By Clark Fair
The dichotomy was painfully obvious. In the Nov. 22 and Nov. 25, 1969, editions of the then-tri-weekly Cheechako News, readers garnered polar-opposite impressions of life at Kenai Central High School.
On the positive side were four articles: 1, KCHS students Dave Carey, Rebecca Keith and Martin Walther were selected as Outstanding Teenagers of America for 1970 by the Outstanding American Foundation. 2, The Junior Miss pageant was held at KCHS and featured a number of talented, intelligent and attractive young women. In the next issue of the paper, it was announced that Kathy Vasilie (now Foster) of KCHS was the winner. 3, KCHS students had held a school “hootenanny” to collect canned goods to distribute to needy families at Thanksgiving. 4, The National Honor Society held an induction ceremony at KCHS and welcomed 11 new members to its service organization.
All this happy news, however, could scarcely counter the growing concern over the spread of drugs at the high school and the angry rhetoric being spouted by those trying to do something about the problem.
A newcomer to the central peninsula’s first newspaper at this time would have gotten a first inkling of the situation from an inside-page story that might seem initially to have nothing to do with KCHS. In fact, it was about censorship in the city of Kenai. “City Clamps Lid on Release of News Items,” blared the headline, and the accompanying article went on to quote from a new city policy on news releases.
Henceforth, it said, all news releases would come from the city manager’s office, except in an emergency. All members of the press would be referred directly to the office of the city manager. No city employee would provide information of any kind without first gaining the city manager’s approval. Information for public release would be provided inside the city manager’s office or somewhere else with the city manager present. Releases not covered by established policy would be referred to the Kenai City Council for a determination. And on and on.
The city was cracking down. Cheechako publisher Loren Stewart used his Page 2 editorial in that same edition to give his version of the reason why.
According to Stewart, the city’s new information-distribution memorandum comprised “the most severe, restrictive and, incidentally, the most unconstitutional, news censorship policy” that he had ever seen. Furthermore, he said, the new policy was a ridiculous overreaction to an embarrassment related to attempts to stop drug abuse at KCHS.
In one lengthy sentence, Stewart — seldom one to mince words — started to explain: “The school board, the P.T.A. and the community, after ten years of neglect of, and the covering up of, the very real narcotics problem in the Kenai schools, concluded that, after being spurred into action by new police chief Lloyd Heffner, that something must be done about the juvenile dope problem.”
What they did, he said, was hurry into the creation of a bad policy.
Actually, he called the new policy “very weak” and “watered down.” He said it was objected to and “deservedly” criticized by several board members, by the police chief, by Stewart himself, and by members of the public — and was passed anyway.
As the policy came under greater scrutiny and was being reconsidered, a few public servants were among the citizens speaking out against the policy, and some of those public servants implied that the drug problem was worse than anyone wanted to admit. They said it was time to bring the problem into the open, to face it, to attack it, and to take care of it.
The office of the city manager was not pleased.
Ironically, the city was in the midst of bringing in a new city manager, Fred W. Baxter, who arrived in town early the following month to start his new job. Baxter was replacing James W. (Bill) Harrison, who had resigned a few months earlier.
But the job-juggling didn’t deter the muzzling attempt, and Stewart ended his 11-paragraph rant with a sarcastic jab: “We would like to ask the City of Kenai’s department heads and employees what they think of this new policy, but of course they would have to submit their opinions in writing to the City Council for approval.”
To make sense of such ire, one would have to travel back in time to earlier that November and listen to the good intentions of school board members as they debated the establishment of a policy that board members hoped would begin to rid their schools of drugs — especially narcotics.
On Nov. 3, the school board adopted a new policy — stating, in part, that any teacher who observed “abnormal behavior” in a student should take that student to the principal, who would then take the student to a doctor for professional help and also alert the student’s parent — but board members were hardly resolute in their support. In fact, some of them complained vigorously.
Board member Jerry Near said that the policy was weak because, in part, its rigidity gave the board no latitude to make decisions on a case-by-case basis. He added that he had visited the high school on the day of the meeting and had talked to a number of students who felt that the problem was not so severe and that the whole issue was being overblown.
Board member and clerk Dolly Farnsworth agreed with Near. She wanted school authorities to have more power before a student was placed into custody.
And board president Ed Hollier went even further: He said the policy was fine for “extreme cases,” but he argued that it didn’t really deal with the drug-abuse problem at all. He thought the board was making a mistake in attacking only the symptoms of the problem and not the root cause.
In the face of community comment that focused primarily on the drug problem lying more with the “community” of the central peninsula than simply the school itself, the board’s secretary-treasurer, Karen Hornaday, made a motion that an action committee be formed to reconsider and work on the policy. And the motion passed.
But with the new policy in effect until the committee could suggest changes and the board meeting again on Nov. 17, people began to talk, complain and worry. The talking upset city officials and resulted in the news-dissemination restrictions.
In the end, city policy was relaxed because of public pressure, and some ridicule.
In the end, a district attorney made a presentation to the school board concerning drug-fighting steps that could and could not be legally taken.
In the end, the school board policy was modified to be more in line with state law.
In the end, life went on at KCHS, for better or worse.
And for the next 42 years, the war on drugs in the nation’s schools has continued to make headlines, as have the battles over censorship.