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Of Golf Carts And Student Journalists: Kids Win

The Tide, the student newspaper at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, is a very good paper with a dynamic web site and a dedicated crew of student journalists. But its fare usually runs toward articles on the crush of testing, the expense of AP review books, and the complications of the school's block schedule.

This latest issue of the paper, however, features a strong, well-reported news story on a series of allegations of ethics violations and all-around dumb moves by the school's principal, Moreno Carrasco. Carrasco, the story reported, is facing criticism for spending $2,300 to buy a golf cart so administrators could ride around the sprawling school building, running a side consulting business that was scheduled to hold a for-pay session at Richard Montgomery, and for allegedly plagiarizing from a competitor some of the materials used in his consulting training sessions.

These allegations had been aired in The Washington Post and other media, but the student journalists at the Tide naturally wanted to get the information across to their readers.

Carrasco took an extended sick leave (he's back now) after the allegations surfaced, saying that the charges of improper behavior, which he denied, hurt him "emotionally, personally, and professionally." (The principal said the golf cart was a justifiable expense and his consulting was done on his own time and was therefore ok. He denied any copyright infringement.)

So it was up to the acting principal, Veronica McCall, to stop the Tide from publishing its story, which, in the tradition of blockheaded school administrators trying to quash bad news, she did. The students would not be deterred, however. They appealed McCall's decision to the school system's headquarters, which initially backed up the RM acting principal.

But, as the Examiner newspaper reported, community superintendent Sherry Liebes has reversed herself and sided with the students' right to report the news. "The decision now is that even though we are not in support of the article, we do not want to do anything that would keep the students from exercising their freedom of speech," Liebes told the Examiner. She called the incident a "teachable moment." Ok, fine, call it what you want, just let the kids do their job honestly.

The Tide's student editors prevailed and, to prove their good faith and good judgment, they handled the story adroitly and with sensitivity, giving Carrasco his chance to address all charges and playing the story with discretion.

"It would have been irresponsible of us not to write the story," co-editor-in-chief Katie Smith told the Examiner, and she's absolutely right. Student journalists, like professionals, have no right to suppress stories that might be difficult, embarrassing or hurtful. Their job is simply to report on the key issues and controversies that are changing how people in their community go about their daily lives or that their readers are debating and discussing.

Carrasco, in my experience, is a thoughtful and open man, a principal who in the past has accepted and even welcomed criticism of his school. On my reporting visits to RM, he has been gracious and transparent, allowing me to wander about, talking to students and teachers to get a clear sense of what's happening in the school.

I'd like to think that had Carrasco been on the job when the students sought to publish their story about the investigation of their principal, he'd have allowed them to do their job. The students need to stay on the story, and Carrasco can only bolster his efforts to clear his name if he supports the kids' effort to write it straight and get the facts out.

By Marc Fisher |  April 30, 2008; 8:18 AM ET
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As one of the news editors at The Tide, and one of the writers of the article in question, I was happy to read this column in support of our actions. I was disappointed however, with Mr. Fisher's attitude towards school newspaper, which oddly enough echoed the very sentiments he was trying to criticize. Our newspaper, as any school newspaper, goes far beyond the issues of school testing and block scheduling. By suggesting otherwise, Mr. Fisher inadvertently stated the logic used by many administrations in censoring student press. If he had done a little more looking, Mr. Fisher would have realized that our last issue, for example, also covered the important issues of budget cuts, student protests, and the gun scare at another local high school. And perhaps if he'd done even more research and even read an article he referenced, he would have realized RM doesn't run a block schedule.

Posted by: Upasana Kaku | May 3, 2008 7:23 PM

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