This is old news, because I was asleep at the switch, but it’s a timeless topic, pitting well-meaning students against stuffy administrators.
The editors of the Burleson (TX) High School yearbook, The Elk, planned a two-page photo feature on two teen mothers at the school, to show how they overcame the difficulties keeping their children created. The deadline for the book was Saturday.
When the editors presented the book proofs to the principal, he vetoed the pregnancy spread, saying it “glamorized” teenage sex and contradicted the district’s abstinence-only sex-education curriculum. The editors took the matter up the chain of command, but heard the same response: no features on teen mothers.
According to the Dallas Star-Telegram, yearbook editor Megan Estes wanted the yearbook to reflect the experiences of the entire student body, not just the jocks and brainiacs. Seniors Brittani Shipman and Robin Robertson agreed to appear in the teen mother feature.
“It really hurts [the girls] when they hear people talking about them … These are people with real lives — not just something you gossip about in high school,” Estes said, according to the Student Press Law Center.
The yearbook adviser, a former professional newspaper woman, and the staff looked through old yearbooks and found similar articles on teen pregnancy, and so thought the subject was safe.
Principal Paul Cash thought otherwise, and told them they had to pull the feature. Astonishingly, he said high school publications are for educational purposes only, and they are not intended to be venues for student expression, according to the Student Press Law Center.
Cash told the Star-Telegram, “I appreciate the slant they took about individuals overcoming hardships. But the publication is a reflection of the community. I try to uphold the values of our community.”
As for the superintendent and school board, they were willing to hear Estes’ grievances, but said their deliberations would take several weeks, meaning the yearbook had to go to press without the teen-mother feature.
It’s now water under the bridge, but the yearbook staff may have a legitimate complaint if they wanted to pursue this matter in the courts. It would be a tough fight. A 1988 Supreme Court decision allows school officials to censor student publications if they can provide a reasonable educational justification for the censorship.
Since Cash argued that featuring teen mothers in the publication contradicted the abstinence-only curriculum, he was offering a “reasonable educational justification,” at least in his mind. Methinks he would rather not advertise how clearly that curriculum is not working 100% of the time.
His community standard argument is a crock, though. If community is against teen pregnancies, that’s understandable. To bury its head in the sand and deny teens do get pregnant, that’s just plain stupid. Admitting teen mothers exist is not the same as encouraging teenage girls to become mothers while still in high school. That’s the largely discredited argument abstinence-only lovers offer against more realistic sex ed curricula: tell the kids how sex can be done with contraception and they’ll all run out and try it.
We may never get to read the proposed article, but it’s safe to assume the two girls featured in it would not advise their peers to become mothers early on. They both took the brave — and difficult — path to keep their kids and continue with their education, regardless of the social consequences and nasty gossiping.
Publicizing their choices and decisions would actually bolster the argument for abstinence-only behavior, however unrealistic that advice may be. Instead, Burleson High’s students may never get that kind of an education, because of blue-nosed administrators.