Overland High School newspaper threatened with closure to survive after ACLU complaints

Last week, two editors of The Scout, the Overland High School student newspaper, appeared with representatives of the ACLU of Colorado to protest actions of the school's principal, who was said to have ordered the pub to shut down for the year and removed its faculty adviser over a disputed story. Subsequent reports have been all over the map, but a district spokeswoman now insists the paper will stay alive this year and into the future.

According to the ACLU, Overland Principal Leon Lundie instituted a policy of prior review for The Scout -- a highly debatable action in the view of organizations like the Student Press Law Center. In following this policy earlier this month, students showed Lundie a story about an Overland student who died after being injured during a wrestling match. Lundie allegedly told reporters the cause of death listed in the story was wrong, and when they obtained a death certificate proving otherwise, he complained that the piece lacked balance.

Days later, the ACLU maintains, Lundie removed teacher Laura Sudik from her role as newspaper adviser and told Scout staffers that the newspaper would stop publishing because of his displeasure at its direction -- although he did okay a senior issue focusing on nostalgia, not news.

Student editors Lori Schafer and Jaclyn Gutierrez refused to mutely accept this ruling and went to the ACLU, which staged a well-attended press conference. Afterward, reports from news organizations such as 9News, the Aurora Sentinel and the Denver Daily News were all over the map, in large part because of what appeared to be shifting responses from the Cherry Creek School District, of which Overland is a part. For instance, the Denver Post quoted Cherry Creek School District spokeswoman Tustin Amole as saying publication of the newspaper had been halted for budgetary reasons, not censorship.

Why the confusion? Amole isn't sure. She says she told the same story to all the reporters who quizzed her, and she has no idea why so many versions surfaced.

The bottom line, she stresses, is that "there will always be a high school newspaper at Overland. It's not going anywhere." Moreover, "the principal told me he never had any intention of shutting down the newspaper," and any other conclusion must have come as a result of "some kind of miscommunication."

Regarding the future of The Scout, "What the principal has been doing has to do with changes in the program next year to align it more with what's going on at CU and CSU with communication technology," Amole allows. "Many newspapers have stopped printing and gone online, as you know, and we thought we needed to better prepare our students for the future with our course work. That's part of our conversation. And we're also looking at $21 million in budget cuts on top of $33 million in cuts in the last three years, and we're ever mindful of budgets. So the principal has not made a decision about whether the newspaper will be in print, online or a combination of both next year. But there will be a newspaper."

And this year? That's up in the air as well, Amole maintains. She points out that The Scout traditionally publishes one issue per month during the school year, but for assorted reasons, only three were printed prior to the latest controversy. Two more are scheduled, including that senior issue and what she describes as "a wrap-up of the school year," and students want to publish more to make up for the previous shortfall. But with the end of the year looming and those aforementioned budget issues, Amole's not certain that'll happen.

And Sudik, who's advised The Scout for fourteen years? Amole says she'll continue to serve as the newspaper's adviser through year's end, and she'll still have a job at the school. Beyond that, though, there are no guarantees. "She teaches this class and four others," Amole says. "And as the program changes, the principal will determine who's the best person to teach a particular program. So it's possible she would not be teaching that class next year."

If such a reassignment comes to pass, Amole warns against interpreting it as retaliatory. "Like with any class, there are many personnel issues that have to be considered," she says.

What about Lundie's prior review policy? Amole notes that under student newspaper rules widely recognized in Colorado, "the principal wouldn't have the right to change, edit or prohibit a story from being printed. But he could look at it for factual errors and point them out to the students and suggest they make changes."

Such a policy is unlikely to thrill ACLU of Colorado legal director Mark Silverstein. But most of the other developments strike him as positive.

"I'm pleased to hear that the newspaper adviser will be restored to her post and that the newspaper will now be allowed to continue publishing, not only for the rest of the school year but in the future as well," he notes via e-mail. "I congratulate the student editors for fighting back and successfully challenging an abuse of authority that threatened to silence the school paper."

Look below to see a 9News report immediately following last week's press conference.

More from our Media archive: "Brian Hill: Hobby blogger sued by MediaNews & Righthaven is 20, chronically ill, autistic."

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