Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Small-Town Newspaper Re[thorn]ects Big-City Newspaper Problems

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Small-Town Newspaper Re[thorn]ects Big-City Newspaper Problems

Article excerpt

The story begins nearly three years ago with a fist fight over a teenage romance gone sour that explodes into a nasty brawl and riot needing carloads of police.

Students are arrested and suspended, a teacher is threatened, and residents wonder what is going on at North Hardin High School in Radcliff, down the road from Fort Knox, in Hardin County, population 90,000, in the heartland of Kentucky.

J. Kyle Foster, then a reporter for The News-Enterprise in Elizabethtown, Ky., identified the combatants through interviews with student witnesses and wrote a front-page story.

But Foster met a bureaucratic stone wall when she asked for discipline data at the 2,000-student high school and the rest of the county's school system.

Elizabethtown, the headquarters of the newspaper, provided Foster with everything she asked for, but the rest of Hardin County's school system, in more problematic areas, turned her down.

On July 11, 1996, she filed a Freedom of Information (FOI) suit to get it. The suit demanded a list of suspensions, expulsions, truancy, fighting, harassment, and drug arrests, along with the names of the schools in which they occurred. The paper received the support of the Kentucky attorney general but lost a circuit court decision.

Then last month the News-Enterprise won an appellate court ruling that the Hardin County School system is appealing to the State Supreme Court. Hardin County system says it is appealing because the suit will force it to violate federal privacy laws.

"We would rather be cautious rather than risk divulging the names of the students and their parents," says Lois Gray, superintendent of Hardin County Schools.

But even as the News-Enterprise is being applauded for its precedent-setting open records court victory, it is being criticized for ignoring or burying stories on First Amendment issues at the school system it is suing.

The Hardin County teacher's union says Gray has effectively slowed the flow of negative information to the community by convincing the paper to de-emphasize stories.

"The News-Enterprise prints stories they want to print and they won't print stories the school doesn't want them to print," charges Bill Wooldridge, president of the Hardin County Education Association.

In one case, the union complains that one of its members has been in trouble for openly criticizing her principal at the Meadow View Elementary School in a dispute over finances and nothing has ever been published about it.

Foster, meanwhile, says she "had a fit" after the News-Enterprise buried a story she wrote about the school system's violation of the Kentucky Open Meetings Law.

Michael Anders, the publisher of the newspaper for more than nine years, says his newspaper is not in the business of covering anything up.

"We filed our suit to get the discipline records because we want to know everything that goes on in the Hardin County school district," he explains. "Education is a very important issue in our area.

"I have a great deal of respect for Lois Gray, but I haven't seen the slightest hesitation to hold anything back that might make the superintendent look bad."

Kyle FOSTER'S COMPLAINT

Foster, now a reporter for the Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer-Times, was ecstatic when she learned her 1996 FOI suit against Hardin County had been affirmed by the State Appellate Court.

"I knew we were right," Foster says. "Parents need information on the kind of schools their kids were going to. You can't let people trample over the open records laws."

Foster, an education writer for the News-Enterprise from October 1994 to February 1997, says, however, the newspaper has not always been as concerned about Kentucky's open records laws as it now appears to be.

"I wrote a story in June 1995, the year before I filed the suit, about how a principal at North Hardin High School had been hired without properly informing the public, a violation of the Kentucky Open Records Law," says Foster. …

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