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Heavy reading

Despite secret vetting of students stories, Lever coverage complete

The saga over student clubs and the Gay-Straight Alliance had student journalists on their toes, and the massive coverage in the Palmer High School newspaper, The Lever, is testament to their gumshoe reporting.

But they were unaware that central administrators and possibly the district's lawyer -- the same man litigating the GSA lawsuit -- may have been reviewing their stories before they went to print. And in one case, a story was altered, without the students' knowledge, to reflect the central administration's perspective.

Between January 2003 and the end of this school year, The Lever devoted considerable space to the issue. Reporters focused mainly on the lawsuit itself, the subsequent club restructuring and a wide variety of student responses.

Jessica Sidman, editor of The Lever during the 2003-2004 school year, said she was aware that the newspaper's faculty sponsor, Todd Hegert, showed Principal Karin Reynolds drafts of articles prior to publication. But she was under the impression that it was "just as a courtesy."

E-mail correspondences between Reynolds and Hegert -- some of them copied to D-11 administrator Lou Valdez and lawyer Stuart Lark -- illustrate the district's actual influence and Hegert's determination to keep his students' stories pure.

On March 4, 2004, Reynolds asked to review drafts of articles "dealing with the ACLU/GSA issue" for the upcoming student newspaper: "As you might imagine, things around this issue are ever-changing, so I want to be sure that your staff is able to provide the most accurate information that is available while being sensitive to the needs of the entire community."

The next day, Hegert agreed to provide drafts of the students' news stories, which were scheduled to run in the March 18 issue of the newspaper. For the first time, the issue over Lark's involvement was mentioned.

"I'm fine with fact checking to ensure accuracy in the stories," Hegert wrote. "As you can probably understand, I do not like the idea of district lawyers reviewing the stories. I don't want them shaping our coverage to the advantage of one side of the case any more than I would want ACLU lawyers editing the stories to their advantage. Not that I can imagine the Lever's coverage making a difference in the outcome of the suit."

A little more than an hour later, Reynolds wrote back, again noting that the intent of the exercise was to assure accuracy: "I must tell you that I believe that our attorneys are honest and fair -- I would be hesitant to share with them when I have questions if I didn't believe that."

A week went by before Reynolds sent another memo to Hegert, this time asking him to "adjust" two paragraphs in a story in accordance with a request from administrator Valdez. The story in question detailed the reclassification of clubs at Palmer and whether the policy would affect other schools.

The requested changes in the story appeared in the newspaper, along with a direct "quote" from Valdez that was not collected during the student reporter's interview but instead was crafted by the district.

Most newspapers do not allow the subjects of their reporting to supply their own quotes or review and rewrite portions of independently reported news stories. In an interview last week, Hegert said he did not know for sure whether anyone other than Reynolds had vetted the stories. But, he pointed out, the altered paragraphs comprised only a small portion of the overall coverage.

Upon learning of the administration's involvement, Sidman said she was disappointed. "It would have been better if we'd known, because then we could have pointed out that it was an official statement." Overall, though, the alteration had little impact on the newspaper's coverage, she said.

In fact, the student newspaper staff received a statewide award from the Colorado Press Association for its sustained coverage of a single topic.

-- Cara DeGette

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