High school journalism teacher in hot water over story about teen student’s work in adult films

Sawsan Morrar, The Sacramento Bee

A Northern California high school newspaper battling its school district to publish a story deemed potentially obscene by administrators said it received the green light Wednesday from an independent attorney.

The journalism students at Bear Creek High School’s student newspaper, The Bruin Voice, in Stockton are publishing an article about an 18-year-old student who performs in the legal adult entertainment industry to make a living. But the Lodi Unified School District superintendent sent a letter to journalism adviser Kathi Duffel on April 11 demanding that the district see the story by the next day over concerns it could violate the education code.

“Should you fail to provide a copy, you may be subject to discipline up to, and including, dismissal,” read the letter from Superintendent Cathy Nichols-Washer.

Duffel proposed that an independent attorney read the story, which the district agreed to.

Duffel said the attorney called Wednesday afternoon to say he approved of the story and found nothing obscene or illegal.

A district spokeswoman said the district is still waiting for confirmation that the attorney approved the story, and that the district is committed to the process in place.

“From the very beginning, we have always believed that the voice shall not be silenced,” said Duffel. “We have fought to represent free speech. For us on a school level, we are the watchdog of our administration, and any time they attempt this gross and broad overreach, they need to be held accountable.”

The Bruin Voice plans to publish the story online and in print on May 3.

The story, according to student editor Bailey Kirkeby, primarily focuses on the hardships the student experienced, such as failing freshman year. Kirkeby, who wrote the story, said it also includes information about the adult entertainment industry such as pay scale and occupational risks.

Former Bear Creek student Katelyn Biddle said the paper isn’t just any high school paper. The National Scholastic Press Association named The Bruin Voice the top high school paper in the U.S. in 2013, according to the Stockton Record.

“It very much operates like an actual paper does,” Biddle said. “It’s important for students to learn how journalism works, and this paper teaches them how it is in the real world.”

The district said in a statement to The Sacramento Bee that it supports students’ free speech rights and has not censored The Bruin Voice or any articles.

However, “The District is legally required to ensure that publications do not violate Education Code section 48907,” the statement said. “This law requires districts to prevent the publication of obscenity, defamation, and incitement. It also prohibits the publication of content that fails to meet the professional standards of English and journalism.”

“The District will legally intervene to ensure that any school related activity complies with the law,” the statement said.

This is not the first time Duffel and the newspaper have clashed with the school.

In 2013, then-Principal Shirley McNichols was asked to resign after she confiscated 1,700 copies of the newspaper until the district ordered her to release them. The newspaper’s story on the school’s outdated safety plan made headlines as far as Australia.

In 2011 another principal, Daryl Camp, resigned after a battle with the paper, which he asked to review. The staff was pursuing a story about how Camp lost master keys for the school, which cost the district thousands of dollars to replace.

“Our job is to teach the students to question every time their voice is silenced,” Duffel said. “And if we fail to do that as educators, then we failed to do our job.”

Editor’s note: This article was updated April 25 to correct the location of Bear Creek High School. It is in Stockton.


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