Student journalists in Indiana prevented from writing about sexual assault
First posted February 7, 2019 6:39pm EST
Last updated July 10, 2020 1:01pm EDT
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When, in 2018, a Plainfield High School student was accused of sexually assaulting other students, administrators at the school prevented the school magazine from covering the story, prompting accusations of censorship.
Plainfield High School (PHS) is a public high school of roughly 1,600 students in Plainfield, Indiana. The current principal is Melvin Siefert.
The Quaker Shaker is the high school’s monthly magazine, which publishes student-written content. The magazine has a faculty adviser, Michelle Burress, but is otherwise student-run.
Kyra Howard was a senior at PHS at the time of the incident; she graduated early from PHS in December 2018. A writer for the Quaker Shaker, she was told by administrators that she would not be permitted to cover the sexual assault story.
Levi Stewart was the PHS student arrested on two counts of felony rape Sept. 6, 2018. He has since been released on $5,000 bond.
On Aug. 20, 2018, Plainfield authorities began to investigate PHS student Stewart in connection with multiple sexual assault allegations. The incidents reportedly occurred at a community park, but it was a few weeks before local news outlets began reporting on the story. Once they did, however, the news eventually spread to the students at PHS.
Howard started investigating the incident around this time but was quickly shut down by school administrators, who told her that it was too sensitive a topic for a student publication to cover. In turn, Howard proposed a compromise: The Quaker Shaker would publish articles about preventing sexual assault at their school in lieu of the sexual assault allegations surrounding Stewart. But administrators rejected this offer, according to Howard, another PHS student, and a PHS parent who all commented to BuzzFeed News. Instead, the school continued to block Howard and the Quaker Shaker from writing anything on the topic.
The administration seemed more interested in how the school is perceived by the community than stopping sexual assault, Howard told BuzzFeed News.
Case moves forward without student press coverage
Howard, in compliance with the school’s demands, has published nothing on the charges against Stewart. She elected this route mainly to protect Burress, the magazine’s faculty adviser, from potential administration backlash; Burress had faced scrutiny in 2017 when the magazine published an article on dating in high school that made parents and administrators uncomfortable. Meanwhile, Stewart pleaded not guilty to all charges and is scheduled for trial in March 2019. PHS students will still be barred from covering the case. The administration is able to enforce this ban because the Quaker Shaker staff uses PHS space and equipment to produce the magazine, even though the school no longer funds the publication itself.
In a comment, a Plainfield district spokesperson said she was uncertain whether “students were forbidden from writing stories about the case or about sexual assault generally,” according to BuzzFeed News. In response to other requests for information surrounding the limitations placed on the Quaker Shaker, PHS administrators offered no additional details or comments.