(Art by Lucy Law)

Art by Lucy Law

Relationships & Sex Reactions

March 14, 2018

The Express’ Open Letter to Principal Smalley

In response to Principal Smalley’s email to SJHHS’ parents, The Express emailed the following to address the backlash and misrepresentation of the special report.

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Art Courtesy of Makayla Keelin

Dear Principal Smalley:

We are saddened and hurt by the response we have received from you in regards to our latest print edition. This edition has been brainstormed for almost a full year, and we put numerous hours into its creation. As our principal, your opinion often holds more weight among parents and the community because you are considered the leader of the school. Therefore, calling students’ experiences “disrespectful and sensationalistic” was perceived as insensitive and insulting by The Express and the subjects of our center spread.

First and foremost, we are frustrated that you did not communicate with us before sending out a mass email to all parents. Throughout the year we have sought to emphasize that this is a student publication, and that if there are issues with our content, then our Editors-in-Chief should be the ones contacted with the complaints. As journalists, we were careful to report only on the realities of students with the most relevant and diverse experiences on campus. We checked multiple times with our sources to maintain that our stories were correct before publication. Your claim that we “failed to meet this responsibility” is extremely discouraging, as is your assumption of the manner and dedication in which we wrote these stories.

After this incident, we are disappointed that you believe The Brand should blatantly dismiss students and shun them simply for their sexual experiences. In reality, The Brand is one of inclusion and education, and seeks to “respect and include those from all backgrounds, cultures, and perspectives.” Considering the stigma against LGBTQ+ relationships in society as a whole, we are distressed that you treated these students’ testimonies as something to be ashamed of.

The purpose of this special report was to “provide a thoughtful, relevant commentary” on real student experiences, and we took great care to involve all sides of this topic in order to create a complete and thorough report on a subject that is rarely discussed by educational authorities to the detriment of the students. While it is true that we discussed the sexual activities of students at San Juan Hills High School, we also published stories about a couple who chose to abstain from sexual intercouse until marriage and a young woman who openly admitted that sex caused the downfall of her relationship. In addition, no specific or grotesque actions were disclosed in order to keep these articles “within the bounds of good taste.” We took great care to write about the consequences of sex in order to provide a complete picture of what this sensitive topic entails. According to the CUSD board policy on health education, “Lack of information or pervasive misinformation can cause low self-confidence, increased risk for sexually transmitted disease and infection, unintended pregnancy or sterility, and school drop out.” (BP 6142.1) By writing this special report, we hope to combat these terrible consequences and improve the student body as a whole.

We feel most of the controversy surrounding this piece is the result of angry parents who prematurely reacted to headlines they saw on social media before taking the time to read the stories in full. Rather than cave to the demands of the mob mentality, which would set a dangerous precedent for future publications and other school activities, it is important to embrace and discuss controversial issues, as recommended in the CUSD Board Policy 6144. This states “The Governing Board believes that students should have opportunities to discuss controversial issues which have political, social or economic significance and which the students are mature enough to investigate and address.” Our Special Report that discusses the heavy social topics of sex and relationships for high schoolers was approached maturely and with extreme sensitivity.

As California Education Code 48907 states, we have the right to publish material so long as it is not “obscene, libelous, or slanderous,” does not cause a material and substantial disruption of school activities, or is an invasion of the rights of others. Knowing this, we took the precautions necessary to ensure that our articles did not violate any of these clauses and upheld the principles of good journalism. As our disclaimer stated, “The following special report highlights the realities of relationships and sex for high school students today. The content contains anonymous testimonials from students and opinions about stigmatization of sex culture. The features reflect each student’s personal experiences and opinions and should not be taken as a universal truth.”

We are troubled that, not only did you fail to defend the student press that simply expressed freedom of the press that is so vital to this country, but you also failed to defend our newspaper advisor, Bill Kaiser. Mr. Kaiser has done his job admirably, and we would like to remind you that it is not his duty to control what our content is, nor report to the administration on what our activities are, as that would undermine the purpose of a student-run newspaper. When you insinuated in an email that was sent out to parents and faculty of San Juan Hills High School that our faculty advisor failed to “maintain professional standards of English and journalism,” we interpreted it as an attack on a staff member that has been the utmost professional in both his teaching and advisory roles.

In conclusion, The Express formally requests a public statement of support of the Relationships and Sex Special Report. Thank you for taking the time to read our statement and we hope that this incident will not damage the relationship between The Express and the administration that has been strengthened over the last several years. We are looking forward to your timely response, and the opportunity to discuss this issue with you in person.

Sincerely,

The Express Editorial Board

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Art by Lucy Law

Students and Parents Address Principal Smalley

Below are excerpts of emails from SJHHS students and parents to Principal Smalley, most of whom never received a reply. Because negative feedback was the main focus of social media attention, we wish to bring light to the various positive opinions.

