Courtesy of the Student Press Law Center
The theme of Bigelow High School’s 2020-21 yearbook was The Roaring 20s. But it appears officials at the Arkansas school wanted the student record of the events of the tumultuous year to be a little less of a roar and more of a meow.
Before delivering the keepsakes to students earlier this month, school administrators ripped out a two-page spread depicting a timeline of events from the academic year. Among the high/lowlights included were the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, former President Donald Trump’s claims of a rigged election, the Jan. 6 insurrection, and the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is unclear who was behind the decision to excise the pages from the student-designed yearbook, but East End School District Superintendent Heidi Wilson justified the move by citing “community backlash.”
Wilson did not reply to NPR’s requests for comment.
Some students and parents say it’s censorship.
Madison Johnston was in the class that produced the yearbook and was disappointed when she began to hear from other students about the changes after “a group of parents had complained about it being biased.”
The class had been diligent in its reporting, triple-checking the spread and getting it OK’d before it was printed, she told Fox 16.
“They’re censoring something that is facts,” Johnston said.
The Student Press Law Center, a national organization that advocates for the press freedom rights of high school and college journalists, is calling on the superintendent to reprint and distribute the pages that were torn out. In a letter to Wilson, SPLC Executive Director Hadar Harris urged the superintendent to apologize to students, parents and the yearbook staff adviser who resigned following the controversy.
“We are very concerned about ensuring that they’re taking seriously the issue at hand in terms of what they did,” Harris told NPR.
“They ripped the pages out of the yearbook for no clear pedagogical purpose and on the basis of what they said was a community backlash. We don’t see any evidence of that community backlash,” she said, noting that Wilson has not responded to SPLC’s requests.
A freedom of information records request by the Arkansas Times for any evidence related to the so-called community backlash has gone nowhere, according to the newspaper.
“When asked if there were any emails, or perhaps a public meeting where people shared their opposition to the timeline, Wilson simply answered ‘no’ in an email and did not respond to further inquiries,” the paper reported earlier this week.
In an interview with the Arkansas Press Association Publisher Weekly, Megan Clark Walton, who is the former yearbook adviser and also a former journalist, said she feels “burned a bit” by what happened at Bigelow High School.
No one has apologized to her “because district officials don’t believe they did anything wrong,” according to the outlet.
Reflecting on her time as the yearbook adviser and a journalism teacher at the school in central Arkansas, Walton said, “It was my favorite course to teach, and I was able to open kids’ eyes to the world around them. Bigelow is such a tiny, tiny community, and journalism taught them how to look at the world objectively, which I don’t think they get a lot of time at home.”