Editors of Appleton North High School's newspaper staff met Mary Beth Tinker (second from left) at the KEMPA Fall Convention in Whitewater, Wisconsin.

Editors of Appleton North High School’s newspaper staff met Mary Beth Tinker (second from left) at the KEMPA Fall Convention in Whitewater, Wisconsin. Photo by Linda Barrington

by Linda Barrington, mentor, and Aaron Ramponi, mentee

Linda: When Aaron Ramponi asked me to be his mentor two years ago, he prepared me for the meeting with his principal by telling me that Appleton North High School’s student newspaper was under prior review.

Aaron: Censorship had been the practice of the school’s administration since the Noctiluca first began in 1995. The principal reviewed each issue before it went to print and sometimes asked editors to make changes to content. Though the changes were usually relatively minor, the impact of this practice was significant. The editors, who were becoming more and more knowledgeable about both Tinker and Hazelwood, bristled more and more as each issue was marched off to the office for a screening. Word began to spread among the student body that the student-led paper wasn’t really their voice after all, as it was contingent upon administration’s approval. The club even began to lose members. What’s more, at times I noticed the students self-censoring, as they considered what would and would not make it past the principal’s desk.

Linda: Aaron and I discussed this practice as unhealthy for student publications. I encouraged him to consider talking to Mr. Huggins about eliminating this practice. Aaron didn’t think he’d be receptive to the idea.

noticlunaAaron: In response to prior review, some students created an underground publication and used it to print what they thought they could not in the school paper. This “rant rag,” as I heard it called by some in the student body, caused noticeable conflict and division within the school, with some of its questionable reporting and vitriolic attacks on administration, faculty, students and programs.

Linda: I remember the staff was really upset by the underground publication, especially because it openly criticized the Noctiluca staff for not being able to express their opinions because they “could never get past the censor.”

Aaron: The content and approach of this underground paper might have caused Mr. Huggins to tighten his control over the Noctiluca, increasing scrutiny and demanding further oversight. He might have sought to punitively punish those students involved in the rogue paper, thereby potentially inflaming an already complex situation. He might have allowed his opinion for the underground paper to influence his overall opinion about all student media. But he did not. From my perspective, Mr. Huggins’ response was a wise one. He chose contemplative patience and continued communication, rather than punitive reaction.

Linda: Meanwhile, Aaron and the students took every opportunity to keep communication lines open with the principal, so that he would see that they make thoughtful decisions about what stories to cover and how to handle them with fairness and balance. Students publicly shared their frustration with prior review at KEMPA Fall Conference last November during a sharing session with Mary Beth Tinker and Mike Hiestand.

Aaron: Mr. Huggins, meanwhile, kept thinking about everything that I had talked about with him. And that course of action ultimately is what led to the suspension of prior review at North. After my time at Kent State last summer at the Reynolds Institute, I had returned to North and began to have conversations with Mr. Huggins about what I had learned, including how prior review isn’t just a legal issue, but a moral and educational one. In the many meetings that followed, I quickly realized that he was genuinely listening to what I had to say. After one of our hour-long conversations, he said I’d given him a lot to think about. A week later he sought me out, sat down and said “You don’t have to put the paper on my desk anymore.”

Because of his open-mindedness, his willingness to communicate and even reconsider, Principal James Huggins has ended the practice of administrative censorship at North. He said he trusts the students and the adviser to keep doing the job of journalists.

Linda: Aaron has told me that, except for prior review, Mr. Huggins has always been supportive of opportunities for journalism education, such as encouraging field trips to regional conferences and investments in our equipment purchases and upgrades. He provides healthy budget that lets students focus on news gathering rather than money gathering. Mr. Huggins also advocates for the future creation of a journalism program at North, which hasn’t existed for well over a decade. He realizes the significance that journalism and its skills can play in the 21st century.

Aaron: I have heard and seen what it looks like when an administrator is not supportive of the student press. During my two weeks at the Reynolds Institute last summer, I heard first hand from advisers whose administrators do everything but be supportive – from what I heard, some sounded downright combative. And most recently, the challenges facing Fond du Lac High School’s student media program have emphasized to me how fortunate North is to have a principal who is not an opponent to the student press, but rather an advocate.

Linda: Aaron nominated Mr. Huggins for KEMPA’s Outstanding Administrator. Stay tuned. The winner will be announced in October.