Kiss, Kiss – Bang, Bang: Yearbooks Need A System

I just saw this today, a gay student in New Jersey bought an ad in his high school yearbook for $150.  The school is blacking out the photos before they distribute the book.  Ouch all around.

I wouldn’t want to be the kid who didn’t get what he paid for.  I wouldn’t want to be the teacher who is surely under pressure, maybe won’t be the yearbook adviser much longer.  I wouldn’t wan to be the district who now has a national scandal on their hands.

But this could all have been avoided with a few simple rules.

1.  When allowing non-staff members to add content to the yearbook, they must sign a contract stating clearly that the adviser, principal and district may remove content seen as lewd, objectionable or illegal as per district policy, state law and national law.

2.  Review all ads with a district representative before publication, so you don’t have to edit out in such a terrible way.  Offer the student a chance to place a different, less objectionable photo.

3.  Have a translator check all ads that are written in a foreign language if you accept ads in languages other than English.  Plus they can check spelling, grammar, punctuation too.

4. Help students, by reviewing the ads yourself when they are turned in to check for “red flags” that you know might upset the district/your principal.

5. Explain to your staff and those who place content in your book, that the yearbook is not like the newspaper.  It is not protected as a forum of public opinion.  It is seen by most schools, administrators and many in the community as a reflection on the school and the community.  Most see it as a PR tool.  Now, if your school has a more journalistic tradition, great.  You are lucky.  But most of us do not have it so good.  Most yearbooks are “supposed” to make the school look as positive as possible and find ways to keep the negative to a minimum.  In more conservative communities, topics like sexuality, drug use and gang violence are strictly taboo in the yearbook.  More progressive communities may not have a problem with it.  You need to learn your community’s values first before you allow this kind of content in the book.  It can get you fired in the most extreme cases, or at least reassigned – maybe remedial 7th grade English?

6.  Remember, this job has more pitfalls than you can easily fit into a single web post.  Dealing with a hostile principal or school board is one of them.  Unless you have a lawyer in the family willing to work pro bono, be careful with land mines in this area.  Talk to your principal and discuss how she/he sees the role of the yearbook.  Talk to faculty members who have been at your school for a long time (10 or more years).  What are the traditions of the yearbook?  What are the values in your community?   The same yearbook will not go over well in San Angelo Texas, River Junction Vermont, Denver Colorado and San Francisco California.  They are all different places.

Most importantly get this set down in writing.  Post it on your school’s web site.  Put the basic rules on your ad contracts.  Make sure your principal will back you up when it comes to pushy parents.  Keep your head and try to remain a professional when dealing with these kinds of hot button issues – most everyone else in the room will be hot under the collar.

Finally, hope and pray (to whomever/whatever you hold dear) that it is never you, but plan for the worst.

Mr. C

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