We worked in Manhattan Theater Lab High School from March to June, 2012, with excellent results. A group of about 12 students met during their lunch hour (40 minutes actually) twice a week, with great support from faculty advisor Joann Marianni. Sadly, the school has been ordered closed by the Department of Education. The students quickly tackled a number of serious issues, and wrote articles on a wide variety of subjects, from art exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum to book reviews, fashion trends, the school talent show, and odd facts about the history of the Titanic.
What? No Lockers?
One of the longstanding issues facing students at MTL was the school’s lack of lockers, which caused students to carry around their books and jackets from room to room. (Click on the cover for the complete issue.)
A thorny crisis.
One morning at the end of May, several journalism staff members told us, uncomfortably, that a man they couldn’t identify had been standing outside the school building, showing students a photo of a woman and asking if she taught at their school. The next day, this was on the front page of the New York Post:
The entire school community was stunned by sensational news coverage that claimed to show one of their teachers in the lap of a student after hours. It was a prime teachable moment, perfect for discussing the news value of such a photograph and the kind of display the editors gave it. But the journalism staff also had to face the question of taking action: whether to cover this incident, and if so, how?
The unidentified snoop turned out to be from the Post, and students confused about their legal rights were being chased by reporters pestering them with questions as they left the building. From TV the hounders came too, as the story spread. The MTL journalism staff stopped what it was working on to have a long, soul-searching conversation.
To do or not to do?
Some argued to do nothing: the school year was almost ending, students had state Regents exams to worry about, and with each passing day the scandal was receding anyway. Others, more irate at what felt like a violation of their private space, debated who was more at fault, student or teacher or press. The teacher put the issue into the context of a long and seemingly unending debate in the education profession over the appropriate boundaries of a student-teacher relationship. It extended to bosses and workers, too, to priests and congregants, doctors and patients. From a journalistic point of view, we couldn’t even be certain that the woman in the photograph was the teacher that the paper claimed it was, since the accused woman had denied it was her.
The consensus: we had an obligation to acknowledge the tension and do something to address the community’s anxiety, even as it seemed to be fading a bit. If the school newspaper didn’t do it, who would? The principal had canceled a town meeting she had scheduled when the news broke, and even that was to be for only part of the student body.
Should we try to follow the story? Did we have the resources and expertise to do a thorough enough job of that, and make the judgments we needed to make? No. What could we offer in good conscience? Reporting on the anxiety itself: the ways a school community could process trauma of this kind; we could look at the debate over student-teacher relationships; we could tell students they had the right to tell any reporter where to go, at any time.
We decided to mention the supposed incident only briefly. The teacher had been suspended. The Department of Education authorities were carrying out their investigation. They were doing their work; and we would do ours.
Click on the cover above for the full issue.