I have always been a firm believer in transparency. That’s probably what drew me to journalism early in my career. I believe in the role of the press to keep public entities accountable and always respected those organizations that operated with true transparency.
This is why scholastic journalism plays such an important role in today’s schools. Students are telling stories that some might consider controversial. These stories lead to a bigger dialogue on the issue covered. Last year, a student published a story about a student who had been bullied and sought freedom by transferring schools. Obviously, not terrific PR for the district, but an important issue to discuss. A local media outlet picked up the story and other students started stepping forward, feeling more courageous after seeing this young man’s bravery. It all began with the student press.
In August of 2015, North Dakota’s John Wall New Voices Act went into effect. It protects student journalists from being prevented from telling these stories. It also requires all school districts create a policy outlining their students’ press freedoms. Ironically, in 2008, before being terminated as newspaper adviser, I asked my district to create such a policy in order to provide transparent direction and guidelines. The legal counsel for the school board informed me that the district would prefer to not have a policy because they like the “flexibility” they currently have. That was disappointing to hear at the time, but made more sense after being removed. Transparency obviously was not valued at that time.
In late August of 2015, I offered to assist in the creation of the policy, figuring my years of experience and certifications in the area might help. I was informed the district is seeking input from its legal counsel (that’s right, same legal counsel from 2009) and the North Dakota School Board Association. A spokesperson told me they would seek input from district media advisers soon. A meeting was set with advisers and administrators for the end of October. We met and I voiced my concerns about the final line of the policy “The superintendent’s decision is binding.” I explained this seemed a little undemocratic and, while we currently have a superintendent who would remain objective, that might not always be the case. Afterall, the former superintendent was the primary factor in my removal in 2009. I was told these concerns would be discussed with the current superintendent. Unfortunately, I discovered that the student publications policy was officially adopted Sept. 29th, a month before we met. This was far from transparent.
I understand the district schedules meetings and evaluates policies based on a predetermined timeline. The disappointing factor in this scenario is the lack of clarity on what had already been accomplished. Failing to provide a clear picture of their policy direction should not be surpising for a district that has seven policies governing general public relations and only one policy governing organizational communication. If district leaders truly value professional input and advocate for teachers, they would reconsider the current organizational communication method.
Jeremy Murphy is a journalism and English teacher at West Fargo High School in West Fargo, North Dakota. This blog represents his observations from his professional growth in his 11 year career. In no way should this be mistaken for advice or any form of professional expertise. If you are looking for an expert in teaching, English and/or life, you are on the wrong site. You can follow Jeremy on Twitter at @mr_jmurphy or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.