THE IMPORTANCE OF STUDENT VOICES
One of the most important parts of student journalism is offering objective information, as well as opinions on problems and successes going on within the school, district, and community. Student journalism is essential in order to allow students to exercise their First Amendment rights.
BACKGROUND: NEW VOICES LEGISLATION ENACTED IN VT
The New Voices Law (Vermont 16 V.S.A. § Freedom of Expression) was enacted on May 23, 2017, and signed by Governor Phil Scott in order to further ensure students’ freedom of the press and speech. It was part of a nationwide movement that has been passed in 14 states, and bills have been introduced in 11 others.
Mike Donoghue, former news and sports writer for the Burlington Free Press, as well as professor and advisor for the Journalism department at Saint Michael’s College, was involved in drafting and advocating for the original Vermont bill. Donoghue has been a guest a number of times at BFA journalism classes, and he serves as an experienced mentor for the Mercury staff.
Donoghue offers the importance of and the reasoning behind the New Voices Law. He was interviewed for this story.
“The New Voices Act both nationally — and specifically in Vermont — is designed to ensure students in high schools and colleges, along with their teachers and advisers, are provided the same First Amendment rights as all other Americans,” Donoghue said.
One of the most important parts of the law is the following: “(e) This section shall not be construed to authorize or protect content of school- sponsored media that:
(1) is libelous or slanderous;
(2) constitutes an unwarranted invasion of privacy;
(3) may be defined as obscene, gratuitously profane, threatening, or intimidating;
(4) may be defined as harassment, hazing, or bullying under section 11 of this title;
(5) violates federal or State law; or
(6) creates the imminent danger of materially or substantially disrupting the ability of the school to perform its educational mission.”
No journalist should have the right to publish any story meeting these criteria.
The law also protects student journalism against “prior restraint.” This means that administration would not be able to review and possibly censor the publication prior to publishing.
BFA journalists were involved in this state wide effort. Former Editor Robbie Maher testified in Montpelier, and Maher, Editor Ambyr Wagner, and Advisor Peter Riegelman were invited to and attended the signing of the legislation by Governor Scott.
The BFA Mercury was featured in a cover story in the June 6, 2017 issue of Education Week, a national education newspaper.
SEEKING CHANGE IN STUDENT POLLING PROTOCOL
There are issues relating to the New Voices Law currently occurring in the Maple Run Unified School District. The current poll protocol at BFA appears to violate the section of the law protecting student journalists against prior review.
Polls are a crucial part of journalism; they are necessary to accurately provide public opinion and information in articles.
The editors of the BFA Mercury, along with Advisor Riegelman, met with Chris Mosca, BFA Principal on Jan. 29, 2019 to discuss the issue of the poll protocol. Mosca explained the poll-approval process, as well as claiming that he did not believe it went against the New Voices Law. The Mercury Editorial team provided Principal Mosca with a draft of a “new” poll protocol. Mosca then sent the proposed poll protocol to the legal counsel for the MRUSD, and the Mercury Editorial team is still awaiting their response.
Mosca describes the current poll protocol at BFA.
“So we came up with a protocol, this is more for the academic classes that were doing a lot of polling. We came up with these guidelines that I thought were really helpful. And we worked with the teachers to establish the guidelines. I think it really made for a clear process. It was basically  the students generate the survey based on reliable and factual research and data;  the student creates a survey context which describes the nature of the survey, why it is administered, how the results will be used confidentially;  student and teacher sit down to filter the survey and be sure that the survey is appropriate;  student gets administrative approval to release the survey;  there are opportunities for opt-outs, and administration would be able to make this survey available upon request to parents,” Mosca said.
Mosca also claims that this protocol was created “irrespective of anything the Mercury was doing.”
Mercury advisor Peter Riegelman, the BFA Mercury staff, as well as “media mentor” Mike Donoghue believe that this procedure violates the section of the New Voices Law that protects against prior restraint because of the administrative approval that must occur before sending the poll to students. Mosca disagrees.
