Family feuds with school district over yearbook picture

Thursday, November 18, 1999

The family of a Minnesota high school student whose yearbook photo was rejected by school administrators because it violated a zero-tolerance policy on weapons has hired a lawyer and contacted the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The photograph, showing senior Samantha Jones sitting atop a howitzer and holding up a U.S. flag in front of a Veterans of Foreign Wars post, was judged by Nevis High School administrators to place too much emphasis on the gun and not enough on the student and, therefore, was found inappropriate.

Nevis High School's zero-tolerance policy prohibits any kind of gun or knife, on school premises, whether in pictures or real life. The policy also disallows water guns.

“We are just saying that the picture doesn't fit in a student yearbook,” Dick Magard, principal of Nevis High School, said. “It's not a memory, and we don't want our students associated with guns.” Magard and the school board gave Samantha Jones the opportunity to have a photo taken by a school photographer. Jones declined and has since hired a photographer of her own.

Magard initially ruled that the picture could not go into the yearbook but agreed to let the school board decide the matter after Sue Jones, Samantha's mother, complained. The school board split on the issue in a 3-3 vote, and the decision fell back to the principal. Magard, who acknowledged that the zero-tolerance policy's prohibition on pictures of guns would probably have to be relaxed if the school had a Junior Reserve Officer Training Course unit, said that enforcing the policy was an issue of consistency.

“It started when a student came in [to take a yearbook picture] with a shotgun and we said 'No, we don't think that is appropriate.' So we took a second look at this picture and [thought] maybe we need to draw the line [somewhere]: no kids with guns.”

Sue Jones sees the controversy over her daughter's picture as an issue of personal expression and has threatened legal action. “It's just a picture — how can a picture hurt you?” Jones asked.

“Other schools around here have pictures of kids with paintball guns [and] shotguns — it's part of the kid,” Sue Jones said. “[Samantha] enlisted in the Army and she has always been patriotic. The cannon is in the picture because that is what she is going to be doing; it is part of her.”

Sue Jones said that she planned to ask the school board to reconsider its decision in January, by which time she hopes elections will have changed the board's makeup and stance on the issue.

John Olson, a member of the Nevis County School Board who voted against allowing the picture, contends that Samantha Jones has had ample opportunity to express herself.

“They have tried to put a patriotic twist on it,” he said. “She was offered another chance to put a picture with the flag in it in the yearbook. In my opinion, she chose the cannon over the flag. I didn't think that was very patriotic. The school has the right to edit what goes into a yearbook. The threat of legal action is just that — a threat.”

Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said that he didn't think the school's policy would survive legal scrutiny.

“Most people who hear about it say, 'That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard,' ” Goodman said. “That's why it is getting so much press attention now. Most judges would probably say, 'No, that is not an educationally reasonable reason.' Students do have First Amendment rights; a school can't just censor something because it feels like it whenever it wants.”

The Supreme Court ruled in 1988 in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that high school officials could exert considerable control over school-sponsored publications if they showed legitimate educational reasons for doing so.

Officials with the Minnesota ACLU could not be reached for comment.