Fairfax County school officials called the incident "a tempest in a teapot." Fairfax students saw it as a dangerous infringement on students' rights.
Despite the conflicting viewpoints, students and school board members reached a compromise last week over how the policy governing student publications should be worded.
Proposed changes to the Student Rights and Responsibilities Code would have eliminated student participation in certain decisions regarding student publications, students charged.
More than 150 students showed up at the school board meeting to protest the changes, one of which would have no longer required a principal to meet with student governments before deciding whether to allow or block distribution of a student publication.
The students got their way; guarantees were left in the code that principals were to consult with student governments before making decisions regarding distribution of student publications. Meanwhile, school board members were saying there was never anything to argue about.
"The board never objected that a principal meet with student government before making a decision," said board member Ruth Dell. "The intent, apparently, was misunderstood by the students."
Board member Nancy Falck told the students gathered at last week's meeting that the board had intended to speed up principals' decisions on distribution of publications by no longer requiring them to meet with student government.
"Granted we pulled out too much from the policy, but it was not intended to gag students," Falck said. "It was to assure them of a speedy decision from their principal as to whether (the publication in question) could be distributed."
"Basically we got what we wanted," said Mark Hertzog, a student at Chantilly High School and staff member of the school newspaper, The Light. "I would call it a victory for students, since we were terribly concerned students would be left out of these decisions."
The school board this year directed school attorney Thomas J. Cawley to update the Student Rights and Responsibilities Code, which the board felt needed to be clearer because of several recent court cases concerning student publications.
A federal judge last February ruled that the Fairfax County school board could not censor an article on birth control that appeared in Hayfield High School newspaper, The Farm News, on the grounds that the paper was entitled to freedom of the press under the Constitution.
The new policy says school principals shall consult with student governments "if feasible" before deciding whether to allow or block distribution of student publications.
The addition of the words "if feasible" to the code concerned some students, who called it "a vague guarantee of student participation."
"It seems it could allow a principal to get around consulting with students, but I guess we can live with the way it reads," said a Hayfield High School student.
Students had no objection to new definitions in the revised code which clarify definitions of obscenity and libel and publications that could substantially disrupt school activities.
The new policy also eliminates the Advisory Board on Student Expression, a five-member panel including two students who advised the school superintendent in cases concerning student publications that were appealed to him. Elimination of the board met with little objection.