The first journalists on the scene at the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., were there for every terrifying shot.
After all, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High is their school.
As a former student stormed the halls, firing an AR-15, the newspaper teacher’s classroom became a refuge, sheltering 163 students and six adults during the mass shooting that killed 14 students and three faculty members.
In the following days, the high school journalists began writing with a perspective that no other reporter in America could equal. One, David Hogg, filmed interviews with students as they hid, waiting for police rescue.
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Seniors Nikhita Nookala and Christy Ma posted to the school’s online paper, EagleEye.news, describing how helicopters from the news organizations drowned out the speeches at the vigil. They noted that some students were angered by insensitive media questions and coverage that exaggerated or distorted facts. And, they offered this searing description from the crowds gathered at the candlelight vigil: “Some chanted ‘Arm the schools,’ while the audience retaliated with ‘No more guns.’ Students caught in between could do nothing but cry and hold on to friends and family.”
Mind you, Stoneman Douglas is closed, not scheduled to reopen until Feb 27. But these reporters are following the story, their story.
Let’s hope no busybody administrator or politician tries to hush these student journalists as they continue asking pointed questions about lapses in school safety and delving into political issues that some adults have the gall to claim are none of the teenagers’ business.
Already, moronic conspiracy theorists have promoted the false claim that the most vocal Stoneman Douglas students aren’t survivors of the mass shooting but rather plants by leftist funders. The students have been called “crisis actors.”
These rants are from people who fear the Parkland students because they’re powerful advocates for their own safety and that of others.
It’s past time to fully restore full protections to such students’ free speech, rights that were stripped away nearly 30 years ago through a St. Louis case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. It involved a principal who kept stories about divorce and teen pregnancy from the student newspaper — yes, banal subjects compared to mass school shootings.
The high court sided with the principal in 1988.
And for several decades, attacks on high school and college press freedoms became real, sustained and daunting. Often, crackdowns are motivated by the supposition that student journalists are not properly promoting the school’s image. Faculty advisers have been sanctioned and even fired for what student’s publish.
After the Parkland shooting, it’s a good bet that more high school journalists will take a hard look at safety in their districts and hold legislators accountable who have failed to pass adequate gun laws. Some administrators will be irked, preferring sheep-like students, quietly focused on homecoming courts and if the basketball team won.
Florida is not among the 13 states, six in the past three years, that have passed laws to strengthen student’s free speech protections in school-sponsored publications. (The states that have include Arkansas, California, Iowa, Colorado, Kansas, Oregon, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, Vermont and Rhode Island.)
The “New Voices” effort of the Student Press Law Center is trying to move legislation along in other states, including Missouri, where it passed the House Feb. 19, a significant victory given the state’s tie to the Hazelwood decision.
If you are tempted to underestimate these young reporters, you might have missed the work done last year by the Booster Redux, the student newspaper of Pittsburg (Kan.) High School, which reported that the school’s new principal had inflated her resume credentials. Unmasked, the principal resigned in shame.
And consider that in many communities, and not necessarily just small towns, cutbacks in professional press ranks mean that the only independent eyes and ears of observation is the local student press.
The laws being backed by New Voices don’t allow students to flaunt journalistic ethics. They must uphold professional standards on libel, and schools retain some say in content in publications that are district- or university-sponsored.
One of the many lessons sure to come from Parkland is the galvanizing power of student voices. A nation that truly cares about its youth would have done everything in its power to keep them safe at school. We’ve failed to do so. It’s time to value students’ right to speak out and up for themselves.