Mountain View High School administrators are feeling the heat from students, parents and journalism advocates after clashing with students over a controversial story and for making last-minute changes to the journalism program that were announced just a few weeks after the publication of the article.
When Mountain View High students set out to write about the alleged culture of sexual harassment on campus for the Oracle, the school’s student newspaper, they drew harsh warnings of “catastrophic consequences” from school administrators. While students said they were not threatened with any specific disciplinary action if they published the article as written, each of the three student journalists felt pressured to dilute the story.
“Part of the reason (to change the story) was definitely to further protect the identity of both the victims and the perpetrators, but in my opinion, a large part of it also was the pressure from the administration and way they phrased the feedback, using the word ‘catastrophic,’” Oracle writer Myesha Phukan told the Town Crier.
Oracle staff clarified in an article on their website that it was the paper’s “executive decision to remove some identifiable details from the story for legal safety.”
In the days following the publication of the Oracle article on sexual harassment, The Talon, Los Altos High School’s student paper, broke the news that Mountain View High will make major changes to its journalism program that appear to weaken the program overall. The Talon story also detailed the way that Mountain View High administrators, namely principal Kip Glazer, attempted to suppress the reporting process for the article.
As a result, Mountain View High faces wider public scrutiny from local journalism advocates, with many regarding the changes as targeted retaliation to the Oracle story on sexual harassment.
Phukan and fellow Oracle staff strongly maintain that there is no connection between changes to the program and the publication of the sexual harassment article. They have, however, voiced concern that the changes could be detrimental to their newspaper.
Many local residents, from Mountain View High students and parents to advisers for neighboring school journalism programs, are speaking out against what they see as a deliberate attempt to diminish student journalism.
The 2,800-word article published in the April edition of the Oracle included a deep dive into the campus’ culture of sexual harassment, with several detailed accounts of harassment and stalking that occurred on and off campus that were corroborated by screenshots, photos and witness testimony. The piece also contained information about how Mountain View High administrators handle sexual harassment investigations, the effects of experiencing harassment and stalking, and analysis of how the instances of alleged sexual harassment at Mountain View High fit into the larger social context of the #MeToo movement.
There is some criticism from the students interviewed that school administrators did not take appropriate action following reports of harassment referenced in the story, but the authors noted that to the extent of their knowledge, the administration followed all legally required Title IX procedures.
Oracle “in-depth” writers Phukan, Renuka Mungee, Siona Mohan and Hayes Duenow began conducting research and interviews for the story, which was originally intended to focus on the issue of catcalling and unsolicited sexual pictures, in March, but their investigation uncovered more “severe” sexual harassment. Following weeks of interviews and evidence compilation, the team reached out to administrators for comment and was met with “hesitancy,” according to Phukan.
After reporters conducted some tense interviews with administration, Glazer emailed the Oracle team to ask for a draft of the article prior to publication. Upon receiving the draft, Glazer met directly with the in-depth team to share her thoughts on the story as it was. She expressed concern about the privacy of students involved, which the Oracle ultimately agreed with, but she also warned of the “detrimental impact” publishing the story could have on the school community.
According to several Oracle students, Glazer visited the journalism class to emphasize that the role of their job as student journalists was to “uplift the school,” a view Phukan and many others fundamentally disagree with.
“Looking at journalism as something that is meant to paint the school a certain way sets a bad precedent for future generations of journalists,” Phukan said.
Oracle writer and future editor-in-chief Hanna Olson said her concerns are “less related to the sexual harassment article itself and more related to the potential for too much admin involvement in the journalistic process.”
The Intro to Journalism class – which has long been a prerequisite to joining the school’s newspaper – will no longer be offered, according to reports published online by the Oracle and The Talon. Instead, the class will be combined with Publication Design, which has historically prepped students to join the yearbook staff.
Approximately 20 students had already signed up for the course and were told earlier this month that they should contact assistant principal Heather Morelli to choose another elective for next year. No explanation was given to students as to why the course would no longer be offered in the two-sentence email. The email contained no reference to the option to take Publication Design as a pathway to join the Oracle later on. As of May 14, Introduction to Journalism is still included in the Mountain View High 2023-2024 course catalog available on the school’s website.
In addition to the consolidation of the class, current Oracle adviser and English teacher Carla Gomez was informed in late April that she would be replaced as adviser by theater teacher Pancho Morris. Gomez told the Town Crier that Kip Glazer is making the change because Gomez lacks the appropriate Career & Technical Education teaching credential, but that she has been in conversation with the Mountain View Los Altos High School District about obtaining the credential since November.
