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Students win fight to air banned broadcasts

April 5, 2006

NEW JERSEY -- The first time this year that administrators censored Columbia High School's student-produced cable channel, they nixed public service announcements in February that portrayed the school as dilapidated and dirty.

The second time administrators tried to silence the Columbia Cable Network, a student-run program that airs on the local cable channel, was during Black History Month when the principal deemed a student-produced documentary to be ''too divisive,'' students said.

After a petition, several meetings with administrators, an appeal to the school board and two walkouts to protest administrators' actions, both videos were aired yesterday.

Censorship or miscommunication?

In October, Columbia Cable Network began airing anti-littering public service announcements that featured unflattering shots of the school such as the green, scummy swimming pool, empty cans littering the dingy hallways and graffiti-covered walls, said Frank Mullin, CCN faculty adviser.

Months later, Mullin said a school contract worker came to the CCN classroom to request the tapes. Mullin said the worker told him the district's business administrator, Karla Milanetti, wanted to review the tapes after she received a call from a parent who was shocked by the condition of the school.

Milanetti did not return calls seeking comment.

A few days later, the assistant principal of the school informed Mullin that District Superintendent Peter Horoschak wanted CCN to ''immediately cease to air and produce anything of this nature,'' according to Mullin.

Horoschak also did not respond to requests for comment.

Jared Boyer, a student and CCN crewmember, said when the staff tried to reach administrators, they were not given straight answers and were left wondering why their littering segments were being squelched without explanation.

He said he thought the tapes were deemed inappropriate because administrators wanted to hide from parents that the school was run-down.

''They're not doing anything about the condition of the school, they know they're not and they don't want the parents to find out,'' Boyer said.

Ellen Bass, the school district's attorney, said the ''elegant but very old'' school is in need of repair and that the district does its best to keep up with it. She said she thought the concern the business administrator had was that some areas highlighted in the video underwent repairs after filming. She did not know, specifically, what repairs had been made.

''There was a feeling from the administration that the pieces the kids produced were not entirely balanced,'' Bass said.

Bass said the school, which has a newspaper, a teen magazine and the award-winning CCN, does not ''believe in censorship.''

''I think what happened here was miscommunication,'' Bass said.

Boyer started a petition to protest the banning of the tapes and managed to get 1,255 signatures in three school days, he said.

Documentary canned

Aside from being told not to air the littering tapes, the staff was also getting flack from administrators about a documentary the station planned to air for Black History Month. The documentary was made by a student and compared the Black Panther movement of the 1960s to the early 1990s hip-hop movement.

The video was going to be part of a Black History Month assembly that CCN would broadcast. According to Mullin, Principal Renee Pollack told students the video could not air because it would be ''too divisive.'' Another student-produced video about the Million Man March was also shot down by administrators, Mullin said.

In place of the two videos, Pollack called several CCN staff members to her office and handed them a script she wanted them to read on air, Boyer said. The students complied and did a broadcast on Feb. 28 featuring a student who performed a monologue about a father who walked out on his family after his wife cheated on him.

The monologue was introduced as being representative of ''the common black struggle,'' said student Melissa Montalvo,

Following the monologue was a Black History Month education video that was, ''so second grade,'' said Montalvo, who is a senior and president of a school club honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.

She said students were upset by the presentation and frustrated with their principal.

''It's a stereotype and I would think as a professional leader, she would not have displayed that for Black History Month,'' Montalvo said.

Montalvo said she met with Pollack and told her, ''This program does not celebrate our heritage. It's disgusting.''

Pollack did not return calls seeking comment, but school officials agreed the Feb. 28 Black History Month presentation was a disappointment.

''The Columbia High School community was not happy with it,'' said Bass, the district's attorney.

Following the presentation, students staged a walkout to call for the resignation of the principal and the superintendent, Mullin said. Students again walked out of school in protest last week.

On the air at last

At its March 6 meeting, the South Orange and Maplewood Board of Education approved the public service announcement and the student-produced video intended for the Black History Month assembly.

''The board saw nothing wrong with them,'' Mullin said.

At its March 20 meeting, the board called for a do-over of the botched Black History Month celebration, Mullin said.

''One thing that makes me very proud of this district is if we mess up, we set it straight,'' Bass said.

The littering videos, in their original form, are once again being broadcast, Mullin said.

And students finally watched the Black Panther/Hip-hop documentary and the Million Man March video in a Black History Month assembly yesterday.

By several accounts from school officials, the documentaries were so good ''you could hear a pin drop.''

--by Emily Walker, SPLC staff writer

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© 2006 Student Press Law Center

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