Cardinal Columns is a student newspaper at Fond du Lac High School, in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. In last month's issue, a student wrote an article entitled "The Rape Joke", a thoughful article about the rape culture that percades high schools and youth.
You can read the article here. And once you do, I hope you'll agree that the student should have received some honor.
But that's not what happened. The Fond du Lac school board freaked out. This was not a topic for students to write about, they said, and urged greater oversight of student publications.
Which, of course, is dumb. Girls ages 16-19 are 4 times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault, according to RAINN. 44% of sexual assault victims are under 18 years old.
So, no, I don't think high school students are too young to read about the subject.
In response to the new layer of administrative control, students launched an online petition earlier this month asking Sebert to overturn the policy. The petition has garnered nearly 5,500 signatures and has gained national attention among free speech advocates.
“All the negative attention drawn to the Fond du Lac School District can be changed to a positive by the Board of Education returning the district to its previously defined policy before Superintendent James Sebert and Principal Jon Wiltzius aggressively suppressed students with prior review,” said Sandy Jacoby, state director of the Journalism Education Association and president of the Kettle Moraine Press Association, an organization dedicated to the support of scholastic journalism in Wisconsin schools.
Without the intervention of the Board, Jacoby believes that student journalists may self-censor as they struggle to gain approval from (administration).
“If our children cannot learn the practice of responsible press at Fond du Lac High School, then where? If our children cannot learn to grapple with the most challenging issues faced by their generation under the guidance of intelligent and experienced advisers like Matthew Smith, then where?” Jacoby asked. “If our children cannot provoke thought, encourage discussion, arouse public concern and action among teenage peers and parents through the school paper, then where?”
School board reaction
School board member Eric Everson said he wasn’t surprised by the widespread attention the article has received in the media.
“This type of thing garners big news because you have a very active and involved minority of people who are very sensitive to the word censorship,” Everson said. “We’re not dealing with censorship, we’re dealing with adult oversight.”
Kumar said the widespread support of The Rape Joke article has received from media outlets and First Amendment advocates has been encouraging.
“The school board has to realize how many people care about this issue,” Kumar said. “The whole school has been truly brought together behind this cause. (Administration and the school board) just can’t ignore it.”
School board member Mark Jurgella doesn’t believe the new guidelines will be used to censor future student work.
“I’m pretty comfortable that there will be little to no change in what students’ work product will end up looking like,” Jurgella said. “I do hope, however, if we need to have dialogue (with students) we’ll have it and clarify both sides’ point of view on this issue.”
Sex assault survivor Dr. Anna Nelson said Kumar’s article was especially appropriate for a high school audience.
“(Administration) is concerned that students might be too immature for the subject matter; you’re not too immature to learn about rape. One of the girls interviewed was assaulted when she was 5!” Nelson said. “Perpetrators need to know what rape is also. They need to know that once someone says no, that’s it.”
In her work as a public prosecutor, former state Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager says she has worked with many victims of sexual assault, and believes Kumar’s article was an “incredible opportunity to have a conversation about something impacting the lives of the students at Fond du Lac High School.”
“A commonality among sex assault victims is their fear of speaking out. Ms. Kumar was able to articulate for them on their behalf the horrors of what happened to them,” Lautenschlager said, referring to the three female sex assault victims in Kumar’s story. “And then some days later Ms. Kumar finds out that she (and her fellow writers might occasionally) be silenced because somehow her speaking out on behalf of these victims was inappropriate for school conversation.”
Back into the shadows
Kumor fears that the stepped up policy may silence a reticent victim back into the shadows.
“It took a lot for these three girls to speak up about something truly awful that happened to them. I don’t want them to think that the administration is administering this policy to shame them back into their silence,” Kumar said. “I want them to know they have a voice no matter what happens with this issue.”
Fellow Cardinal Column staffer Austin Klewicki says the new guidelines have caused student writers to question future topics.
“We’re not sure what they’ll choose to censor. But we’re committed to putting out hard-hitting stories that deal with issues important to students like depression and suicide. Our stories raise awareness among students so they can reach out for help,” Klewicki said. “Right now we’re fighting for the younger generations coming up behind us. If (the administration) stops us, they stop them.”