“It should be your duty to protect and support us against the malicious content being thrown at us for only seeking to educate students in a way that teachers, administrators, and adults will not. The strength that the San Juan Hills journalists have is remarkable, to say the least. The young journalists who seek to aid their peers and provide access to free, informative stories should be praised beyond words for creating a safe and accepting space for struggling students.  Mr. Kaiser’s strength illustrates his dedication to this school and his career. To have him shunned and disciplined for representing a student body committed to allowing students the ability to access meaningful facts is appalling.” –Isaiah Yoways, senior

“How are gay students supposed to know to have safe sex when they don’t even get to learn anything about the non traditional forms of sex? To continue, on the story of “Zoe Brooks” in the long term relationship column she discussed that she found herself in an emotionally abusive relationship. How was she supposed to know that she was being emotionally abused if we are never taught what this looks like? We learn from each other. I feel that if you believe the newspaper article about sex should be condemned than there should be more REALISTIC sex education integrated into high school.” –Selin Dogan, senior

“I understand that you’re in a difficult position. I understand that there are many, many upset parents at the content of The Express. But please know that there are just as many parents that are supportive of these kids and their First Amendment Rights. The Express is a student run newspaper and these students are incredibly brave for addressing a topic that most adults are too scared to even let their kids read about! It would have made a huge difference to your students if you had supported them instead of the parents that aren’t able to even talk them about sex. Your students cried out to be heard in this edition of the paper and you shut them down.” -Sarah Goodfellow, parent

“We are the students who are crying out to our parents, to our teachers, to our coaches, to our administrators, to you, because we need to be heard and we need your support. We are the students who are utilizing our platforms to express our rights and vocalize our feelings. We are the students who share our experiences courageously despite facing backlash. But please do not stand with the parents who call our students “whores,” “disgusting,” “uneducated journalists,” or who refer to their hard work as “shameful,” “a disgrace,” and even worse things that I️ wish not to mention. And lastly please address us- the students. Help us as we cry out to you, stand with us so that we feel we are not alone, understand us and think of how you felt when you were our age, and finally please do not take the rage of the parents out on us.” –Makayla Walders, junior

“There is nothing explicit in these articles. None of the students encourage children or other students to have sex. In fact what they all convey is to be safe, to not do anything you are not ready for or comfortable doing, and to not ask someone to do something they are not ready for.  They also convey that students should not be shamed for their decision to have sex or to abstain. As educators you are supposed to encourage journalist students to research, to uncover truths, to sometimes reveal uncomfortable truths and to speak truth to power and to be respectful and true to their subject. These students were respectful and true to the people they interviewed.” -Shelly Welcome, parent

“I am quite alarmed by your biased reliance upon feedback from one group of individuals to claim that the content of the newspaper was disrespectful and sensationalistic. It is anything but that. It is an honest reflection of the pressures and issues that our teenagers are facing and written in an intelligent and forthright manner. It is the absolute epitome of “thoughtful, relevant commentaries on all topics within the bounds of good taste” and should be celebrated, instead of directly attacked by the school’s principal.” –Dr. Paul Fu, parent

“It was disheartening to see our principal siding with parents and bullies that have come for the students and called them numerous names pertaining to this issue of the paper. I think that they are embodying RFTB by putting out informative journalism on topics that need to be discussed and haven’t because of the stigma or taboo they have surrounding them, as said in the paper. It made me quite sad when I saw that you said it was damaging to the brand because I saw it as a way to start a conversation on sex education and comfort with one’s sexuality; I interpreted that there were many students at SJHHS that seemed to be uncomfortable with who they decide to love.” –Eva Benzan, freshman

“As a former student paper editor, a communications major in college, and someone very deeply interested in free press and freedom of expression, I heartily support what the students wrote. There was no R-rated language, unlike today’s major news stories. They were covering a very teen-centric topic in an admirably wide range of views. They covered health and moral issues in a fair manner. I fail to see how this was disrespectful or sensationalistic. I completely understand that parents prefer not to think of their children as sexual beings but I remember being a teen, I know this is an important topic, and I believe the students covered it very well. Forbidding them from covering the topic does not make it go away.” –Corey Henson, parent

“I believe that Riding for the Brand should not be relegated to keeping within the boundaries of controversial topics, and, furthermore, that student journalists and their advisor should not be condemned for practicing their right to freedom of speech, especially when this was all executed in accordance with board policies. It is vital for students to explore different perspectives, arguably more so when they are disagreeable to some readers because conversation is sparked and growth is fostered — it is for these reasons that freedom of the press is such a special and powerful institution!” -Ava Bachelder, junior

“Your email demonstrated that you value the opinions of the parents over those of the very students that you are supposed to help. However, when you attempt to flout your support of the LGBTQ community it is essential that you continue to support them and their stories through the good and the bad. When you claim to support the community with the [2017] Special Report but then denounce John Smith’s and Kevin Landon’s stories, it creates a sense of unwelcomeness and hypocrisy toward my LGBTQ peers and me. If I were one of the brave students who shared their stories and saw your blatantly insulting email, I would feel incredibly unwanted at a school that I attend everyday and by an administration that has immense influence over my life.” –Jake Heron, senior

“I would argue that the actual content of the Relationships and Sex spread is actually extremely beneficial and reaches all ends of the diverse group of students we have here at SJHHS. From addressing the LGBTQA+ [community] to pregnancy scares, this takes a far more intimate and relatable approach than our freshman Health class did. This allows for a wide variety of teenagers to learn more about issues they themselves might be going through, and they might not have the courage or ability to speak with parents or a trusted adult on these topics. This spread allows for kids dealing with these issues to realize that they are not going through them alone.” -Anonynous, sophomore

“Students’ voices are incredibly important on this campus. I’d even argue that they are the most important. I personally thought the edition was in fact ‘valuable’ and a ‘learning experience.’” -Anonymous, senior

These emails were based off of the recent publication of the Relationships and Sex Special Report features and opinion stories.

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