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At Va. high school, a fight over photos of a pregnant teen in the yearbook

Hannah Talbert, 17, smiles as nurse practitioner Jennifer Schmidt examines her 6-month-old son, Logan, at the Pediatric Group in Springfield, Va. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)

When Anderson Bonilla became editor in chief of the yearbook at his Virginia high school, he decided he wanted to show student life as it really is instead of the glossy, idealized version of high school so often memorialized.

There is a feature about Mount Vernon High School’s immigrant students, and another showing classmates who are learning English. There is a page that gives tips on how to help students cope with grief after losing a friend. And there are two full pages dedicated to showing the lives of teenage mothers who attend the school.

“We want to show the real world of what Mount Vernon is,” said Bonilla. He made the theme of the Surveyor “Where we really live.”

“We wanted to report something worth knowing,” he said.

But a photo of one of the pregnant teens baring her stomach has ignited a fight between student leaders who want to show “the real world” and school officials worried about how it might be viewed by students later in life.

According to Bonilla, Principal Esther Manns has said she will not allow the photos of Hannah Talbert, a junior at the school, to be featured in the yearbook.

Manns did not respond to requests for comment, but in a statement, a school spokesman said that Manns “raised concerns” about some photos and asked for students to make sure they had permission to run them. She has not made any final decisions, spokesman John Torre said.

Talbert took a series of self-portraits and posted them on Instagram. She initially did not know that her photos would be in the yearbook, but after she learned about the plan, she signed off. She said she is proud to be a teen mother balancing the care of a 6-month-old with a full load of International Baccalaureate courses.

“I’m going to buy a yearbook, and me having a baby was a big part of my life,” said Talbert, who recently turned 17.

“I’m kind of disappointed that the school wanted to take it out,” said her father, Mac Talbert. He believes that showing his daughter in the yearbook could make other young women who find themselves in similar circumstances feel less alone. “Hannah’s not the only kid who has had to face this. She’s taking it head-on.”

The case pits the First Amendment rights of high school students against the concerns of administrators who worry about the long-term impact of the photos, especially in the context of sensitive issues, including teenage pregnancy.

Bonilla said he left his meeting with the principal believing that she had decided the photos of Talbert would not appear in the yearbook. She did not, however, submit any written decision on the pictures. Under the school district’s policies, students can appeal a decision in writing.

Bonilla also said he believes that the students are on firm ground in publishing the photos. In the U.S. Supreme Court case Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, justices ruled that principals could censor articles on such sensitive subjects as pregnancy and divorce in student publications since the publication carries the "imprimatur" of the school.

But district policy spells out that principals can censor only material that they believe will cause a disruption or that is “harmful to juveniles. ”

Bonilla included the photo spread in part to give teen mothers a voice.

“We are actually giving a realistic view of what these girls go through,” Bonilla said. “She’s still here. She’s getting her education. That’s what we’re trying to show the school.”

Having a child and attending high school is not easy, Talbert said. She rises before many of her classmates to get her son ready for day care and has to keep an eye on him while she does homework. She spent part of her 17th birthday at the pediatrician’s office with him.

She is not ashamed to be a teen mother and, with financial support and heavy-duty babysitting help from her parents, she plans to pursue her dream of attending Penn State University and becoming a surgeon. And she wants other girls who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant to know their lives aren’t over.

“I don’t think I’ll regret it,” Talbert said of appearing in the yearbook. “That would be like saying I regret having my son, and I don’t.”