A decades-old tradition of Conestoga High School’s student-run newspaper publishing a “destination map” for departing seniors is in jeopardy after the high school principal determined the map does not meet the school district’s equity policy, according to reports on the matter.
The student newspaper, the Spoke, has published a “destination map” showing where graduating seniors expect to be spending the coming year, whether the graduate is departing for college, a vocational school, a gap year, entering the military, or making any other number of life decisions.
But according to the reports of several First Amendment watchdogs, the school’s principal tried to nix the tradition dating back to the 1960s by telling the paper’s editors the map violated the district’s equity goals.
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According to a letter sent from four nonprofit organizations to the district, the principal “claimed [the map] highlights individuals who can afford more prestigious colleges, and that one student had cried to their guidance counselor out of concern over being judged if their peers saw what college they plan to attend.”
Also, the nonprofits say participation in the map is voluntary. So, if a student would prefer not to share their “destination” information for the map, they’re free to withhold that.
The letter does not make clear if the map has yet been published. However, the Spoke‘s website, when accessed Wednesday afternoon, begins with a pop-up announcement saying, “The Class of 2023 Senior Destinations Map form is out!”, possibly signifying that the administration has changed course.
A request for comment Wednesday afternoon to the district was not returned.
Conestoga High School is the only high school in the Tredyffrin/Easttown school district in Chester County. The entire K–12 district is home to about 6,900 students, while the high school has about 2,300 students, according to a district webpage.
Although it’s not certain exactly which part of the district’s policy was at play, parts of the policy state the district is committed to “[practicing] inclusive, culturally responsive, and anti-racist curriculum and instruction at all grade levels,” and “[eliminating] systemic barriers that result in racial disparities in standardized testing, academic outcomes, and co-curricular participation at all levels.”
The four nonprofits signing on to the letter include the Student Press Law Center, the Journalism Education Association, the Pennsylvania School Press Association, and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.
The letter, dated Tuesday, lays out a timeline of events, saying the controversy started on April 14 when the newspaper’s academic advisor reached out to the principal asking if the Spoke could put the destination map’s survey on a social media tool maintained by the district.
Several days later, Conestoga Principal Dr. Amy Meisinger allegedly told the paper’s editorial staff no school resources at all were to be used in the creation or publication of the map.
“Conestoga should reverse its decision to prohibit The Spoke from publishing the senior destinations map because that pronouncement violates both district policy and state law protecting student journalists’ rights,” the letter said while also citing several precedent-setting cases in constitutional case law.
“While The Spoke is subject to prior review by its advisers, school policy permits advisers to remove content only if it is ‘obscene or libelous’ or ‘would cause a substantial disruption or interference with school activities,’” the letter said.
“This policy tracks with the standard for student expression set out by the Supreme Court of the United States in Tinker v. Des Moines, stating that findings ‘of ‘substantial’ disruption must be based on more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint.’”
According to the nonprofits, the editorial staff of the newspaper debated some changes to the curation methods and publishing style of the map, but ultimately decided to leave it mainly in the same format as in years past.
Last year, a court forced the district to turn over documents related to the district’s training and instruction to its teachers regarding race after a parent in the district filed a federal lawsuit.
UPDATE: This story has been modified from its original version to include the assertion from the nonprofit letter that participation in the destination map is voluntary.
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at firstname.lastname@example.org, or use his encrypted email at email@example.com. @shepherdreports