The story of San Juan as told by its students

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.

March 15, 2018

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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Comments (26)

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  • K

    kimMar 20, 2018 at 12:23 PM

    I support your right to cover topics regarding sexuality and how it impacts the students at San Juan Hills.

    Some of the behaviors that were written about detailed risky and perhaps illegal. In particular, there were two students that shared about having sex when they felt uncomfortable, yet werent able to find their voice to say, “no”. We know many other students may find themselves in similar situations, and I think it would have been beneficial to include ways for students to maintain their boundaries, or give resources for those who might need counseling or a rape crisis line.

    There was also a student who described the practice of hooking up with strangers on tinder. Tinder requires you to be 18, and while I know some kids may lie about their age, the majority of people on tinder are adults. This student also mentioned going to hotels, and again, hotels dont reserve rooms to minors, so it made me wonder if these kids were meeting adults, which is against the law. I would like to have seen some responsible reporting about the dangers associated with these behaviors, including the risk of sex trafficing and exploitation. Again, resources for teens who find themselves in these sitations would have been helpful.

    I realize teens may not be aware of the laws, or even care…that’s understandable. But where was the advisor? Surely, as a mandated reporter, he is aware of the age of consent in CA (18) and could see that some of these activities were dangerous and possibly illegal. It would expect him to have limited the way that these behaviors were reported, so as to express their risks and provide hotlines and resources for students.

    I know we all have concerns about groups of kids that are easily vicimtized, and I believe that the paper missed an opportunity to report about these situations in a way that brought help and support.

    Reply
  • K

    Kristen HowertonMar 20, 2018 at 11:39 AM

    As I writer I was so impressed by the feature on sexuality. The content was sensitive but inclusive, and the writing was far above what I’d expect from a student publication. I’m so sorry you received any backlash but especially from your principal. How disheartening. You, and your advisor, should be applauded for tackling a difficult and relevant subject with so much maturity and journalistic integrity.

    Reply
  • P

    PaulMar 16, 2018 at 8:22 PM

    I am 58 and the father of five kids, from 11 to 29. The article is interesting, well written, non-sensationalized, balanced and pretty much sums up what was going on 40 + years ago when we were at High School in the 1970’s.

    Well done.

    Reply
  • J

    JulieMar 16, 2018 at 7:16 PM

    I realize that sex can be uncomfortable for some people to talk about. Even as someone in my early fifties, I am one of those people. I wish I were more like the student journalists and their subjects in these articles. Sex and the pressures associated with it are real issues for high school students. Not talking about it does not magically make the anxiety around it go away. The journalist where just telling it like it is. The students are thoughtful, brave, frank and well-spoken while the adults in charge are pandering.

    Reply
  • H

    H McNeilMar 16, 2018 at 4:37 PM

    To the students behind the Express, thank you for broaching relevant topics that bear further discussion.
    You have my full support as a parent and community member.

    Reply
  • N

    Nancy PMar 15, 2018 at 10:37 PM

    As perhaps one of the oldest commenters here, I have this to say: Not everything I read was entirely comfortable, but it was honest and pertinent to today’s teens. If some teens (but mostly their parents) find it offensive, nobody is forcing them to read it. Finally, I must speak out about the assumptions many parents seem to make because of the titles. For most of the articles, it was abundantly clear that they supported and encouraged setting your own limits, recognizing abusive situations, and never feeling victimized by the expectations of others….standing your ground to say “no” is something to feel confident about. If anything, it affirms some levels of abstinence, until ready. It is surprising that parents took issue with that….I suspect they didn’t read the articles but simply reacted to the titles. How unfortunate that the principal effectively 1) Shut down free speech allowed by law and 2)Made character judgments on the student editors as well as the anonymous students who told their stories.

    Reply
  • J

    Juloe frostMar 15, 2018 at 7:44 PM

    The articles offered a unique oppprtunity to understand some of the complex decisions about sex that our teens are facingt today. It was bold and it was very honest. It’s not always easy to have open discussions about sex with our teenagers. They have used this medium to open up to us and I thank the students for their honesty. To do otherwise is to either tell them to lie about who they are or to hide it.

