The teenagers’ newspaper story started with a simple question: Why had a well-liked history teacher at their high school been missing from campus? Was there a medical issue, or something else?
Conor Spahr, 18, a senior at Herriman High School and a news editor at its newspaper, the Herriman Telegraph, decided to find out. There were rumors floating around, but he and the paper’s editor in chief, Max Gordon, 17, wanted to know what really happened.
Spahr started interviewing students and teachers at the public high school of about 2,600 on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, and sending out requests for public records. The journalists soon learned the teacher had been dismissed, they said. Further digging led them to report that the teacher’s dismissal was related to alleged misconduct.
“Herriman High Teacher Fired For Misconduct,” read the headline when the story dropped last Thursday after more than a month and a half of reporting.
The reactions were swift, the two journalists said.
The website for the Telegraph, which normally receives about 10 page views a day, shot up to about 800. Some local news outlets, which the two high-schoolers say they had alerted as they were readying their story, published reports that appeared to corroborate key aspects of it: The police and the State Board of Education were investigating the teacher after a complaint from a parent that he had allegedly sent a student inappropriate messages, according to multiple local news reports.
But Spahr and Gordon woke up Friday morning to find their story had been deleted from the newspaper’s website and their status as site administrators revoked, they said. Within a few hours, the whole site was taken down at the behest of the school’s leadership.
“It’s not completely surprising,” Spahr said. “Throughout our investigative process, interviewing vice principals and others, it’s all been sort of closed off, they’ve been very distant from us.”
The two developed a plan: They quickly went to work creating a website of their own for the story. They bought a domain for about $34 and enlisted other designers at the newspaper to help them pull it together. By Sunday they had a new site up with the slogan: “Student Run. No Censorship.” They called it the Herriman Telegram and republished their story. That too drew a round of news coverage.
School district spokesman Scott Iddings did not comment on the allegations outlined by the student journalists in their story and declined to answer questions about the piece that had been taken down.
“Jordan School District encourages thought-provoking, informative and accurate reporting of all stories in our school newspapers,” read a statement he distributed.
Another district spokeswoman, Sandra Riesgraf, told the Salt Lake Tribune that as the publisher of the student newspaper “we have to watch out for students.”
“I think they know, legally, that there’s got to be some oversight of that newspaper,” she said.
Spahr and Gordon stand by their reporting.
They say they had shown the story to the newspaper’s faculty adviser, as well as Richard Price, a vice principal at the school, who they said suggested some tweaks that they then made, but did not point out any factual inaccuracies.
“All of that negative attention on the school I think caused them to have a knee-jerk reaction and censor the website,” Gordon said. “We believed that if there were any inaccuracies in an article there’s no reason the vice principal wouldn’t have had us make those changes right then and there.”
Price did not respond to a request for comment.
The story by Spahr and Gordon reported other details that cast a negative light on the school district.
The students say the reaction to their story has been overwhelmingly positive.
“Other students congratulated us, and we’ve had so much teacher support, especially in the English department,” Gordon said. “The only negative feedback we’ve gotten is from a small subset of the school that really loved [the teacher] and doesn’t want to believe what we wrote about.”
The Utah Headliners chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists noted that precedent from a 1980s Supreme Court case, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, likely gave the school legal cover to censor its site. But the SPJ chapter said that it supported the students’ right to publish and that the school’s decision had likely backfired.
“It teaches students that chasing their curiosity and attempting to confirm information are futile and that student voices do not count,” the group said, according to KUTV 2.
It cited the words of Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black from the 1970s that the “press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”
“The Jordan School District should take those words to heart and allow the Herriman Telegraph to publish,” it said.
Spahr and Gordon said they were approached by eight to 10 people with stories about the teacher since the story was published.
The school newspaper’s website has since been put back up, without their story.
Spahr and Gordon have set up a digital petition calling for “the end of censorship of the Herriman High Telegraph.”
“The Telegraph wants its website back. It wants its social media back. It wants to be able to publish meaningful articles without a power hungry administration over its head,” the petition reads.
In the meantime, the website they set up, the Telegram, may end up being a long-term venture, they said. Spahr and Gordon, who are waiting to hear back from colleges they applied to, said they have heard about other student journalists who have experienced similar problems, and they want their outlet to be the remedy. The two said they have been taking applications for students from neighboring schools to contribute work to it.
“We’ve gotten really energized from the outpouring of support from our community,” Spahr said. “So I think we’re going to be following up on more hard hitting stories in the future.”