Parents are understandably irate after teens in a California high school revealed the salacious details of their sex lives — in the school newspaper. This particular issue recounted a “gay network” for sex, a teen girl’s abusive relationship with a sex-crazed boy, and a bisexual boy using a car for sex to avoid his parents. Parents sent emails and spoke with the principal about various issues, including safety, stereotypes, and journalistic standards.
“This particular paper has over 70 errors in it,” Ryan K. Burris, chief communications officer at the Capistrano Unified School District, told PJ Media in an interview Tuesday. He noted that The Express, the San Juan Hills High School (SJHHS) paper that ran the edition last Tuesday, had covered sexual topics with more nuance in two previous issues.
“Both of those were presented at a much higher educational level with much higher journalistic standards, so that was really the issue,” Burris argued. He reported that more than 100 parents had approached SJHHS Principal Jennifer Smalley to complain about the issue. Many of them expressed these journalistic concerns.
Even so, Burris also noted that many parents raised issues with the basic topics — teens engaging in various sexual escapades impacted by a “sex positive” culture.
“There were parents who were asking, ‘When does that trigger a mandated reporter?'” Burris said, referring to a person who is legally required to report any suspicion of child abuse or neglect. If a child “who’s seventeen, who can’t rent a hotel room,” is having sex in various places, that activity can become rather dangerous.
The Express issue told the story of Kevin Landon (an alias), who spoke candidly about struggling to find a good place to have sex, hidden from his parents. “While he is living under his parents’ roof, finding the means to have safe, open sex is difficult,” Kate Finman wrote. “For this very reason, Landon has mostly had sex in a car.”
Strangely, Landon suggested that he understood why his parents might restrict “the means by which he can have sex,” and suggested that his parents still knew what he was doing, despite his efforts to hide it.
“If I had a kid, I wouldn’t want to know anything about their sex life either. It’s totally understandable,” the boy told The Express. “I think parents know what kids do that kids don’t tell parents.”
If indeed the boy’s parents know he is engaging in sexual activity in unsafe places, would a social worker be required to report this as child neglect or endangerment?
Another article in the paper recounted the story of Zoe Brooks (also an alias), a girl who said she was in an abusive relationship with a sex-crazed boy. “Even though the relationship was fulfilling, it was clear to Zoe that her partner had become emotionally abusive and was only invested in the sexual aspects of the relationship,” The Express‘s Olivia Fu reported.
“In Zoe’s past relationship she felt it became so much about the sex that the emotional aspect and respecting each other’s boundaries became secondary,” the story continued. “There was a lot she wasn’t comfortable with, but didn’t communicate and simply followed along with out of fear he wouldn’t love her anymore and break up with her. This eventually led to doing things she had not consented to [sic].”
It stands to reason that parents would be very concerned at the idea of a 17- or 18-year-old girl in a sexually abusive relationship.
Burris told PJ Media that it was not only parents who approached Principal Smalley with concerns. “There were some student concerns shared with the principal — gay students who were upset with the fact that the perspective of those stories was promiscuity, which is a stereotype and they did not appreciate that,” Burris reported.
The Express recounted the experiences of 17-year-old openly homosexual senior John Smith (also an alias). “Once you come out and have been in a relationship and done stuff with a guy, it gets around in the gay community,” he said.
“Social media, especially Grindr and Tinder, are a huge part of their ‘hook-up society,’ which is quite big in the gay community due to their limited dating pool, according to Smith,” The Express‘s Kate Finman reported. “There is even a ‘gay network’ that spans Orange County.”
“All the gays know all the gays and everybody has hooked up with everybody, unless you are not sexually active,” Smith said. “All the gays follow all the gays on social media. Everyone has a Grindr account, everybody just like hooks up with everybody. Him and I will be like, ‘Have you seen this guy?’ and it’s like, ‘Oh yeah I hooked up with him a while ago,’ and it’s just like a weird network.”
This story might terrify parents, but according to Burris it also disturbed openly gay students who did not appreciate the picture of promiscuity “John Smith” recounted.
Another article in the issue — ostensibly about “Popping the Cherry of the Virginity Myth” — pivoted from its topic into an advocacy push for “the sex positive movement.”
“Now is the time for acceptance of any sexual experimentation and experiences at any stage in someone’s life with any one [sic] they choose,” wrote Sam Newman, a co editor-in-chief. “As long as both parties are consenting, mutually benefitting, and understand the potential ramifications of their choices, then sex is okay. The sex-positive movement is escaping the confines of chastity belts and objectifying women and is accepting of everyone’s choice about sex to create a safe, inclusive and judgement-free environment.”