    Reply
  • K

    Kaela LMar 15, 2018 at 6:46 PM

    The Special Report was handled maturely and respectfully in good taste and in good journalism. It is encouraging to see the current writers and editors be brave and take on important topics. An above comment bashed you by stating that you have encouraged students to engage in sex, when the reality is that it’s none of their business (or yours) to tell people to have sex or not. The student stories were consensual, do not have bias, and are none of the administration’s business. It is unfortunate, yet unsurprising, that Principal Smalley cannot recognize this. There were also many opposed to the LGBTQ+ Special Report years ago, but that ended with a positive impact on campus. Bill Kaiser is a professional, and it’s not his job to report to administration. It IS his job to make sure students aren’t censored or slandering others. I hope administration recognizes that. Keep reporting on what matters!

    Reply
    • E

      EricMar 20, 2018 at 8:27 PM

      “The student stories were consensual, do not have bias, and are none of the administration’s business.”
      … Implicit bias exists in all scenarios – that which drove the direction of the stories; that which drove the nature of all responses.
      … As a public institution, the administration is responsible for the day-to-day operations and practices.

      Both the stories and the responses are emotionally charged. Certainly the information is reportable – as they are stated – “opinion stories.” To suggest that a typical high school age student would have the experiential necessities to be in any way decisive, let alone conclusive, on relationships, is in itself, immature.

      Reply
  • S

    Shelly WelcomeMar 15, 2018 at 6:38 PM

    As a parent of a SJHHS student I support the student journalists of The Express and Mr. Kaiser. I did not find the articles or the OP-ED pieces sensationalistic or disrespectful. They were not explicit. They were truthful, and the journalists respected the students who shared their truths. I think the students interviewed were brave to share their stories. I found the OP-ED pieces powerful, empowering and sad that in 2018 people still face judgmental attitudes and shaming and labelling.

    I have read The Express for over 10 years. It has always presented many sides to controversial issues because the student journalists have different views and political stances. I find that this is so important especially in a time when our society is so divided and media sources often present only one side of the story. I feel that their advisor Mr. Kaiser facilitates and fosters reporting truth and facts and all views in a safe environment. I feel he created a culture of inclusion and professionalism with his students. For him to be judged as whether or not he is a fit educator or advisor on 3 pages of a 16 page paper in one edition over the 11 years of doing tremendous work advising the student journalists of The Express is not fair practices.

    I understand that parents feel protective for their children. I understand that some parents feel very differently than me. No parent should feel that they need to compromise their values. I understand. But this paper is not mandatory to read, not part of the curriculum and there was a disclaimer. No student had to read it. It is paid for by subscriptions, donations and advertisements.

    I have immense respect for Principal Smalley. I know that her number one goal is to keep all of our children safe while making sure they receive a great education. She is responsible for thousands of students. It is a huge responsibility. Everyday I send my child to school I know that Principal Smalley has his very best interest at heart. I know he is safe at SJHHS but I know she cannot protect him from everything just like I cannot. I have always felt that she is accessible and receptive to parents and students views. But I disagree with her letter to the parents about The Express and Mr. Kaiser.

    Sincerely,
    Shelly Welcome

    Reply
    • S

      Shelly WelcomeMar 16, 2018 at 6:42 PM

      Correction 8 years not 10.

      Reply
    • G

      Genny CummingsMar 17, 2018 at 6:02 PM

      So very well said, Shelly.

      Reply
    • B

      BrendaMar 18, 2018 at 8:44 AM

      I believe we are defined by our actions not our intent.

      Reply
  • M

    MiaMar 15, 2018 at 6:02 PM

    A job well done Express. Thank you for taking a stand and speaking about topics that are too frequently dismissed. This makes me proud to be a part of this school <3

    Reply
  • C

    Casey AugustineMar 15, 2018 at 5:44 PM

    Way to go Express! Hopefully this will open up conversation with students, teachers and parents regarding the real isuues students and their peers are facing. Keep up the great work.