“I don’t think so. But, that’s why I asked for it to go to our policy director, she’s actually our Human Resources director, but she is expert in policy, and that’s [Kathy] Finck… From my position, and based on what I was hoping to accomplish, I didn’t think it was, in any way, a violation. But, I wanted to make sure. So that’s why I brought it up the chain, so I could get more expert opinion on what I was doing, relative to asking for some kind of consultation around polling. I don’t think I ever said in any way that I wanted to stop it, or prohibit it. I just wanted to have some opportunity for consultation in that process because we’ve had issues before, there are sensitive questions that could potentially be asked, I have to be accountable to what’s in there, and certainly to our parent community and our student body, to the School Board. And so, I just need to be part of the process is really all it boils down to,” Mosca said.
REASONING BEHIND THE POLL PROTOCOL
Mosca claims that he has multiple reasons behind creating this protocol for polls.
“That’s what first got my attention, you know, because the surveys were coming at such a tremendous rate, and some of them were of a very personalized nature, and I felt the need to say [that] I’m not opposed to doing this, but let’s sit down reasonably and figure out a clear process so that we’re not intruding on students’ lives, we’re not violating their confidentiality, and that I can support what’s being presented to our own school board, to parents, to community members, and anybody else who asks. But if I don’t have a clue as to what’s happening relative to what’s being asked, how it’s being presented, what the context is, it makes it very hard for me to be responsible to all the constituents that I need to be accountable to,” Mosca said.
Mosca also referenced an incident that occurred with the BFA Mercury in April 2018 in which the Mercury sent out a poll which he felt had some compromising questions.
Keith Carlton, English Department chair, approved the poll, and and it was sent out. A few days later, the poll had 317 responses from BFA students, and the poll was closed. Mosca expressed concern about two questions in the poll. They were “I feel safe at BFA” and “The school has proper safety protocols to keep kids safe during a potential threat.” His concern mainly centered on how the questions were phrased.
He believed that the question, “I feel safe at BFA,” was not specific enough to gun safety, and therefore students could answer it pertaining to their experiences with bullying, harassment, gun safety, etc. He also said that the question, “The school has proper safety protocols to keep kids safe during a potential threat” would have inaccurate results because students wouldn’t necessarily know all of the reasonings behind each protocol because they are not professionals.
“And then, last year [The Mercury] did publish a survey, and it was based on student safety, but I think the original presentation needed a little bit of refinement. And so, I actually thought it was a good process. We sat, we talked. It was with Julia [Scott], and she came back to me with a refined product, and I said, ‘okay, let it go.’ And we got, I thought, clearer questions and a better result, not necessarily of any result in the sense of any you’re looking for, I just think that if the questions are phrased clearly and properly, you get back better information. So, I thought that actually went well. I thought it was good dialogue, I thought it was collaboration, I thought the survey went forward in a much clearer way. And, like I said, I think the information we got back was more meaningful as a result,” Mosca said.
The point isn’t that Principal Mosca was being respectful about student driven Mercury polling, which he was. It is simply that his prior review of BFA Mercury polls violates the New Voices Act, therefore it should not happen.
NEW MRUSD STUDENT FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION POLICY ADOPTED
Another part of the New Voices Law says that each school district in Vermont must adopt a policy that follows the law.
The Maple Run Unified School District Board adopted a policy regarding the New Voices Law on Jan. 2, 2019. This was an in-service day.
Kathy Finck explained the process by which policies are adopted by the MRUSD Board.
“[Human Resources] presented the model VSBA policy to the Administrative Council (all principals in the District) and then the Leadership Team (all district administrators). The policy is then brought to the Board and also published on the website for public comment. The policy is reviewed at the Board level at least twice, and then made final. This policy was adopted by the Board on 1/9/19,” Finck said.
MRUSD LEADERSHIP CONSIDERS INSTITUTING PRIOR REVIEW FOR MERCURY STORIES
The policy created by the Maple Run Unified School District Board left out some important elements of the New Voices Law, including protecting students against “prior restraint.”
