AURORA | Regis Jesuit High School retracted the winter issue of its student magazine because it contained an op-ed from a student expressing pro-choice abortion views, and fired both of the magazine’s faculty advisors, according to Sentinel sources.
Elevate, a Regis Jesuit student magazine, publishes in print and online four times a year. In the Winter 2021 Edition, a student wrote an opinion piece titled, “The battle for our bodies: confronting abortion and human rights.”
The piece is written from a pro-choice point of view, and argues that making abortion illegal causes women to die from unsafe illegal procedures, and that there is a meaningful distinction between a fetus and a baby.
“Instead of changing the laws and creating a pseudo-religious government to rule over women having better access to contraception, meaningful sex education, and family planning services should take place,” the article said. “Religious beliefs of other people should never interfere with a person’s choices with their body and future.”
Editions of the magazine are printed and also hosted online on the publishing platform Issuu. In place of the winter edition, a letter signed by the school’s president and principal says that it has been retracted in its entirety due to the op-ed.
“Earlier this week, the winter edition of the student-produced Elevate magazine was released to the student body,” the letter said. “An opinion piece that presented a stance on abortion clearly in opposition to Church teaching was included that we found both deeply troubling and unacceptable.”
The letter says that it affirms the teaching that life begins at conception. Regis Jesuit is a private, Catholic high school, and a web page on the ‘mission’ section of its website states that it follows the tenets of Catholic social teaching and is influenced by Jesuit spirituality.
“We do not tell our students what to think; we teach them how to think and how to discern with an informed conscience,” the site says.
The letter says that regarding the op-ed, the school failed to provide students with proper guidance regarding its beliefs.
“We are committed to ensuring that this does not happen again,” it said. “The issue has been retracted in its entirety. While we believe in providing an avenue for student expression, we are taking steps now to consider the magazine’s editorial process to ensure its compatibility with and responsibility in representing the mission of Regis Jesuit.”
The letter did not say if any students or staff members were disciplined. The masthead of the fall edition of the magazine lists two faculty advisors, neither of whom currently appear in the school’s staff directory. After being contacted by the Sentinel, both confirmed that they were no longer employed by Regis Jesuit but declined to discuss the situation further.
A Regis Jesuit student told the Sentinel, on the condition of anonymity, fearing possible reprisal, that students were told on Tuesday, the first day of the semester, that the two advisors had been fired. Many students and teachers are very upset at what happened, the student said.
The teachers’ journalism classes are currently being taught by substitutes, according to the student. A third advisor, who previously was working with the school’s video team, is now overseeing the magazine.
The student believes that backlash from parents and the Denver Archdiocese is what led to the retraction and firings.
“This is a school that the only thing that seems to make them make any decision is pressure from parents,” the student said. “And so instead of encouraging a conversation about abortion, they shut it down because that’s what parents had been calling for.”
The student expressed frustration with the gap between the school’s actions and the way it presents itself publicly as an intellectually and spiritually rigorous institution.
“At the end of the day, they’re a school, and a school’s job should be teaching students how to think, not what to think,” the student said.
Regis Jesuit officials declined to answer specific questions from the Sentinel or to confirm whether the advisors had been fired. In a statement, President David Card said the school did not comment on personnel matters as a rule.
“What I can tell is (sic) that as a Catholic, Jesuit institution, we believe that life begins at the moment of conception,” Card said in an email. “We believe that the protection of life at this stage represents the foundational requirement of respecting the dignity of human life at every stage. Through that lens, we failed our students in providing proper guidance in how to consider matters involving these firmly held beliefs. As an institution focused on teaching and learning, we are using this situation as an opportunity to help form our students.”
The letter to parents signaled likely changes for the magazine.
“We are currently reviewing the policies and editorial practices of our student journalism program,” Card’s statement to the Sentinel said. “Students, faculty and staff will be included in this process. Our desire is to support this program as a vehicle for students to share their voices and perspectives while continuing to represent and respect our Catholic, Jesuit mission.”
A spokesperson from the Archdiocese of Denver declined to comment on the matter, saying Regis Jesuit is not directly controlled by the Archdiocese and is in charge of its own operations. Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila has long been active in the pro-life movement. He is one of a group of American bishops arguing that President Joe Biden should not be able to receive communion because of his stance on abortion. Biden is a practicing Catholic and has long been a staunch supporter of pro-choice state and federal legislation.
But in a letter to the community written over winter break, Aquila said that many families had reached out to the diocese expressing concern about the op-ed. In the letter, he said it was a failure that it had been published, and that he has asked his team to assist the school in ensuring that students and staff are receiving Catholic faith formation.
The school’s handling of the situation appears to directly contradict the editorial policy printed in the magazine, which said that the student editorial board will have final say in the content of the publication and that “school officials, administration or faculty and staff shall not practice prior review or have the ability to censor any student publication” except in specific circumstances including articles involving deaths or legal situations.
The policy also states that the views of opinion columnists do not necessarily represent the newspaper staff.
The private school editorial policy is not backed by statute, according to experts.
Student journalism has fewer First Amendment protections than other publications, and student journalists at private schools have very little recourse to fight staff censorship, according to Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel at nonprofit advocacy group Student Press Law Center.
The Colorado Student Free Expression Law protects the rights of student journalists at public schools and limits their ability to be censored. It also contains a clause protecting faculty student media advisors from being retaliated against by school administrators. However, the law only applies to students and employees at public schools.
“If this had happened at a public school clearly this would be breaking the law,” Hiestand said. “But at a private school you don’t have any sort of First Amendment protections.”
These types of situations are non uncommon at private Catholic schools, especially when it comes to the topic of abortion, Hiestand said.
It is not the first time local religious schools have been at odds with students and employees over issues of religious doctrine. In August, a volleyball coach at Valor Christian, a private school in Highlands Ranch, said he was forced to resign after school administrators found out he was gay. After the news broke, another former coach said the same thing happened to her in 2019.
Many Valor students spoke out against the school’s decision. A group of students and alumni formed a group called Valor for Change, which is lobbying to change the schools’ policies regarding gender and sexuality.
While private schools have the legal right to censor student publications, Hiestand remarked that it seems strange to teach students about the importance of the First Amendment in class and then punish them when they put it into practice.
“It’s a weird lesson they’re providing these students,” he said.