    Reply
  • E

    ElizabethMar 15, 2018 at 5:39 PM

    Dear editorial staff,

    Your youth and naïveté may lead you to believe that this newspaper piece was journalistically and morally adequate but the experiences and maturity of your principal and extended SJHHS family lend them to see challenges and problems these articles represent. I am sorry that you were saddened and hurt by your principals response but even more sorry that you could not see how this publication could sadden and hurt a much larger number of kids. You have portrayed SJHHS as a school where sexual activity is encouraged and, although it may happen frequently in high school aged kids, sex in high school is rarely an act that people look back on and believe was in their own best self interest. You were short-sighted, inconsiderate, and rudely flaunting and abusing your freedom as a student run paper. It’s an embarrassment – you just aren’t mature enough to see that at this time.

    Regards – slightly older than you local SJHHS supporter

    Reply
    • P

      Paul FuMar 16, 2018 at 11:19 PM

      Dear Elizabeth,

      Resorting to ad hominem attacks on high school students eviscerates any larger point you are trying to make.

      I want to make 3 points in response.

      First: I note that you posted your comment on their well-written response to the SJHHS Principal’s overzealous, biased, and overreaching public email shaming of their work and of their faculty advisor.

      Did you even read the articles? Did you read the Principal’s email to the entire Stallion community?

      I don’t think you did. Because if you did, you would have realized that they did not portray SJHHS as a den of sexual depravity as you insinuate. They took care to write about the entire spectrum of sexual activity – including an entire article on abstinence until marriage. Did you not read that one? Or was it more convenient to ignore it because it didn’t fit your narrative?

      Second: You are imposing your moral narrative on them. You can believe what you want to believe. If you are a parent, you get to try to instill your moral code in your children.

      But you don’t get to impose your morals on other people’s children. You do not get to pass public judgment on them. And you most certainly do not speak on behalf of the “extended SJHHS family”.

      Third: You don’t understand the concept of a student-run newspaper. They aren’t given the freedom to run it. They are permitted the responsibility of stewardship over an activity in which they safeguard the freedom of speech granted to every individual living in this great nation. As protected through US case law. And the California Education Code. And the US Constitution.

      You would have them not write about something because of your belief system? That’s called censorship.

      Regards – definitely-older-than-you local SJHHS supporter

      Reply
      • P

        PJMar 16, 2018 at 11:48 PM

        Amen to that!

        Reply
  • S

    SueMar 15, 2018 at 5:37 PM

    I support these students, their newspaper articles and this email 100%!!!

    Reply
  • T

    TaylorMar 15, 2018 at 5:25 PM

    I would like the administration to identify exactly which lines of the sex article were thought to be inappropriate. Dismissing the entire article as a whole leaves the student body confused. Which aspect of this article was “offensive” to them? For now we are only able to guess.

    Reply
  • D

    Daniela MurrayMar 15, 2018 at 5:22 PM

    I am beyond proud of these young journalists. The principal could learn from them. Sex is a tough topic and I’m positive the kids of the outraged parents do not talk to them about it. They should be thankful for this piece. Bravo Express!

    Reply
  • J

    JStenlakeMar 15, 2018 at 5:16 PM

    As a parent with students at SJHHS – I totally support your articles. I also support this letter & it’s call to action. The future looks bright, way to go Editorial staff!

    Reply
  • L

    Lynn HodsonMar 15, 2018 at 5:14 PM

    As a former board member and parent, I think you should be proud of this body of work. It is apparent to me that you picked a relevant and obviously controversial topic and presented in an interesting and informative way. Kudos to you all for being both committed and courageous.

    Lynn

    Reply
  • C

    Christine W.Mar 15, 2018 at 5:12 PM

    I FULLY support the students. The First Amendment of the Constitution FULLY supports the students.

    Reply
  • M

    MMHodgeMar 15, 2018 at 4:55 PM

    As a parent, I stand with you, Express. You have our full support.

    Reply
  • A

    AjayMar 15, 2018 at 4:15 PM

    In so many ways do I support this email

    Reply