A Matter of Principal

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

When two South High School journalism students attempted to cover a fight in a school parking lot last month, only to have their film seized by Denver police officers, the incident touched off a vigorous debate about the rights of student journalists. But many parents and students were less upset with the cops than they were with the position taken by South principal Shawn Batterberry, who told a Denver Post reporter that he supported the officers' action and that the students displayed "poor judgment" by attempting to snap pictures at the scene of a criminal investigation.

Longtime critics of Batterberry regard the dustup as only the latest instance in which the controversial principal, now in his fifth year at South, has attempted to stifle what was once a thriving, award-winning school newspaper. For others, unfamiliar with the history of conflict between the administration and supporters of the journalism program, the event and its aftermath quickly became an education in the way things work at South.

"I was alarmed by what the police had done, but even worse, I was outraged by what Batterberry said," says Steve Stryyssar, the parent of a South freshman. After the incident, Stryyssar phoned Batterberry to urge further public discussion, possibly a schoolwide forum, but "he rejected that out of hand," Stryyssar says. "He didn't want to disrupt the curriculum with what, I got the impression, he considered to be a rather minor issue."

Stryyssar's daughter, Shantelle, decided the issue was a perfect topic of discussion for her South government class, which requires that students bring in current-event discussion topics. Four days after the police took the students' film, Shantelle handed her classmates photocopies of a newspaper article about the seizure. But then her teacher informed her that the class would be watching a movie that day, Stryyssar says, and that she needed the permission of the principal before distributing any "fliers" to other students.

So Stryyssar accompanied his daughter to the principal's office, where Batterberry informed Shantelle that she had no business handing out copies of the newspaper article without clearing it with him first. "He harshly admonished her for her conduct that morning," Stryyssar says. "Here's an issue that unfolded in front of her school, and the leader of that school made comments that would seem to be contrary to the direction of the Constitution. That troubled me. Now it's extended into an issue of her being able to exercise her free speech."

Batterberry and the current faculty newspaper advisor, Carsten Engebretsen, did not respond to requests for comment for this article. But several teachers, former students and parents who've worked closely with the journalism program say that Batterberry has shown little tolerance for dissenting views at South and has attempted to control the content of the student newspaper--which has had four faculty advisors in the past five years--through heavy-handed actions that exceeded his authority under the Denver Public Schools' student-publications code.

Before Batterberry arrived, "the kids were allowed to learn and to take some journalistic responsibility," says former advisor Vickie Salazar. "Now it's a horrible situation for the students."

Salazar had overseen The Confederate newspaper for eight years when Batterberry, a former North Dakota school administrator, became the new South principal in 1994. She was a popular teacher, and the paper had won numerous regional and national awards. But she soon ran afoul of the new boss over a student survey, published in The Confederate, that claimed that two-thirds of the respondents consumed alcohol on a regular basis and three-fourths smoked marijuana. Batterberry immediately took issue with the accuracy of the survey, which involved a somewhat haphazard sampling of 150 students.

"He came unglued," Salazar says. "He came bounding up the steps and said, 'You can't put out anything like this. I'm going to hold the paper.' Well, we'd already sold it [at school], but at that time, the PTA was sending the paper out to parents, and he would not allow them to mail the paper out."

Batterberry relented a few weeks later after consultations with a DPS attorney. (State law allows administrators to suppress student publications only when the material is obscene, defamatory, false "as to any person who is not a public figure," disrupts school operations or violates school regulations or privacy rights.) But the principal's stab at prior restraint soon became a flashpoint in Batterberry's increasingly tension-filled meetings with parents and teachers who served on the school's collaborative decision-making team. Batterberry insisted that he had the right to protect the school's interests and good reputation.

"He never admitted he was wrong," says one parent who attended several such meetings. "What happened with the newspaper is just part of the way he controls the school. You can't get him to see that students have a right to know what's going on in their school and can learn a lot by working on a newspaper."

Salazar's relationship with school administrators only got worse. "The entire spring was made up of a series of intimidations on me and the kids on the newspaper," she says.

According to Salazar, Batterberry ducked meetings with journalism students and arranged to have two assistant principals sit behind two student interviewers who came to quiz him in his office. In addition, she says, an assistant principal accused her of being "a member of the Aryan Nation" because the newspaper had run a photo spread of homecoming celebrations at South, including one picture from years ago of a school band with a Confederate flag.

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.

When Stryyssar himself was at South, back in the early 1970s, spontaneous debates about drugs, race and the war in Vietnam weren't uncommon in Denver schools. He remembers strolling into a math class and joining in a lively discussion of an anti-war protest that had taken place that morning. He considered it part of everything he was learning.

"We talk a good game about preparing our children for life, for the larger issues that are out there," he says. "To have discussion of this issue summarily squelched because it doesn't fit the agenda or convenience of the top administrator strikes me as in complete conflict with the notion of education.

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