Did Newman really intend to push for the acceptance of “any sexual experimentation and experiences at any stage in someone’s life”? Each U.S. state has its own age of consent, mostly at 16, 17, or 18. California’s age of consent is 18. Does “any stage in someone’s life” include ages under 18, and if so, how low? What exactly is this student advocating in the name of the “sex-positive movement”?
For these and other reasons, Principal Smalley sent out an email to all SJHHS families last Tuesday. “The Express published yesterday does not meet the high standards we expect of our students and our staff, which have been set forth in previous publications where our students tackled challenging issues surrounding the LGBTQ community as well as raising awareness of suicide with thoughtfulness and sensitivity,” she wrote.
“The publication distributed yesterday is disrespectful and sensationalistic and I will not condone the contents. I am truly sorry to our students, families, and community for the shock and dismay you felt when you opened up the paper. I share your feelings,” the principal confided.
The Express‘s editorial board shot back in an email to Principal Smalley last Thursday. “We are saddened and hurt by the response we have received from you in regards to our last print edition,” the editorial board wrote. “Calling students’ experiences ‘disrespectful and sensationalistic’ was perceived as insensitive and insulting by The Express and the subjects of our center spread.”
Even so, the editors did not respond to the allegations that their issue was riddled with errors. They did, however, “formally” request “a public statement of support of the Relationships and Sex Special Report.”
On Monday, The Express published emails from four parents and eight students defending the special issue.
Even so, The Express‘s handling of the situation does indeed welcome criticism on journalistic grounds. Despite these numerous messages responding to Smalley’s email, none of The Express‘s reports on the issue quoted more than three words of the principal’s message. PJ Media had to reach out to the administration, and then the school district, just to acquire this message.
Furthermore, public criticisms on social media were unceremoniously deleted, according to Burris. “When they originally posted their open letter on Instagram, comments were open and comments were very mixed,” the school district spokesman recounted.
“Comments were closed later that evening, and later deleted. I think they’ve done that now on three posts,” Burris said. “That’s not necessarily a high bar for journalistic standards.”
Most of the parents’ criticism remains on private Facebook pages, the school district spokesman said. As such, the students’ side of the story has been able to dominate the narrative.
In the interests of getting Principal Smalley’s message out, PJ Media has included it in full at the end of this article.
According to California law, Smalley’s administration does not have the right of “prior restraint of material,” meaning the principal could not have seen or altered the issue before it went out. The principal said that while she values “the freedom of speech of our students and teachers,” she maintains that the “paper is not a reflection of the standards we expect at SJHHS and was damaging to The Brand and the confidence placed in us throughout our school community.”
Read Smalley’s full email below.
Dear Stallion Families,
Yesterday, the SJHHS student newspaper, The Express, was published with content that does not meet the standards of Board Policy 6145.3 on Publications, “to provide thoughtful, relevant commentaries on all topics within the bounds of good taste.” The Express published yesterday does not meet the high standards we expect of our students and our staff, which have been set forth in previous publications where our students tackled challenging issues surrounding the LGBTQ community as well as raising awareness of suicide with thoughtfulness and sensitivity.
The publication distributed yesterday is disrespectful and sensationalistic and I will not condone the contents. I am truly sorry to our students, families, and community for the shock and dismay you felt when you opened up the paper. I share your feelings.
I am committed to making this a valuable and thoughtful teaching experience for our students. The First Amendment is highly valued by journalists because it protects their right to share information and news. This right to free speech, however, comes with much responsibility and, as we have seen, when a journalist or a news outlet fails to meet this responsibility, the confidence and trust that was built, in many instances over many years, evaporates and can only be gained back over time.
Our expectation of faculty advisors is that they “help the student editors judge the literary value, newsworthiness, and propriety of materials submitted for publications (BP6145.3).” In addition, Education Code 48907 reads, “it shall be the responsibility of a journalism adviser or advisers of pupil publications within each school to supervise production of the pupil staff, [and] to maintain professional standards of English and journalism.” To the extent that this also affects members of our staff, we are unable to make any specific comment at this time.
I value the freedom of speech of our students and teachers and Education Code 48907 has given them the freedom to have “no prior restraint of material prepared for official school publications,” which means that principals do not have the right of prior review. However, I maintain that yesterday’s paper is not a reflection of the standards we expect at SJHHS and was damaging to The Brand and the confidence placed in us throughout our school community.