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Student newspapers hitting the web -- and raising concerns

Jorge Barrientos
The Bakersfield Californian
Bakersfield, Calif.

February 15, 2012

Local high school newspapers, in an effort to stay alive and relevant, are going digital.

And while educators and student newspaper advocates say that's a good thing, district administrators are concerned about showcasing student work to the world.

"The Internet is still a brave, new world for many including the Kern High School District," KHSD spokesman John Teves said in an email. "We have some concerns about what might be the consequences of publishing, online, information that includes student photos and names."

At least three local high school papers have hit the web in recent months, featuring articles and photos on anti-bullying efforts, campus food drives and human-interest stories on teachers staying late to grade papers.

The student newspapers online allow students to reach an audience that gets its news strictly on a screen, and get trained in an ever-evolving form of journalism, student newspaper advisers and advocates argue. There shouldn't be any concerns, said Randy Hamm adviser of East High School's newspaper, which he hopes is next to go digital.

Student experience, and the First Amendment, triumphs, he said.

"We're just shortchanging student journalists if we don't teach them how to make newspapers online," Hamm said.

Many school administrators incorrectly believe placing school newspaper content online could violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which protects the privacy of student education records, said Adam Goldstein, attorney for the Student Press Law Center, an advocate for student free-press rights.

There's only a violation of FERPA if an employee of the district publishes student information, he said. And the district would be no more liable for an online paper than it would for its print counterpart, or even a yearbook, he said.

"When you look at schools and student media, there's nothing there legally," Goldstein said. "I have yet to see a single instance for a school having to pay a dime for something students have done online or offline."

Liberty High School, which has an award-winning student paper, is the latest to go online here, joining nearly 3,800 student-run papers nationwide hosted for free on the "My High School Journalism" website, a nonprofit offering free digital hosting for youth-generated journalism.

Newspapers on other campuses, or at least what's left of them, may follow.

The Californian in early 2010 highlighted the fact that budget cuts, smaller journalism classes, a tighter focus on state standards and lack of administrator support were felling school newspapers.

Kern High School District as of 2011 had eight journalism classes on its 18 main campuses with a student enrollment of 236, according to the latest state data. In 2004, KHSD had 13 classes with 479 students.

In that same time period, California has seen its journalism enrollment drop by 8,200 with 132 fewer journalism classes available.

High school newspaper advocates say journalism classes help students develop analytical and writing skills, teach computer, design, fact-checking and research skills, and help students become more confident by tackling tough issues and interviewing strangers and authority figures.

Geneva Overholser, director of the University of Southern California's School of Journalism, has noticed the trend of high school newspapers going online -- a good move, and not just because it could save schools money, she said.

"Students live largely online," she said. "Why not put journalism where the students are?"

Dana Schilly, West High School's adviser and an English teacher, said for financial reasons the school stopped printing a newspaper this year and looked at publishing instead online.

Korrine Stanley, adviser for Frontier High School's student newspaper, said an online publication "would make a lot of sense for many reasons, but right now it isn't happening."

"We tried to go online last year, but were told the district doesn't want school papers online, so we didn't pursue it any further," she said.

East High's Hamm said he plans to speak to his principal again about going online.

"Journalism advisers and administrators need to work together to come up with appropriate procedures ... so students can take their journalism online in a supervised environment that helps them remain legal and ethical."

The district for now is analyzing the effects of publishing student newspapers online, which includes the district's legal liability, Teves said.

"We are reviewing those implications and reserve the right to adjust district policies as needed," Teves said.

Copyright 2012, The Bakersfield Californian. Reprinted with permission

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