A Matter of Principal

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."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast

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