MCPS fears the nipple

Willard students defend photos as principal is suspended

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Officials with Missoula County Public Schools didn’t talk to the journalism students at Willard Alternative High School before yanking copies of their newspaper from the racks.

If they had, the officials would have heard that the bare breasts pictured in the January issue of the Willard Wire were the culmination of months of planning by a newspaper staff determined to change the way their peers treat women. They would have heard, too, that the papers they were confiscating meant more to the troubled teens than any classroom.

“This paper is the only thing that’s kept me going and pushed me to graduate,” says Kylie Hoedel, the Wire’s coeditor. “I love this paper, I care about this paper more than anything.”

Instead, the students say administrators at another high school where the Wire is distributed pulled them into an office and scolded them for crossing a line. When someone asked if the principal had read the accompanying article, he said he hadn’t, but added, “I’m sure it’s wonderful,” according to Wire photojournalist Sarah Donald.

District administrators “recalled” the publication a week after its printing when they discovered the cover contained an image of six bare-breasted individuals, including a young man and a pregnant woman, with red dots over their nipples. Another photo of two individuals with exposed nipples accompanied a feature column inside the paper.
Missoula County Public Schools Superintendent Mark Thane says images of bare breasts in the January issue of the Willard Wire violate district policy by causing a disruption of the school. Students say the images, which accompanied an opinion column about the sexualization of female breasts, were meant to challenge readers' assumptions. - PHOTO BY DEREK BROUWER
  • Photo by Derek Brouwer
  • Missoula County Public Schools Superintendent Mark Thane says images of bare breasts in the January issue of the Willard Wire violate district policy by causing a disruption of the school. Students say the images, which accompanied an opinion column about the sexualization of female breasts, were meant to challenge readers' assumptions.

After investigating, MCPS Superintendent Mark Thane announced Feb. 1 the images, as well as a sexually explicit reference in a related Q&A, violated district policy governing student publications. Thane says while the article written by Chase Boehmler supporting the “Free the Nipple” movement has “great value,” the images were deemed to violate a policy clause barring material that may “cause a substantial disruption of the school.”

In addition to pulling papers, Thane issued a reprimand to the students’ journalism instructor and suspended Willard Principal Jane Bennett for three days. “The students certainly should have received some guidance and feedback from the staff,” he says.

Students say that’s exactly what their teachers did, by putting the responsibility on them to vet their controversial project. Hoedel says the paper’s editorial team spent hours researching school codes of conduct, local ordinances and journalistic codes of ethics before deciding to run the photos. They typed up confidentiality and liability agreements for the photo subjects, ensuring each was at least 18 years old and not a district student. And they composed the photos for impact while trying to eschew sensationalism.

“We meant it as a good, informative thing, almost like picking up a National Geographic, not a Playboy,” Hoedel says. “We were trying to make people think with that.”

Such has always been the Wire way, coeditor Keaton Alexander adds. He says the students take pride in the paper’s tradition of not shying away from edgy ideas and serious topics. Alongside Boehmler’s piece, the latest issue featured a column on going braless, personal essays on depression and slut-shaming, and articles on animal cruelty and sexual abuse.

“I feel the role of media is to target societal ills and try to reroute the way people see social doctrine,” Alexander says. “Just because we’re this high school newspaper doesn’t mean we can’t do that.”

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