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To some administrators, it’s ‘curses, FOIA’ed again’

by Stan Zoller, MJE
When a student journalist pursues a story and, as H.L. Hall would say, “digs” for information, most journalism educators would be pleased.

And so too, you think, would administrators.

Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. In fact, it’s becoming more common for school czars to be rankled by a student’s dogged pursuit of information. So much so that instead of becoming supporters of student initiative, they are becoming bullies.  Yes, bullies.

In the past two weeks, I have talked with advisers who have experienced this kind of treatment. In both cases, a school administrator told the advisers and student journalists their efforts could lead to a denial of access to school sources.

Both advisers asked that both they and their schools not be identified as they fear repercussions. I’m not sure if it’s Management by Intimidation or the making of Godfather 4.

In one case, the adviser was told her students should not write a story because it would just “stir things up” and if the story run, sources would be unavailable. A classic example of bullying. In fact, this administrator’s ego runs so deep, the threats happened on more than one occasion.

The other case is a bit more complicated. The adviser met with the principal to discuss the use of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by student journalists at the school. The principal reportedly expressed concern as to why the students were using the FOIA because, after all, it was generally the professional journalists who use it because the district doesn’t give out the information.

Therein lies the problem. An increasing concern today among not only journalists, but also community activists, is the increasing efforts by public bodies, especially school boards, to withhold information and not be transparent with constituencies and the media.

While school administrators may play hard-to-get with the media, when it comes to student journalists, they seem to bully, if not fabricate information to try and control information to student journalists.

In one Illinois high school, the principal told student journalists that, and as Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up, that in order to use the FOIA in Illinois, you had to be 18 or over.

Wrong.  Dead wrong.

And kudos to one of the students at the meeting who reportedly told the principal she was 18.  Bravo.

But it should not come to that.

A few things come into play here. One, administrators should be pleased students take  the initiative to get information, so their information is verifiable and accurate. Secondly, they should be pleased journalism educators teach, let alone instill in their student journalists, the need to get it right.

Also, by having students – whether student journalists or not – seek answers from public officials, educators are on the front line as advocates for civic engagement.

That’s not all bad. In fact, given the swell of activism in the country today, civic engagement by young people should be encouraged – and it student journalists are the catalysts for it, all the better.

Educators and administrators need to be at the forefront in encouraging students, especially students journalists to, as the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics says, “Seek Truth and Report It.”

It’s the first item listed, and with good reason – it’s what news consumers – at any level – expect and should receive.

And that includes administrators.  

 

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