As the Beaver Countian first reported last week, the district’s student newspaper “The Oracle” has been forbidden from conducting surveys of fellow students after publishing a story that revealed 86% of those questioned admitted to underage drinking — A form of censorship that Frank LoMonte, Executive Director at the Student Press Law Center, says is a violation of Pennsylvania law.
This is the second time in as many months the district has come under fire for violating the free speech rights of its students. Just last month, the ACLU of Pennsylvania threatened to file a lawsuit against the district if it didn’t stop preventing Aaron Brant, who is also running for a seat on the school board, from discussing his candidacy between classes.
“We were never informed that the ACLU contacted the district threatening to take legal action” said board member Betty Heim after the meeting adjourned “I only knew about this whole issue because I read about it on BeaverCountian.com, but that doesn’t surprise me, they keep a lot of secrets from us.”
Along with bringing up concerns about the censorship of the student newspaper, Brant also informed the school board about a survey conducted today by the school district itself. The survey asked among other things, if students have ever used the “withdrawal” method of birth control, how many sexual partners they have had, and what age they were when they first engaged in sexual intercourse. The survey was conducted in coordination with the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
Aaron Brant provided the Beaver Countian with a copy of the survey, which says on its cover “Completing the survey is optional. Whether or not you answer the questions will not affect your grade in this class. If you are not comfortable answering a question, just leave it blank.”Brant said he told the teacher administering the survey he wasn’t comfortable answering any of the questions. That’s when the survey became compulsory according to Brant “She told me if I didn’t fill out the survey I was going to receive a conduct report. I told her I wasn’t answering questions about my sex life, she said I was getting a conduct report and sent me to the principal’s office. He wasn’t in today, so I don’t know what’s going to happen to me tomorrow.”
“This is the first time that we’ve seen this other survey that the school gave” school board member George Bauer told the Beaver Countian “We never approved this. I think it goes way over the line, but you saw for yourself, none of the other board members even wanted to look at it.”
After Brant spoke, school board member Betty Heim asked if any of the other board members wanted to see a copy of the survey. The meeting was abruptly adjourned as the rest of the board members started to gather their belongings to leave, the commotion of shuffling papers and sliding chairs masking Heim’s comments.
The Beaver Countian recorded the meeting over the objections of Rochester Superintendent Carolyn Wilkovich, who at first insisted we needed “written permission prior to the meeting” in order to film it or take photographs — She also questioned if we “got through security” with our equipment. After a discussion with the district’s solicitor, she raised no further objections. Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act guarantees the public’s right to record public meetings of governmental agencies, including the Rochester School Board.
Brant tells the Beaver Countian he’s not discouraged by the board’s reaction to his concerns, or intimidated by the principal’s prohibitions — He intends to begin another survey of the student body for the school newspaper in the near future. The question?
“Do you feel your First Amendment Rights are being violated by the Rochester School District?”
Photographs © John Paul