The portion contained in the law, but not in the MRUSD policy read: “A school is prohibited from subjecting school-sponsored media, other than that listed in subsection (e) of this section, to prior restraint.”
The people most affected by the implementation of this policy, Peter Riegelman, the BFA Mercury advisor, and the BFA Mercury staff, were never advised on the creation of this policy. Riegelman discovered it when searching for other information.
Riegelman had a meeting on February 12 with Kathy Finck, Human Resources director for the district, and Kevin Dirth, the Superintendent of Maple Run Unified School District, to discuss this policy. At that meeting, the differences between the MRUSD policy and the law itself were discussed.
At the meeting with Dirth and Finck, it was unclear to Riegelman that the new policy had been officially adopted by the MRUSD board.
One of the major points discussed at the meeting was the difference between “review” and “restraint.”
Finck indicated that the MRUSD policy was based on the Vermont School Boards Association’s (VSBA) model policy, with a few additions.
Finck also added that some of the omissions of exact wording contained in the law were to be expected, and that many policies vetted by the VSBA contained language recommended specifically by the VSBA legal counsel.
Also, the policies of Burlington High School and South Burlington High School were compared to the MRUSD policy.
Superintendent Dirth suggested that the District might be within their rights under the law and the policy to institute prior administrative review.
A nationwide news story covered Burlington High School’s handling of student censorship.
ATTEMPTING TO OFFER POLICY COMMENTS
After this meeting, Riegelman accessed the online “Potential Policies” link in the MRUSD District Office // Documents page. On Monday, March 11, Riegelman filled out the official online Comment/Concern form, that was there next to the listing of the C11 Student Freedom of Expression (Required). In other words, according to the MRUSD website, commentary from the public was still being requested, based on the fact that the form was linked to the “potential policies” listed. The C11 Student Freedom of Expression (Required) was the only one listed.
Riegelman filled out the form fully, and sent it according to the directions on the MRUSD website. Because no pop-up appeared to notify that a copy of the filled out form would be sent to Riegelman, he used the Snipping Tool to keep a record.
In his comments/concerns section of the survey, Riegelman included: “Whether this is a VS[B]A model policy or not, from my vantage point as a media adviser at BFA St. Albans, I simply do not understand how this major provision within the law can just be taken out of the formal written policy of the MRUSD. I wrote down something Kathy [Finck] said when we were meeting- a policy ‘can’t diminish the law.'”
Riegelman never received notification that the Commentary Form was received by the MRUSD.
Mike Donoghue finds it odd that the District would enact this policy when no one knew about it.
“Also it appears little or no contact was made with BFA students for their thoughts or input. Was even the longtime BFA Journalism teacher Peter Riegelman contacted? It was odd the School Board approval came while students, faculty and staff were away on Christmas break,” Donoghue said.
Donoghue was a large influence in helping the school boards shape policies supporting the New Voices Law in the Burlington High School and South Burlington High School districts. He also was involved with Burlington High School when they had their censorship scandal in Sept. 2018.
“The apparent lack of student or teacher involvement in the policy by Maple Run officials was the complete opposite of school districts like South Burlington and Burlington that each had a full public process and actively sought public comment on this significant issue,” Donoghue said.
There seems to be a misunderstanding here because the original policy specifically leaves out the part of the law that protects students from prior restraint.
ADDRESSING THE MRUSD BOARD
Riegelman, as well as Mercury Co-Editor, Julia Scott, spoke in front of the MRUSD Board at the Board meeting at BFA on March 20, 2019. They expressed their concerns with the policy, and requested a meeting with members of the MRUSD Board.
The Mercury Editorial team followed the Board meeting with a letter to the MRUSD Board Chair Jeff Morrill, requesting “that we either be included as an agenda item at a full School Board meeting for a discussion/presentation, or that you direct a member of the Board to work with us to convene a separate meeting, bringing together the three of us, at least one Board member, and the MRUSD staff who should be involved.”
Chair Morrill responded affirmatively in a March 27 email, and at press time, the dates and times for a meeting are being worked out.