It’s called “dabbing,” and it involves smoking a distilled version of marijuana’s active ingredient off of a nail, delivering a potent high.
When Fauquier High School senior SaraRose Martin heard that her peers were experimenting with the technique, she decided to pen a story about it for the student newspaper, the Falconer, of which she is co-editor in chief.
“I was just interested in exactly what it was and exactly what the effects of it were,” she said. “I wanted my peers to know what they were doing.”
Principal Clarence Burton III deemed the article too mature for the Falconer’s teen readership and yanked it from publication in March. In a letter to Martin, he wrote that he was concerned that students would “be exposed to a new and dangerous drug without adult guidance.”
Martin brought news of the censorship to Fauquier Now, an online-only news outlet. Editor Lawrence “Lou” Emerson decided to run the article and posted it to the Internet on March 23, giving the student’s piece a much broader audience than her 1,200-student high school in Warrenton, Va. Within the first 10 days, her story had 11,400 unique visitors.
The turn of events underscores the dilemma school administrators face while exercising control over student media in the age of the Internet. And it highlights the tension that can arise when school officials try to balance the concerns of parents and those of student journalists who believe they have important stories to tell.
School administrators are allowed to preview student work and can censor school-sponsored student publications in many cases, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hazelwood decision in 1988.
Marie Miller, an English teacher who has taught journalism classes and advised the newspaper for a decade, said the Falconer normally runs stories one would expect of a high school newspaper — recent coverage has included the location of this year’s prom, the installation of a new fence around the school’s courtyard and a debate about the Pledge of Allegiance.
But the students do wade into headier topics, and when they are preparing to run a controversial piece, Miller typically gives the principal a head’s up. Burton approved two articles this school year on sensitive topics, including one on Molly, an increasingly popular club drug that is a form of the drug ecstasy, and another on transgender students.
But the principal pushed back when he read Martin’s story.
“Unlike a drug safety education unit taught in a health class by a trained professional, this article does not come with that trained instructor,” Burton wrote in a letter to Martin.
David Jeck, Fauquier County’s schools superintendent, backed the principal’s decision after the students appealed.
“I just felt like, in the end of the day, if there’s one student in that school who is encouraged to use the drug . . . I would have to live with that, and that’s not something I want to live with,” Jeck said.
Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said that reasoning — equating writing about a behavior with encouraging it— would preclude students from covering a whole range of topics relevant to the high school population, including drunken driving and sexually transmitted diseases.
“There’s obviously a difference between exposing people to information and exposing them to a drug,” he said. “They didn’t enclose drugs in the publication.”
Martin’s article includes frank descriptions of the drug from several unnamed students — including how it is used. Some described a rush of euphoria and others said they vomited and hurt themselves, suffering injuries “from cracked skulls to cracked teeth,” she wrote.
“I don’t think my article makes it sound good,” she said. And she estimates that a sizable portion of the student body already knows about dabbing.
But, as it turns out, many school administrators had never heard of dabbing. Miller learned about it from Martin’s reporting. Jeck, too, said he learned about it from the very article he decided to prohibit from the school newspaper.
Jeck acknowledged that there was a certain futility in censoring an article that was ultimately published elsewhere. But he still said that the Web — and the extraordinary amount of bad information students have access to because of it — does not mean administrators should stop oversight of student publications.
“We know very well that the kids have access to a thousand times more information than they would in the Falconer newspaper,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we have to be part of that.”
LoMonte sees a missed opportunity.
“It would be so much better to cultivate good news-consumption habits by encouraging reading the newspaper rather than driving eyeballs elsewhere,” he said, especially when elsewhere means Facebook, Twitter or blogs, where the content might not be accountable to the same standards. “There’s no stopping people from becoming informed, so why not keep the conversation inside the tent, where it can be monitored and supervised?”