Fort Smith School Board to revise student media policy

by Tina Alvey Dale (tdale@talkbusiness.net) 622 views 

Dr. Doug Brubaker, Fort Smith Public Schools superintendent, told the FSPS board of education at the board’s regular meeting Monday (July 22) that the district will look at revising the student media section of the district’s student polices.

“In April and May of 2019, the district had a student media policy that had last been updated in 1998, which was over 20 years ago. As a result at the time, the district adopted changes based on the most recently updated ASBA model policies that was released in 2018. During the most recent legislative session, there were some changes to education law. One of these was Act 912. We will now engage with student media sponsors to develop rules and regulations consistent with that statue and the guidelines from the ASBA that reflect Act 912,” Brubaker said.

The FSPS board approved new student policies May 20 that included an update to the district’s student publication policy. At the July 8 called board meeting, the board agreed to update the student handbook to reflect the new policies. The problem is the new school publication policy violated state law.

Act 912, signed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson the week of April 8, made several changes to the 1995 Student Publication Act. The law now covers all school-sponsored “media” instead of just “publications,” which allows for protection of blogs, social media postings, online only “newspapers” and videos, according to Rep. Julie Mayberry, R-Hensley, lead sponsor.

While the law, both before and after revision, states that school districts must have rules and regulations in the form of a written student media policy, Act 912 changed language to ensure that “students may exercise their right of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.”

The new student publication policies recently approved by the Fort Smith School Board state all publications supported financially by the school or published in conjunction with a class are considered school-sponsored publications and as such “do not provide a forum for public expression.”

“Such publications, as well as the content of student expression in school-sponsored activities, shall be subject to the editorial control of the District’s administration …,” notes part of the new policy that was recommended by Brubaker’s administration.

In response to questions from Talk Business & Politics about the new policy, the Arkansas Press Association and Mayberry said Fort Smith’s policy is in violation of key aspects of the act.

“The Arkansas General Assembly just this year strengthened the Arkansas Student Publications Act to guarantee a student journalist’s First Amendment right to free expression. Act 912 of 2019 passed overwhelmingly and was signed into law by Gov. Hutchinson,” said Ashley Wimberley, Arkansas Press Association executive director. “It seems Fort Smith’s new policy contradicts Act 912 and its limited exemptions. … This overreaching and unfair new policy is an insult to student journalists and the journalism advisors who teach them.”

Darian Layes, executive director of student services for FSPS, said changes to the policy were based on Arkansas School Boards Association (ASBA) recommendations. The ASBA said the policy Fort Smith passed was not their most recent policy.

“Apparently, they have chosen a previous year’s model,” said Dan Jordan, director of governmental relations with the ASBA. “I don’t know if it was last year’s or one from a previous year, but they did not use the correct policy.”

The ASBA director cleared policy updates in order that policies complied with new laws passed by the Arkansas State Legislature, 119 in all, Jordan said. Those updates were sent out to all districts who subscribe to the ASBA Model Policy Service May 23.

“They were sent to three different people with FSPS,” Jordan said.

However, FSPS approved changes to student policies after a second reading May 20, which would have been prior to receiving the updated student media policy from ASAB. No changes were recommended to the student polices or conveyed to the school board prior to the July 8 approval of the changes to the student handbook.

Brubaker would not confirm or deny that the district received the policy updates May 23, but did tell board members in the meeting that the ASBA did write new policy updates May 22 or 23. Brubaker said all student policies were seeing their first update since 1998, and the process will take time. He said he did not believe there was a full understanding of how big a change was being made from the 2018 policies that were approved in May to what was changed for 2019.

“Now we are going to move forward with the process of updating. The media advisors will come back on contract and be available. … This is a process I believe a number of districts across the state will have to address. … It’s a matter of implementing the law, and that’s what we are going to do,” Brubaker said.

Brubaker said as new updates come out, the administration would need to work with the school board and the student handbook committee to provide updates, which the board also said July 8 could be made throughout the year to the handbook as they were needed since the handbook is now digital.

One area where the FSPS policy violates state law is how the new policy came to be written, said Ashley Wimberley, Arkansas Press Association executive director. The old law and Act 912 state that school media policies should be “developed in conjunction with the student publication media advisors and the appropriate school administrators,” Wimberly said.

FSPS officials said the district’s new policy was written from the ASBA model policy, not from meetings with school media advisors. Brubaker said Monday night the student media advisors being involved in the process were added with the new law. He also said that as updates are put out by ASAB, there would be more work from administration, the school board and the handbook committee to update student policies.

“We are in the process of updating our policies so that we are compliance with the law,” said Susan McFerran, school board president. “Arkansas School Board Association model policies are a good tool for that process.”

Initial subscription to the ASBA Model Policy Service is $3,300 for a three-year period. Renewal subscriptions are $2,850 for three years, the ASAB website states.

“Only through the adoption process can a school board change or replace existing policies. The ASBA policies are meant to be adopted only after review and revision to suit each district,” the site states. “During your subscription, ASBA monitors changes in state and federal laws and the Arkansas Department of Education’s Rules for necessary changes or new policy development.”

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