School's paper's article on thieves causes rift

December 12, 1993|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Staff Writer

The two young thieves were brazen and unrepentant.

" 'The greatest thrill I get is when I'm stealing,' " one Atholton High School student boasted in an interview with Atholton student journalist Michelle Hamby.

Burglary, car break-ins, the sale of stolen goods -- the anonymous Columbia students claim that they have done it all.

In the November issue of the Raider Review, Atholton's student newspaper, the two students brag about their exploits in an article that still has schoolmates talking and some parents complaining about the article's tone.

"I have mixed feelings about it," said Jean Hodges, president of the school's 23-member PTSA. "I don't think it's very well-advised for young journalists to glorify crime."

She said she is not advocating censorship but "would prefer to see some type of balance being drawn between what the criminal does and how the victim feels," Mrs. Hodges said.

The student reporter and the newspaper's editor were not available for comment last week.

But David Vitaglino, the newspaper's faculty adviser, said critics have missed the point of an article that was intended by the newspaper staff to caution students about a serious problem.

"We're not trying to sensationalize anything, that's for sure," he said. "Why would we glorify thievery?"

Howard Blank, a senior and president of Atholton's Student Government Association, rejected suggestions that the story made heroes of the thieves.

"It's not glorifying [the thieves]; it's bringing to light that the problem exists," he said.

The article, which ran on the front page of the 1,000-circulation school paper, says that guns, drugs and loot stolen from automobiles circulate through the halls of Atholton.

It quotes the pair of anonymous thieves on the thrill they say they get from stealing and their lack of remorse.

" 'I will never stop stealing as long as I get a natural high,' " one student is quoted as saying. " 'The greatest thrill I get is when I'm stealing. Stealing is the greatest thrill in the world. Nothing tops it!' "

At another point in the article, one of the students says, " 'We are too good to get caught.' "

Since the article appeared last month, it has been a hot topic of conversation among members of the school's PTSA.

Janice Gottsman, the PTSA's treasurer, was disturbed by the article's tone and plans to write the newspaper to express her dissatisfaction.

"It left you with the impression that the thieves were great," she said, adding that the paper should have included a disclaimer saying that it doesn't condone the thieves' activities.

Atholton's principal, Scott Pfeifer, defended the story, saying it was intended to alert the 1,200-member student body to the crime problem, not to glorify the thieves.

"Theft is an issue in our society, and it's an issue here," the principal said.

Last year, he noted, someone stole his favorite overcoat from the school during a night meeting. "I couldn't believe it," Mr. Pfeifer said.

He estimated that Atholton logs about 30 thefts each year.

"It almost sends a chill up your spine" to know that the thieves interviewed attend Atholton, he said.

Mr. Pfeifer conceded that if he had written the newspaper article, he would have included comments from thieves who had gotten caught, giving a different perspective.

But he added, "I would never censor students," who he said are learning journalistic ethics by working on the newspaper.

Mr. Vitaglino agreed, saying the article has taught the students that newspapers receive praise and criticism.

"It reinforces the idea that what you put into print is really meaningful," he said.

Student reactions to the article were mixed.

Istar Mitchell, an 11th-grader, said many students hadn't realized the extent of student theft.

The two thieves, she said, seemed "kind of stupid and immature. Anyone in their right mind knows that's not what it's about. You can get caught."

"I thought it was a good article," said Noosha Haghani, a 10th-grader. "It stated the problem real well."

But she was critical of the "greatest thrill" quote. "It looks like something to be proud of," she said.

Brian Abell, a ninth-grader who is taking an introduction to journalism class, said he doesn't think the story was necessary but nevertheless found it educational.

"I couldn't believe how many people are actually stealing, or at least admitted to stealing," he said. "That's the amazing thing."

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