A Matter of Principal

South High's image-conscious leader offers students repeated lessons in the stifling of free speech.

Salazar left South at the end of Batterberry's first year. "I told him I couldn't teach in a circumstance like this, where students aren't valued, where you're not allowing them to learn," says Salazar, who now teaches English at East High.

The Confederate was virtually unique among Denver student newspapers; at the time Salazar left, it received no funding from the school, instead paying its costs through advertising, subscriptions and donations. But many students and teachers were uncomfortable with the name, along with South's "Johnny Reb" mascot. Salazar's successor, Todd Madison, pushed to change the name; students opted to call it The Gargoyle.

Madison says The Gargoyle struggled financially during the two years he served as advisor but that Batterberry didn't interfere with its contents. In fact, the administration helped pay printers' bills when the paper ran in the red. What was lacking, Madison says, was not financial support but moral support.

"The administration thinks of the paper as a nuisance more than anything else," says Madison, who also teaches at East now. "Every school paper has stories that might annoy people, but rather than let it fade away, they would make a bigger deal out of it. I don't think they appreciate what the newspaper is for. They just want it to be positive and innocuous."

Madison says the constant struggle to raise funds, not administrative pressure, eventually prompted him to change jobs. "It was frustrating for the students not to get positive feedback," he adds. "I was told by one administrator, after one off-color joke appeared in the paper, that he would be ashamed to have his kid in that school. That was the only comment the students got after working many hours to get the paper out."

After Madison's departure, Batterberry informed the student staff that the administration would no longer provide any funding for The Gargoyle. (The practice of mailing the newspaper free to parents ceased, too.) Last year the new advisor, Amy Bricker, and an enthusiastic group of students again managed to make the paper self-sufficient, but not without further run-ins with the appointed guardians of South's virtue.

"Sex, drugs, vandalism--basically, anything that made South look bad was a difficult subject," recalls Anne Birdie, the paper's co-editor last year.

One notable clash involved the publication of the annual "best and worst" issue, a popularity contest based on ballots filled out by students. The winning "best couple" consisted of two female students; an assistant principal demanded the removal of a photo of the couple before the issue could be published. Once again, the administration relented only after Batterberry consulted with a DPS attorney about the legality of the school's position.

Several sources say that Bricker, an untenured teacher, was deeply upset by the incident and may have been threatened with losing her job. Although Bricker won't comment on her one year at South, she does say that she wasn't forced out but that she decided to accept a better position at another high school.

"I can say that I'm really happy to be at the Denver School of the Arts," Bricker says. "I feel like it's a place that supports kids' rights to expression."

Former students say the fact that the newspaper has avoided outright censorship in recent years is no cause for celebration; they were so concerned with avoiding further confrontations, they explain, that they ended up censoring themselves. "Certain ideas would just get dropped," says Jolon Clark, a former section editor who now attends Colorado State University. "Like student surveys--we pretty much didn't do those anymore. Every year it was always, 'This might upset the administration.'"

"There was this kind of pervasive intimidation," says Birdie, now a freshman at Carleton College. "For students who are trying to find a voice, for them to be in a constant state of fear--I don't think it was healthy at all."

Clark says the experience discouraged many newspaper staffers from pursuing a career in journalism--including him. "When journalism is being taught by advisors who don't have much control and are being manipulated, I wonder what values we're teaching," he says. "The newspaper has been a headache for Batterberry since he got there. It's amazing what he's done in four years. The paper is just falling apart."

Contrary to initial reports, the student journalists who touched off the latest round of debate over free speech at South did get their film back. But they haven't received an apology or a promised visit from the police to talk about media relations. Nor have they received a visit from Batterberry to discuss his position on the matter, according to the paper's current editor, Nadia Pflaum. (Pflaum also works as an intern at Westword.) While daily editorial writers pontificate about the holy press, there's been a singular lack of freewheeling discussion of the matter within the halls of South, and that bothers Steve Stryyssar.

Stryyssar says he's concerned not just about student press rights but the rights of all students to free speech. He points out that DPS's publications code doesn't specify "reasonable provisions for the time, place and manner of conducting free expression within the school district's jurisdiction," as required by state law, nor is it made available to students at the beginning of each school year, as the statute also requires. In the absence of clarity, principals can claim to be the final word on what students shouldn't write or say or read or hear.

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