High school newspapers apparently changed a lot while I wasn't looking.
I worked on a good high school paper once. We did some innovative things. For example, we had a philosophy that high school students needed to see themselves as part of a community, so we covered local news just as the local daily newspaper did. I was the City Hall reporter and got out of school each week to cover City Council meetings.
But for the most part, our school paper was filled with the standard fare: the latest basketball scores, teacher profiles, news about student awards, first-person accounts of pep rallies or dances, silly jokes and cartoons.
What a difference a couple of decades make.
The other day someone gave me several issues of Tarpon Springs High School's award-winning newspaper, the Serif. I picked up the January issue, expecting to see the kind of newspaper I remembered from my own high school days. Boy, was I naive.
The lead story on Page 1 was titled "Condoms for Kids," and it related how New York City high schools are distributing free condoms to students. Below that was another story with the headline, "Reading, 'riting, 'rithmetic, and rubbers." The story was illustrated with a photograph of the fronts of four condom packages.
That's not all. A big picture on the front page showed a black hand holding a white hand. The caption was titled, "Sugar and spice," and encouraged readers to turn inside for a story on interracial dating at Tarpon High. The story surveyed students' attitudes, quoting students who said everything from, "If people love each other, color doesn't matter," to "Black guys are better in bed" and, "My black friends like white girls better because they are less aggressive and easily dominated."
Why stop there? The opinion pages had an editorial on condom distribution at schools, a cartoon of a student using condoms for water balloons, and a "student on the street" survey that asked students if schools should hand out condoms. Some students said yes. Some said no. And one student said, "As long as they give extra-large to me."
I figured that was probably enough to make the folks in conservative Tarpon Springs swallow their sponges. Sure enough, parents called the school. Business leaders called. And principal John Nicely, who basically let the newspaper staff do its own thing until now, summoned the staff for a meeting.
"He told us he was concerned with the school's image," said Serif editor Mark Knobelsdorf, "and that the business leaders were concerned. He said something like, "I don't want to have to edit the paper before you go to press,' which seemed kind of like a little bit of a threat."
Mark, an 18-year-old senior who plans to major in journalism and law in college, has a lot of influence over what goes into the Serif. He likes to have meaty papers that he knows will be interesting to students and make them think.
The January issue, he thought, was the best paper of the year. He didn't even do any sweating about it before it came out, because he just thought of the issues in the paper as news.
Ken Henderson did the sweating. He is the faculty adviser for the newspaper and yearbook staffs at Tarpon Springs High, and he does a fine job. His work there has won him several awards, including one from the Florida Scholastic Press Association and others from college journalism schools.
When he saw what the newspaper staff had in mind for the January issue, he studied the county's guidelines for student publications to make sure the stories would be within the rules. He says he was uneasy. But he didn't see his role as that of censor. The newspaper staff comes up with the ideas, sells ads to finance publication of the paper, and was convinced that the topics in that issue were important and relevant.
The staff is proud of how that edition turned out, Mark says, though if he had it to do again, he said he would eliminate the quote from the student who wanted an extra-large condom. Otherwise, he would do it all the same, even the headline that had the word "rubber." He thinks it's a little silly that anyone living today would be offended by the word "rubber."
"Teen-agers understand that word a lot better than the word "prophylactic,' " he said.
But it concerns him that frank discussion of a topic like condom use to prevent AIDS might bring the administration down on a student newspaper.
"I've always thought there was a free press in America," he said. "But censorship _ you can see it working its way through the levels of the system. It's pretty scary."
The January issue of the Serif certainly wasn't the first or last to deal with controversial issues. The December issue had a feature on growing use of LSD among high school students. It also had stories on fighting between high school students from rival schools and stealing by students in the cafeteria.
The November issue featured stories on violence and guns in high schools and on AIDS. February focused on love and teen-age sex.
The Serif is a very good student newspaper. The staff isn't trying to be controversial, but just wants the newspaper to reflect the interests and worries of today's students. It isn't school newspapers that have changed so much as the times. There is more violence in schools today. Students grapple with tremendous social and family problems. More young people have sex at a younger age. They have to worry about dying from AIDS, and they talk about "rubbers" almost as easily as they do about pep rallies.
For the record, the editorial in January's Serif recommended against distribution of condoms at schools.
"By handing out condoms like jelly beans to the masses," the editorial stated, "school officials are debasing the beauty and grandeur of sex to the level of a pathogen; the condoms are analogous to rabies vaccines."