. The story centered on why the writer was late for class. The article used dialect, colloquialisms and misspellings to create a style that mirrors black dialect, including the words dat, dem, spear-throwin’ cannibals and homeboy .
The author, newspaper staff member Michael Comas, defended himself by saying that’s the way he talks sometimes. “Who is to say what is proper?” he said, adding that the story was never meant to be taken as a racial slur.
Other blacks on the multiracial newspaper staff supported his viewpoint, including Scott Sudduth, a student leader who was recently honored by the County Board of Supervisors for a speech he gave entitled, “I Am a Black Man.”
The most emotional moment at Tuesday’s meeting, according to Marcia Luecke, centered around the racial issue. It was clear, she said, that there is a generation gap between black students and their elders.
“These older people lived through a time of serious prejudice in our country,” said Luecke, who is white.
“The young people, and it’s a wonderful testament to what’s going on at Marshall, are apparently colorblind. (Black students) don’t feel victims of racial prejudice.” Nor, she said, did black students feel threatened by Comas’ article. “What they see is the literary integrity, the wit and the humor.”
On the other hand, she said, the use of dialect upset some blacks on the school staff and others in the city who “were touched by the memories of past prejudice.”
Dean Harrison, who is black, spoke on behalf of those who had complained. Luecke said she made “a very moving statement about how blacks may react when they see misspellings of words indicating mispronunciation.” That usage, she said, triggers the memory of times when non-blacks ridiculed the way some blacks spoke.
MacArthur, who is white, told the group how her mother, a school principal in Monrovia, worked for racial integration in the schools.
The openness in the meeting “was beautiful,” Luecke said.
In an interview, Caldera said he did not want to discuss the details of the meeting or MacArthur’s brief resignation. “I’m afraid we might get into my interpretation . . . and in doing so, invite polarization.” Caldera, a Latino, came to Marshall last year from South Gate Junior High School, where he was an assistant principal.
“If the perception is that I lost, then let it be. But I know that I acted in the best interest of the entire community.”
Although the fire of the controversy is out, “there are some coals that are still warm,” Caldera said, alluding to continuing racial tension. One faculty member said that despite the agreement, “there are some very nasty, leftover feelings of racial unrest” among the faculty and staff.
“We’re going to make a learning situation out of this,” Caldera said. “The important thing right now is how do we heal.”