Texas high school censors paper, fires award-winning journalism adviser

After experiencing several instances of administrative censorship, a high school newspaper in Prosper, Texas, learned that its award-winning veteran adviser would not have her contract renewed. The Student Press Law Center learned of the incident and sent a letter to the school district’s superintendent criticizing the high school’s pattern of censorship.

Key Players

Eagle Nation Online is the school newspaper at Prosper High School (PHS) in Prosper, Texas, a small town directly north of Dallas, that began publishing in 2016.

Lori Oglesbee-Petter was a journalism teacher at PHS from May 2016 to May 2018, when her contract came to an end. Oglesbee-Petter advised high school publications in three different states over the course of 34 years and has been involved in the Journalism Education Association (JEA). She has also won pedagogical commendations, being named 2005 Texas Journalism Teacher of the Year and JEA’s 2009 National Yearbook Adviser of the Year. She served on JEA’s executive board for more than a decade.

During Oglesbee-Petter’s short tenure at PHS, her journalism students collectively won more than 175 state and national journalism awards. For example, in April 2018, three staffers from the Eagle Nation Online staff won Gold Key awards from the Quill and Scroll International Journalism Society for their photography work. Four of the paper’s staffers were also selected for the University Interscholastic League (UIL) All State Journalism team, a form of academic competition across Texas.

John Burdett has been the principal at PHS since March 2017. He allegedly criticized the Eagle for publishing articles that were unflattering to the school and not “uplifting” to the community.

The Student Press Law Center (SPLC) is a nonprofit legal assistance agency that focuses on defending the rights of high school and college journalists.

Further Details

The Eagle Nation Online faced at least two incidents of censorship by the PHS administration in the 2017-18 school year. The school district’s policy is that school administrators and trustees retain final editorial authority over school-funded publications, including the Eagle. The board of trustees of Prosper Independent School District (ISD) is predominantly made up of parents of Prosper ISD students, with one former school administrator.

“All publications edited, printed, or distributed in the name of or within the District schools shall be under the control of the school administration and the Board,” reads the PHS prior review policy, according to the SPLC.

In October 2017, Eagle copy editor Isabella Abraham, then a high school junior, published an article discussing a senior class event that had been canceled due to miscommunication between past administrators and Burdett, the principal. The day after the article was published, Burdett told Oglesbee-Petter to remove the story from the site, saying it was not uplifting or accurate, reports the SPLC. According to a letter sent by the paper’s staff to administrators, Burdett also claimed the story painted former Principal Gregory Wright in a negative manner. The Eagle stood by the accuracy of the story and argued it was important to clarify the status of the event for PHS seniors.

In February 2018, then-junior and staff writer Haley Stack authored an editorial criticizing the high school’s decision to remove the novel A Separate Peace from the 10th grade English curriculum. Though no reason was given for the book’s removal, Stack theorized the book’s homoerotic undertones were the impetus.

“Censorship of books is censorship of thinking for yourself,” Stack wrote.

A week later, Burdett asked for the editorial to be removed because of grammatical errors and “a lack of positivity,” according to the SPLC. Eagle staff acknowledged that there were exactly two grammatical errors — an extraneous period and an apostrophe missing from the word “let’s.”

Following the removal of Stack’s article, the paper’s staff was told any story that could be considered controversial, depicts the school negatively, or opposes “community norms” must be sent to administration for prior review before publication. Although they complied with this directive, Eagle staff wrote in an April 2018 letter to the school’s administration that it found the policy unnecessary.

“Since we did not want to be censored again or have any more restrictions, we sent [Burdett] every story that was questionable,” the letter read. “We do not think that Eagle Nation Online will need this kind of prior review next year, with or without our current adviser.”

The letter alluded to the termination of Oglesbee-Petter, which had been announced the previous month. In March 2018, Eagle staff were informed that she would not return as their adviser after the school year concluded. Burdett was not required to explain the decision because Oglesbee-Petter was a temporary staff member, but some Eagle staffers saw the move as retaliatory. According to the terms of her contract, Oglesbee-Petter was not permitted to speak with reporters inquiring about the newspaper’s situation.

In its April letter, the staff petitioned Burdett, the superintendent, and members of the school board to allow Oglesbee-Petter to return. The letter also criticized prior incidents of censorship, among other matters.

“We feel a school newspaper is vital … because a student’s voice when found and used to stand up for their beliefs, can not only make the student body more engaged but can change the school for the better,” the staff wrote.

Eagle staff never received a reply, according to then-junior and associate editor Neha Madhira. However, Madhira recalled Burdett mentioning the letter to her in an April 2018 interview and calling it “false,” according to the SPLC.

In May 2018, Madhira authored an editorial criticizing a team bonding activity Burdett organized in response to school shootings across the country. Burdett blocked the publication of the editorial, saying it was inaccurate and not representative of the opinions of all PHS students.

He subsequently prohibited the publication of any editorials by the Eagle. This policy remained in place as of June 2018.

“Any problem we face that we wanted to write about, we were censored. It’s like he just wanted happy news out there,” Madhira said in an interview with the Dallas News.

“If a story goes against the community norms, I will say no. … That’s part of the reason I was hired … to make sure that what is being published is a fair representation of Prosper High School or Prosper ISD,” Burdett said in a meeting with Madhira, a recording of which was obtained by the Dallas News. “That doesn’t mean we couldn’t publish something controversial.”


SPLC sends a letter to Prosper High School administrators

On May 31, 2018, the SPLC sent a letter to Drew Watkins, the superintendent of the Prosper Independent School District, calling on him to “intervene in the situation” at PHS. The letter was signed by 17 other organizations, including the Journalism Education Association (JEA) and the National Coalition Against Censorship, and expressed the SPLC’s concern over the incidents of censorship at PHS and the dismissal of Oglesbee-Petter.

On June 1, Watkins was injured in an accident while out for a morning run, putting him out of his office for “an undetermined period of time to recover from his injuries,” according to a tweet from the Prosper Press, a local newspaper. Watkins was released from the hospital June 19.

High school reverses course

On August 21, 2018, The Dallas Observer reported that Burdett reversed his policies on the student newspaper’s publishing powers and will let the students write editorials and stories without requiring his final approval regardless of the content. No reasons were given as to why Burdett changed his mind.