“This is not just about some locked bathrooms anymore:” Open records requests, allegations of fabrication and threats of a lawsuit follow the media coverage of censorship at the Oshkosh North Star

If you missed Thursday’s post on the Oshkosh school district’s attempt to censor the students at the North Star, force a reporter to give up a confidential source and impose a policy of prior restraint, you can catch the link here.

Once you read the story, if you feel compelled to make your position heard on this topic, please consider contacting any or all of the following people:

  • Oshkosh North Principal Jacquelyn Kiffmeyer: jacquelyn.kiffmeyer@oshkosh.k12.wi.us
  • Oshkosh Superintendent Vickie Cartwright:
    vickie.cartwright@oshkosh.k12.wi.us
  • Barbara Herzog, the school board president:
    herzogb@uwosh.edu

 

If you just want the short version of the situation, try this:

  • Student journalist writes story administrators don’t like
  • Administration censors student publication, demands name of confidential source
  • Student journalist refuses, requests open records to support the story
  • Administration requests $138 and access to the newspaper’s files before processing request
  • Student journalist refuses, goes to school board listening session to discuss this
  • Media gets wind of all this, everything jumps up a notch

That’s about as tight as I can do it.

The school board listening session and the school board meeting that followed allowed multiple people (including me) to talk about how this approach to student media wasn’t in the district’s best interest. Superintendent Vickie Cartwright stated in the meeting that there was no intended quid-pro-quo approach for the public records and that once the article’s author, Brock Doemel, produced the cash, the records were all his. (If you go back to the previous post and reread both of the response letters, I am uncertain as to how that statement jibes with what they sent the students, but at least this was now on the record.)

Doemel and fellow student journalist Tess Fitzhenry went to the admin building on Thursday to seal the deal:

FOIABrock

Doemel also had to go back to school on Thursday to finish off his week of classes and such. He said a lot of people at Oshkosh North supported the efforts he and Fitzhenry were putting forth.

“I was overwhelmed by the support I received from peers, teachers, and faculty on Thursday and Friday,” he said in an email. “Students and staff alike are well aware of the culture of secrecy that exists within the Oshkosh Area School District, and I’m committed to changing that culture for the better, starting with getting to the bottom of this story and ensuring that future student writers can practice journalism without fear of censorship or retribution.”

In the mean time, the story jumped up another notch when Devi Shastri wrote an incredibly detailed story for the USA Today-Wisconsin Network, which includes the Oshkosh Northwestern and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Revelations about this situation included the following:

  • Cartwright said she and North Star adviser Jason Cummings agreed to take the story down because they began “thinking about journalism ethics and guidelines and spoke to another staff member.”
  • Cartwright said Doemel’s characterization of his interactions with Principal Jacquelyn Kiffmeyer were “false,” noting that she had spoken to Kiffmeyer, who is on medical leave. Cartwright was not present during those interactions.
  • The district is operating under a student media policy crafted for it by Neola, a “policy mill,” according to the Student Press Law Center. What makes this even weirder is that the district’s administrative guidelines for student press are exactly the opposite of what the district’s policy states:
    • Administrative guidelines: “No student media, whether non-school-sponsored of official, will be reviewed by school administrators prior to distribution or withheld from distribution,” the 2018 guideline states. “The school assumes no liability for the content of any student publication, and urges all student journalists to recognize that with editorial control comes responsibility, including the responsibility to follow professional journalism standards each school year.”
    • FROM THE DISTRICT POLICY: “All school-sponsored student publications and productions are nonpublic forums. While students may address matters of interest or concern to their readers/viewers, as nonpublic forums, the style and content of the student publications and productions can be regulated for legitimate pedagogical, school-related reasons. School officials shall routinely and systematically review and, if necessary, restrict the style and/or content of all school-sponsored student publications and productions prior to publication/performance in a reasonable manner that is neutral as to the viewpoint of the speaker. Legitimate pedagogical concerns are not confined to academic issues, but include the teaching by example of the shared values of a civilized social order, which consists of not only independence of thought and frankness of expression but also discipline, courtesy/civility, and respect for authority. School officials may further prohibit speech that is grammatically incorrect, poorly written, inadequately researched, biased or prejudiced, vulgar or profane, or unsuitable for immature audiences.”
  • The lawyer for Hans Nelson, the subject of the article that started all this, issued a statement to Shastri, stating the article was “false and defamatory” and that Nelson is considering legal action as a result of the article.
  • Cartwright said the district now believes Doemel doesn’t have a source within the school district who told him anything about Nelson’s situation.

Some of these things seemed a bit odd, so I emailed Doemel and Cartwright a few questions about this. I got this back immediately from Cartwright:

CartwrightRobo

(NOTE: If Cartwright does get back to me, I’ll post her responses on the blog. I did get an email note from an alumnus of Oshkosh North who said he spoke with Cartwright for about an hour the other day regarding this issue. So, the superintendent is around and is discussing the story and the policy, both of which are important aspect of this situation. The alumnus noted that the board is open to reevaluating the policy and that Cartwright will be involved in that during the process. That’s all I know from the district standpoint.)

Doemel did respond to my questions and said he disagreed with the way in which Cartwright explained how the school dealt with the story and also how it treated him.

“Mr. Jason Cummings, our faculty advisor, removed the article after talking with another teacher, who feared Cummings might face discipline for it,” Doemel said in the email “It was not removed, as Cartwright claimed, because Cummings was questioning the ethics of my writing. The Superintendent’s account of how I was treated by Principal Jacquelyn Kiffmeyer is also false, and I’m upset that Dr. Cartwright has not taken more care to investigate my treatment, but instead shrugs it off as if it didn’t affect me.”

After several attempts to get Doemel to roll over on his source, the district appears to have taken the position that no such source exists. According to Shastri’s article the district sees the source issue a “non-issue,” which makes little sense, given the previous statements made regarding the story and its source.

For his part, Doemel said he is standing by his story and he’s upset that the district is essentially calling him a liar.

“The most concerning of Cartwright’s quotes, however, is her sudden, out-of-thin-air assertion that I must not have had a source for my story and made the whole thing up,” he said. “Dr. Cartwright’s rhetoric is especially dangerous in an era where truth has taken a back seat to sensationalism and personal opinion. I won’t let it go unanswered. I’m not just some angry kid with a predisposed hatred for authority. I’m a young man who carefully researched and wrote an important story.”

In response to Nelson’s attorney threatening to sue him, Doemel said he isn’t worried, because the story was factually based and was intended only to inform the school what happened to him. On a personal note, he added that he likes Nelson, but that this issue has grown beyond a single article.

“Mr. Nelson was a highly-respected assistant principal, and I enjoyed his good sense of humor and his leadership over the last couple of years,” he said. “If I had a way to get in touch with Mr. Nelson, I would remind him that this is not just about some locked bathrooms anymore. It’s about poorly-written policy and school district officials’ gross mishandling of the situation.”

 

 

 

One thought on ““This is not just about some locked bathrooms anymore:” Open records requests, allegations of fabrication and threats of a lawsuit follow the media coverage of censorship at the Oshkosh North Star

  1. Elizabeth Frohn Hengst says:

    I go to north we all love and miss Mr Nelson we all want him back the administration in north is a loony bin without him he was nice and respectful to even the worst students and the reason even brock made dosen’t make much sense because the bathrooms have been locked before and nothing came of it (mind you this was my elementary school) if he came back now we’d probably throw a party he was a lot more fair then Mrs.Kiffmeyer and if he punished you or banned something from coming to school he would explain it and Mrs.kiffmeyer would ignore you if you wanted to talk and run away from you in the halls

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