Principal: Yearbook brouhaha has been blown out of proportion

Published 5:00 am Wednesday, April 28, 2004

WESSON — An objectionable picture on the cover of the WessonAttendance Center yearbook has sparked a controversy among parentsand students and at least two students have been suspended.

Principal Billy Britt downplayed the controversy that hasstemmed from the yearbook cover photo, which shows a student makingan obscene gesture.

“There’s just been an issue made about a problem that doesn’texist,” Britt said. “The yearbook had a picture that we felt wasunacceptable and did not live up to our standards, so it was helduntil it could be corrected.”

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The yearbooks were delivered to students during first periodclasses last Thursday. School officials, though, discovered theobjectionable picture later and collected the yearbooks duringsixth period.

Because many students had already had their yearbooks signed byclassmates, officials took measures to ensure the students wouldreceive the same yearbook they handed in, Britt said.

Since that time, the student making the gesture and theyearbook’s editor-in-chief have been suspended. How the situationwas handled has sparked allegations from parents and students ofimproper conduct by the school’s principal.

Elliott Bell, 18, started a three-day out of school suspensionTuesday for his actions on picture day.

The cover picture shows the school’s senior class at a pool onsenior skip day. Bell is seated to the far right in the front row,with his legs crossed and the middle fingers of both hands extendedover them.

“It looked like I was flipping the camera off,” he said. “It wasnot an intentional thing. I was popping my fingers. It’s a nervoushabit I have. I do it one finger at a time.”

In addition to the suspension, Bell said he was asked to coverthe cost of making the yearbook corrections. He said he was toldthat cost was estimated at $90.

“I’m not 100 percent sure, but I believe that’s what we’re goingto do,” he said.

Britt declined to comment on the cost of the corrections or howthey would be made. He said it is not unusual for a yearbook to besent back for corrections.

“We could have sent them back and had them corrected, but itwould have taken longer,” Britt said. “This was the quickest andmost economical way we could do that and get them back to thestudents by the time school lets out.”

The yearbooks are expected to be returned to the students withthe corrections made on Monday, he said.

Bell said he believed there was some controversy because of theway the situation was handled.

“I believe the principal didn’t handle it well,” he said. “I canunderstand them punishing me, whether they believe me or not, but Ithink it got out of hand. They didn’t tell us what they were goingto do. They just picked them up. We didn’t know if they would bereturned or not.”

Following a weekend of questions about the yearbook situation,an assembly was held Monday to explain school officials’ actions tothe students, Britt said.

“I explained to them why we collected the yearbooks and whenthey would be returned,” Britt said. “We always try to let ourstudents know what is going on.”

Bell alleges that Britt singled out the yearbook staff advisor,Geri Peyson; Amber Bankston, the editor-in-chief; and himselfduring that meeting.

Britt denies the allegation.

“Their names were never mentioned,” he said. “He was present andmay have been looked at, but I never singled them out.”

Bankston, 18, has also been suspended. She could not be reachedfor comment by The DAILY LEADER.

In a televised report on the school incident, she claimed shewas suspended for the yearbook photo as an example because of herposition on the yearbook staff. Officially, she said, thesuspension was for “open defiance.”

Some parents and students believe her suspension is because thephoto appeared in the yearbook. Britt also denies thatallegation.

“Her suspension has nothing to do with the yearbook,” he said.”They’re not connected at all.”

The cover picture sent to the publisher was too small for thegestures to be seen, he said. It wasn’t noticed until the publisherenlarged the picture and printed the yearbook.

Britt declined, however, to say why Bankston was suspended. Hecalled it a private matter. He said both students were suspendedfor violating school policy and received the same punishment asstudents in the past for similar violations.

Bankston’s claims that her suspension was severe because itwould preclude her from going to the senior prom Friday areincorrect, Britt said.

“I don’t know of any reason she couldn’t go to the prom,” hesaid.

Reports about senior privileges being revoked and a May 7 fieldday for grades 7 through 12 being canceled are also incorrect, hesaid.

Students also allege that Britt held a meeting Friday withmostly seniors to chastise them for wearing T-shirts with theyear’s theme, “I feel like partying,” on the front and “Save theannual” on the back.

“We never met with those students,” Britt said.

The principal said he was surprised by all the controversysurrounding the collection of the yearbooks. He added that theschool was doing the best it could in responding to the needs ofthe students while releasing a quality product.

He added he has received a lot of support from the parents andcommunity during the uproar.

“You have a lot of good, caring people in Wesson, and I havereceived a lot of phone calls praising us for our decision,” Brittsaid. “We’re proud of our school and proud of our success.”

Wesson is a Level 4 school that excels in many areas, he said.The band placed “All Superior” in a recent competition and was theonly south Mississippi 2A school to do so.

A student also recently won a full scholarship after winning theScience Quest physics competition at Copiah-Lincoln CommunityCollege, and the school consistently posts high ACT scores, Brittsaid.