Gomez took over from longtime Oracle adviser Amy Beare, who held the position for approximately a decade. When Beare began considering retirement, Gomez eagerly inquired about taking over as adviser. In summer 2021, Gomez attended a professional development conference specifically for high school journalism program advisers.
In the following school year, Gomez taught the Oracle course alongside Beare, which made for a more stable transition for both Gomez and students. Getting to closely observe Beare, who molded Mountain View High’s journalism program into what it is today, provided Gomez with a solid foundation to begin teaching the course herself in the 2022-2023 school year.
“It’s very much something I want to continue,” Gomez said in an interview with the Town Crier.
Beyond the staffing changes, Gomez is concerned about whether the journalism program will maintain its quality without the yearlong introductory class in which students learn journalistic writing, ethics and press law. A large component of the introductory course involved Oracle staff members mentoring the junior writers, and it remains to be seen if the relationships will continue with Production Design students.
“It’s unclear to me how the strength of the independent journalism that we’ve had here since 1995 is not going to be disrupted by these changes,” Gomez said. “I’m afraid for the program’s future.”
Despite her unceremonious removal from the position and her desire to continue serving as adviser, Gomez contends that the crux of the issue has little to do with her and more to do with what the students want.
“Because it’s a student-run program, I want the students to be the ones taking the lead in how they respond to these changes in the program,” she said.
When reached for comment, Glazer declined an interview and referred the Town Crier to MVLA district personnel, but previously told The Talon that the staffing changes involved master schedule building, which can be a complicated process to balance among staff credential, student enrollment and the needs of each department.
In an email to the Town Crier, MVLA Superintendent Nellie Meyer cited a “steady decline” in enrollment for the Introduction to Journalism class and an effort to allow Publication Design students to earn credit through a collaboration with Foothill College. Details regarding the staffing switch up were not disclosed in the interest of protecting private employee information.
“Decisions about staff schedules and extra assignments are determined by the principal based on a variety of factors,” Meyer wrote. “The needs and interests of the students are prioritized during this process.”
Oracle students, however, very much feel that they have been left out of the conversation. Multiple sources said that beyond the announcement of the staffing switch and the course cut, little information has been communicated from administrators about the plan for the journalism program going forward.
Students push to save program
Despite support from a staff adviser and receiving credit for the class, the Oracle is a student-run program. With changes coming quickly and without much explanation from administrators, many Oracle students said they are not being listened to when it comes to the fate of their program.
Olson and fellow future editor Krithi Sundar said they were shocked to learn that Gomez would no longer be their adviser and that the introduction class would be eliminated.
“It happened so fast, we didn’t really have time to process,” Sundar said. “It definitely did not leave us a lot of room to be able to change what was happening.”
Next year’s editors do not know how to approach planning when they don’t know what the structure of the classes will look like. When they press administrators with questions, they receive unspecific answers. Questions about the curriculum of Production Design and whether there will continue to be a mentorship component to the program are up in the air.
Oracle students also fear that the stability of the program will be threatened with so many changes at once. Unlike when Gomez took over the program from Beare, there will be no transition period. In addition, Morris is reportedly untenured, meaning he could potentially be let go for any reason, opening the program to further destabilization in the future.
Oracle students are not the only ones upset about the changes to the journalism program. Since the publication of the article in The Talon, members of the wider community have expressed their disapproval of the school’s handling of the sexual harassment article and the changes to the program in online comments, letters to the administration and in person.
Mountain View resident and journalism advisor at Palo Alto High School Paul Kandell, who serves on the board of the Journalism Education Association of Northern California, spoke at the May 8 MVLA Board of Trustees meeting.
“Whether or not the actions impacting the journalism program were the principal’s motivation, her behavior during the production of the article and the timing of this reassignment sends a clear and dangerous message to student journalists,” Kandell said.
Future editor-in-chief Antonio Peeples said community support has been encouraging in their fight to preserve the journalism program.
“It’s been so surprising that we have gotten so much support from the student body and past members and parents,” Peeples said. “The school really does care for student journalism, and with that support we have hope to come to a compromise (with the school administration).”
No matter what changes take place, Olson, Peeples and Sundar believe that the Oracle staff will remain steadfast in their commitment to doing good work.
“In a way, (this situation has) strengthened my love and commitment to journalism,” Olson said.
“No matter what, I think that our writers will stay strong – we really care for each other and we’ll stick through it,” Peeples added. “We will continue to produce something really beneficial to the student body.”
Welcome to the discussion.
Keep it Courteous. Be respectful, truthful, and use no threatening or hateful language.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts and the history behind a news event.
Read our full comments policy: losaltosonline.com/comments