Students claim Olympia high school is censoring student-run news outlets

In Olympia, Capital High School student journalists are faced with red-tape, saying their school administrators are silencing them and locking up equipment they've used all year.

KOUG TV, the student news organization, has only been a part of the curriculum since the beginning of the 2021-22 school year.

14-year-old freshman Carli Cockrell said for the first six months of the school year, it was all about getting the hang of things.

Cockrell said the red flags popped in January after a racial slur was made during a basketball game, and they started digging into how the school would handle that issue and other issues like it.

"I like delivering the truth and this is just a way for me to make a difference in the world," Cockrell said.  

As their work shifted from daily announcements to news-gathering, they began getting some pushback, especially after students walked out, taking a stand against racism and discrimination.

"We’re definitely feeling silenced, censored and discouraged," Cockrell said.

However, real pushback came after, Sawyer Conklin, a student journalist, questioned Olympia School District Executive Director of Operations, Frank Wilson, about the lack of soap in their restrooms-- an issue they say had gone nearly three months unfixed after the devious licks TikTok pranks.

"He basically said ‘I don’t know, I was not aware of this problem before today,’" Conklin said, as she recalled the interview.

"As soon as the story went out, it was fixed and that’s when I realized I can make a difference at Capital," Conklin said.

While the issue was fixed, it put their program under attack.

The students say their advisor, Mr. Moore, received an email from Wilson saying: "The gotcha tactic taken by students during the interview process was unfortunate and I do believe it is part of the learning process for them. Based on my experience however, I have reached out to my staff with instructions that they are not to agree to interviews unless they have prior approval from me. I don’t enjoy being a roadblock to the free press, but I cannot afford to place operations staff in a position that may cause them discomfort either personally or professionally, regardless of how innocuous the subject they believe they are being asked to address may seem."

After that interview, student journalists say the censorship began and they say the district cut off their access to bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria staff and other district employees.

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The young journalists say they are also not allowed to tell hard news stories and instead are asked to focus on positive news.

"It’s insane that they have the audacity to do some of these things just so blatantly," said Oscar Pecan, a KOUG TV journalist..

As of June 1, the students have not heard from or seen their advisor.

The issue that’s come up in the past, students say, but this time, it brought forth new rules, including sending their content to an OSD administrator who would then review it and approve its posting.

Additionally, Julian Gabbard, a freshman journalist, says staff have cut their resources even further.

"We don’t have our equipment. We don’t have cameras, tripods, or microphones. We can’t access these things," Gabbard said.

As of June 8, staff were advised of the new measures during a meeting, according to students.  

"They told teachers to stop showing KOUG TV in class," Cockrell said.

The student journalist says these are all clear violations of Senate Bill 5064-- a law that establishes rights for students' freedom of expression-- and have spoken to the Student Press Law Center in Washington D.C. Their attorney is allegedly reaching out to the district.

"They’ve just ignored him about this policy," Pecan said.  

"We’re students were not just going to back off, we’re going to continue to fight for our own rights," Gabbard said.

FOX 13 reached out to the district for comment and they offered this response: "Currently, substitute teachers are providing coverage for the Visual Communications classes. As such, a CHS assistant principal asked students to work through him in sharing student media content with staff, including links to KOUG-TV broadcasts, until supervision can be resumed by a district teacher who has the relevant expertise in the Visual Communications curriculum. CHS administrators are not censoring students but rather ensuring there is supervision by a district employee."

When FOX 13 questioned where the advisor was, the district said they could not disclose personnel matters.

Student journalists say they won't be silenced; all they want is to make sure students voices are heard and be the leaders of change.

"If our stories did not go out anymore, Capital administration will not be held accountable," Conklin said.

"We need students to find their passion, and this is really preventing students from doing that, so that’s a huge problem," Cockrell said.

The young journalist reached out to FOX 13 hoping to get their censorship removed. If not, their next step is attending a board meeting where they can address the issue.

FOX 13 has also reached out to OSD regarding the ongoing issues and we are waiting to hear back.