The Valentine’s Day issue of the Hellgate Lance student newspaper, in which one writer extoled the virtues of pornography and another urged classmates to experiment with bisexuality, has drawn the ire of parents and forced Principal Russ Lodge to apologize for its content.
In an essay titled “In Defense of Pornography,” one student wrote that watching pornography is largely a healthy form of sexual expression for men, women and teenagers. She also suggested that mildly violent pornography is mere innocuous “fantasy.”
The article also included addresses to free pornographic websites and told students how easy it is to bypass their age restrictions.
In another brief editorial, a female student urged those lonely and bored on Valentine’s Day to consider experimenting sexually with students of the same gender. Other stories shared students’ sexual fantasies and included graphic descriptions of sex acts.
The Lance is published under the direction of journalism adviser Jill Derryberry; she refused comment when contacted by the Missoulian on Friday. A half-dozen student journalists also declined comment or did not return phone calls from the Missoulian.
Following publication of the Feb. 14 newspaper, Hellgate High School principal Russ Lodge – who had been unaware of its content before it was printed – gathered up as many issues as he could that hadn’t been distributed.
“I sat down and really went through the paper and realized there were some truly offensive articles,” said Lodge, who has fielded and personally answered every phone call to the school. “It caught us off guard, really. I said to myself, ‘If there are any papers left we’re going to throw them away.’ ”
Many of the complaints went to the superintendent’s office.
One of the complainants was Rebekah Little, who attended an open luncheon hosted by Missoula County Public Schools Superintendent Alex Apostle. The oldest of Little’s three children is a freshman at Hellgate.
Little said she wasn’t so much offended by the content as the fact that the “pro-pornography” editorial cited no evidence for such a position.
“They can make statements, but I felt that there was no research, and no basis for the statements she made,” said Little. “There was inaccurate information, and it was definitely pro-pornography, painting a very positive reinforcement of pornographic interaction.”
Though the bisexuality editorial may have been tongue-in-cheek, Little doubts the educational appropriateness of publishing it.
“I have absolutely no problem with homosexuality or bisexuality as a person, but an invitation for trying bisexuality in a school paper was uncalled for and inappropriate,” she said. “It was morally invasive.”
Lodge agreed, saying the edition was completely skewed.
“That was one of the problems – that it had no balance to it,” he said. “And that’s a teachable moment for our students.”
But another parent of a Hellgate sophomore said she had little problem with the edition’s content and feared an overreaction by a “conservative group attacking” Derryberry and the journalism program.
The Valentine’s Day issue was not markedly different in tone than other issues, said Robin Abeshaus, whose daughter Anna Kalm is the Lance’s business manager.
“When I first looked at the paper, nothing struck me as being less reporting, less researched or less well-written than anything else,” she said.
Though heavy on sexual content, the issue and its backlash could serve as a “learning opportunity” for students and Derryberry, she said, adding that she doesn’t want to see Lodge or any other administrator previewing student publications before they’re printed.
“I don’t think he should have to do that,” she said. “I would like to see the faculty advisers and the students on the paper be allowed to deal with this. I would like to see Ms. Derryberry work with the students and say, ‘Wow, we made some people really mad. We made them so mad that they’re going to the school board. Let’s talk about this.’ ”
But the complaints have continued to roll in.
So Lodge and Derryberry posted apologies to readers, students and parents on the school’s website (attached to this story on Missoulian.com). The criticisms and phone calls have also prompted a change in the school’s own publications policy to supplement the district’s, said Lodge.
“We will be working with the students to explain the mistakes and use this situation as a teaching moment so our students can learn from the experience,” he wrote. “We will also be more diligent in editing any of our editions before they are published. All future editions of the Lance will be previewed by administration.”
In a separate interview, Lodge said he didn’t hesitate to make the decision to preview the Lance before it goes to press. That will happen for the next edition, which will be printed next week.
“At this point, I have to preview it before it goes out,” he said. “I don’t want to censor, but I just have to see it before it’s published.”
Derryberry, who replaced longtime Lance adviser and journalism teacher Wayne Seitz this year, wrote that she takes “full responsibility” for a “lapse in judgment.”
“Contrary to what the last issue may indicate, I take pride in my role as adviser and teacher and strive for excellence,” Derryberry posted. “I have high standards for myself and the students under my guidance. I fell short of my own expectations in this instance.”
The Lance has long had a reputation for writing about controversial and ribald topics. It was the same newspaper’s content two years ago – the publication of a racial slur – that prompted the MCPS board of trustees to amend language in its student publications policy.
That policy forbids libelous, obscene or other language “inappropriate” toward the district’s goals of educating students.
MCPS attorney Elizabeth Kaleva said the publication of the Feb. 14 issue is “a clear violation of board policy, and not acceptable for a student newspaper.”
“The policy is fine,” she said. “It just needs to be implemented and followed.”
Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at email@example.com.