Students fear rights are being violated after WHS admin pull yearbook pages

These pages in Waverly High School's yearbook will be reprinted without several of the photos.
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - Waverly High School's yearbook was days away from distribution when the school's administration confiscated the books.

The superintendent said a story in them could be misconstrued as a memorial - which would go against school policy.

Now, students said their first amendment rights are being violated.

The story in question is about Waverly High teacher Erin Konecky.

Shiloh Roth, a junior, and another student wrote a story honoring Konecky for being named Mother of the Year, and her efforts to spread awareness for infant death after her son Spencer died.

"We thought it was a big deal, not everyone gets to be Mother of the Year," Roth said. "Then we were all devastated and wanted to fight for it because of all the hard work we put it and we didn't believe it was a memorial."

10/11 NOW talked to Waverly superintendent Cory Worrell on the phone.

He said the Waverly School District has a policy against memorializing deceased students and staff in the yearbooks.

"It isn't a staff member or student, it doesn't make sense to some of us why we'd have to take it out," Roth said.

Worrell said the students are changing the photos included with the story to focus more on Konecky being named Mother of the Year and less on Spencer's death.

Roth said they're having to remove a photo of the Konecky family sitting in the hospital bed, a photo of them praying in the hospital room and a photo of baby feet shown on a condolence card Koncecky designed.

In one of the photos, Konecky's son Spencer is pictured alongside the rest of the family.

Worrell acknowledges the story doesn't fall under their policy against memorials, but said he's worried people would see it as a memorial anyway.

Worrell also said regardless of whether or not the pages fall under the policy against memorials, the yearbook is part of the school's instructional program.

"School administrators determined that pictures of a deceased infant were not appropriate for the school yearbook, regardless of whether or not they constituted a memorial," Worrell said.

An attorney at the Student Press Law Center in Washington D.C. said legal precedent shows a court could find the administration's censorship goes against student's first amendment rights.

"The Supreme Court has said students don't shed their freedom of expression or speech at the schoolhouse gates," Sommer Dean, attorney for SPLC said.

Dean said historically if a school hasn't reviewed a student publication prior to printing, which Worrell said is the case at Waverly, they'd have to prove the publication will disrupt the school environment to be able to legally censor student speech.

Worrell said in an email that situations like this are often case-by-case based and heavily depend on the specific situations.

"When something bears the official imprint of the school, school officials can make determinations regarding what content is permissible based on principles established by the U.S. Supreme Court," Worrell said in an email.

Roth said the students are in contact with the Student Press Law Center but haven't made any decisions about how they will proceed.

Worrell said he'd like the administration to play a bigger part in overseeing the yearbook's production in the future.

He said they didn't know what kind of cost re-printing the pages will incur, but it was necessary because of other problems with the yearbook as well. He said that two students' senior pictures were missing, there were inappropriate language and grammatical errors that needed to fixed.