"The Waste Paper" wasn't anything like an underground newspaper, or even as sharply worded as some authorized publications at public high schools, but no one at Riverdale Baptist School had seen anything quite as critical as the mimeographed sheets recently published by four honor students at the strict, Christian school in Prince George's County.
Even so, the student editors and their parents were not prepared for the stir it created or the reaction it provoked from the no-nonsense school administrators.
One of the editors said an administrator called them into a room and denounced their newspaper as "satanic."
"They really went off on us," the student said.
The student editors viewed the short-lived publication as a mere prank. Even their parents, who normally trust the school to administer a good paddling when necessary, got upset when the students were threatened with removal from class offices and other punishments. Two of the students were expelled from a Christian honor society.
"Perhaps when we saw the paper we might have overreacted," said the Rev. Herbert Fitzpatrick, who is both direcor of the school and pastor of the Riverdale Baptist Church, the county's largest. But "we thought it was rebellion."
In the end, the school backed down on most of the threats, but at least one family is thinking of looking for another Christian school for their children.
"A lot of parents put their children in a private school because they want discipline; that's why we were surprised at the parent's response," Fitzpatrick added. "We had never seen anything like it before."
The source of the fuss was a three-page Xeroxed newspaper, 50 copies of which were distributed last week to the junior and senior classes at the 1,100-student school. Its authors, miffed that a long promised school-sanctioned newspaper had not published, promised to "reveal gross injustices" at the school, where uniforms are mandatory and students begin each day with diligent Bible study. But according to Fitzpatrick, the dissidents offered no examples of injustice when they were confronted.
Fitzpatrick said he found offensive the description of one well-known student as an "idiot." He had also warned some of the students that naming an insurgent student political party "Waste Incorporated" was not in harmony with the spirit the school seeks to foster.
Fitzpatrick said he was surprised because all four were excellent students with spotless records. Three were senior class officers and two were members of a national Christian school honor society. At first, Fitzpatrick told the class officers they would be stripped of their positions. But last Tuesday, after a meeting with their parents, who were upset about not being consulted, he simply required the students to apologize before an assembly of the junior and senior classes.
The two expulsions from the Christian honor society were prompted by the students writing two scathing poems for an English class, calling the administration "twits" and "incompetents." The teacher turned the poems over to the principal and Fitzpatrick said he was forced to remove the poets from the honor society because their behavior was a bad example of Christian leadership.
The four students have been placed on probation for the remainder of the term and have been admonished not to talk about the incident. Most parents are satisfied with the outcome.
"We should support the school and the decisions they make or they won't be able to keep discipline," said Robert Fowler of Landover Hills, the father of one of the students involved in the affair. "After all, it is a Christian school."
But another parent, who asked not to be identified, is considering another school for his children.
"The school is not wrong in this," he said. "We just don't like the way they handled it. I am a very strong born-again Christian and I believe in the Word, but I don't agree with their interpretation anymore."