Alterations make for big trouble

High school journalist suspended over changes made in article

ST. JOHN’S SAGA Mitchell St. John during one of his days off. St. John was suspended for two days after his opinion piece was published on Dec. 13.

ST. JOHN’S SAGA Mitchell St. John during one of his days off. St. John was suspended for two days after his opinion piece was published on Dec. 13.

Photo By Tom Angel

It’s safe to say Mitchell St. John has a bit of a rebellious side.

An opinion piece he wrote in the Pleasant Valley High School newspaper The Saga titled, “So, this is life: My tenure at PV,” got the 17-year-old senior kicked out of school for two days, dropped from the newspaper class and forced out as class vice president.

The article, which appeared in the opinion section of the Dec. 13 issue, is a scattered laundry list of incidents involving crashed golf carts, crashed shopping carts and trips to the Principal’s Office.

St. John describes himself as “a little outspoken at times” and gives several anecdotal accounts describing altercations with different teachers. “I made some comment to the extent of ‘sorry to cramp your living style’ and got sent to the principal’s office,” he writes.

The piece describes how he breezed through his classes, most of which, he wrote, gave him “little to no useable knowledge.”

The article ruffled the feathers of some faculty members. However, it wasn’t the contents that got St. John suspended from school, say school officials, but what was added to the story after it had already been edited.

“It’s not so much what was written, but not following the process,” said Pleasant Valley Principal Michael Rupp.

According to school officials, St. John was suspended for “defiance of authority” and “violation of policy.” Saga adviser Cindy Hopkins said she couldn’t go into detail about which policy had been broken because as an educator she is legally forbidden to discuss disciplinary issues.

Hopkins said she was not responsible for St. John’s being suspended or kicked out of school government and that she dealt only with his being dropped from the journalism class.

St. John said school administrators told him disciplinary action was being taken because of a paragraph he added to the article after Hopkins and student Editor-in-Chief Jessica Van Gilder had already looked over it. St. John said he was told by Van Gilder to add the paragraph in order to fill space and that it “was probably the least offensive paragraph in the story.”

In it he writes, “A fight with my journalism adviser about printing this very article has helped me realize a few things. I was the one who decided to live my life this way so what’s the point of apologizing for it later.”

Hopkins contends that not only had other alterations been made in the article, but there also was misinformation.

Van Gilder, who’s worked on The Saga for three years, said she doesn’t recall telling St. John to make any additions and that the version she edited was already laid out on the page and ready to be sent to print. She said she believes changes were made the night of paste-up, right before the paper was re-linked and sent to the printer.

“We definitely did not OK that article,” Van Gilder said, adding that she was surprised to see that version when the paper came out the following week.

Van Gilder said a few expletives snuck through as well. While she said she allowed the word “shit” to remain in the original version because it was part of a movie quote, she normally wouldn’t let words like that pass through.

“We want to be recognized as a professional paper,” Van Gilder said. “And the use of profanity ruins that.”

Hopkins said she leaves the decision whether to print profanity up to the student editors and that the inclusion of a few expletives was not the issue.

She said journalism students at the high school level are given tremendous freedom, but when they don’t act responsibly, she has no choice but to take those freedoms away.

“I am passionate about the rights of student journalists,” she said. “But as an educator I am required to uphold policy.”

Hopkins added that, “A student doesn’t just get dropped for one action.”

Van Gilder said she believes it was simply a lapse of judgment on St. John’s part and that he probably didn’t realize it would cause such a ruckus.

“I don’t think it was intentional. I don’t think he had any bad intentions whatsoever,” she said. “I think it was a mistake.”

St. John said he thought there were overreactions from some of his teachers but that he understood his being ousted from student government, because you “can’t have a vice president that teachers don’t get along with.”

He said the most disappointing part of the whole ordeal was getting kicked off the newspaper staff.

“It was a lot of work," St. John said. "But I like being able to voice my opinion."