Given the controversy surrounding the war in Iraq, it’s not surprising if the thought of student journalists tackling this tough issue is making some school administrators uneasy—especially those of us who are old enough to have experienced the tumult produced by the Vietnam era.

But before you start quoting Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier—which affirms school officials’ authority over all aspects of the curriculum, including student newspapers—consider the following: real issues, when handled responsibly by young people, often result in the best kind of learning.

As in previous conflicts, our young people are fighting this war and have a great deal at stake in its outcome. Now’s the time to capitalize on that interest by encouraging students to probe substantive issues from a variety of perspectives, from the turbulent history of the Middle East and the United Nations to the rights of free speech and assembly we so often take for granted.

Just as when the Berlin Wall came down, this is history in the making, and students will need great and courageous teachers and administrators to help them understand all of the nuances at play.

Media literacy—understanding what’s credible, what’s not, and who decides—is going to be a critical skill for information-age graduates who daily are saturated with factoids and opinions that lack the context to make them meaningful. As a result, we’re overloaded with information, yet dreadfully lacking in wisdom and civility.

These are the issues of the day, and student journalists need to be a part of the conversation. Yet they cross the line when they join the anti-war protests and support-our-troops rallies held at their schools and in the communities.

Journalists are supposed to report the news, not create it. And unless students are writing or posting an online commentary clearly marked as personal opinion, their personal views and biases shouldn’t be part of the equation.

Obviously, as the recent firing of NBC News correspondent Peter Arnett shows, professional journalists—including those with celebrity status—aren’t immune to these pressures. Wise teachers and administrators will use this example as a cautionary tale.

As Bob Steele says in his “Talk About Ethics” column on Poynter Online: “Journalists can be great storytellers on issues of war and peace. Those who try to be activists on this front do themselves and the public no favor.” (See “When Opposition Becomes Participation” and “A Pledge of Allegiance for Journalists.”)

Thankfully, in addition to the resources I just cited, several web sites offer solid guidance for journalism teachers and school administrators as they chart a course through these turbulent times.

Because school leaders tend to be most familiar with the ones provided by the American Association of School Administrators, National Association of Secondary School Principals, and the like, here are some of my favorites: National Scholastic Press Association, High School Journalism Project, and the Student Press Law Center.

While these might seem like a holdover from my days as a student journalist on staff at the Kirkwood High School Call in St. Louis, these web sites offer important tips for teachers, advisors, students, and administrators, from legal issues to tips for online publishing.

As Natalie Maines and the Dixie Chicks have painfully discovered, passion runs high when it comes to America’s involvement in Iraq. Helping young people make sense of it all is part of what public education—and living in a free and democratic society—is all about.

See these related links:

Poynter Online
http://www.poynter.org

National Scholastic Press Association
http://www.studentpress.org

High School Journalism Project
http://www.highschooljournalism.org

Student Press Law Center
http://www.splc.org

Nora Carr is senior vice president and director of public relations for Luquire George Andrews Inc., a Charlotte, N.C.-based advertising and public relations firm. A former assistant superintendent for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, she is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications and marketing.