I’m a student journalist. A new privacy law is interfering with Chicago’s high school newspapers.

This school year, it’s been difficult to publish anything new on the site we’ve come to rely on.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

From pitching news stories in class to taking action shots at sports games, my school’s journalism program is nothing short of fun, despite the hard work it demands.

As part of a vast and diverse student community at Lane Tech, there are myriad potential stories for our student news organization to cover. Aimlessly scrolling through the Lane Tech Champion’s website is one of my favorite pastimes, as the site — and its archive dating back 12 years — showcases Lane’s rich history. The news website is the heart of our journalism program. Unfortunately, the site is in danger.

Megan Camacho (Courtesy of Megan Camacho)

What has blindsided Lane Tech’s journalism program — and other courses, such as computer science and art — is Chicago Public Schools’ interpretation of the Student Online Personal Protection Act, or SOPPA. The state law, designed to give parents more control over their children’s data, also prevents educational technology companies from collecting protected student information in some cases. In effect, certain vendors that schools — and student journalists — rely on have not even been approved or considered for approval.

Each morning, the editors and reporters of Lane Tech’s student paper come to Room 137 to learn and lead. Gathered around a table, student editors work on stories and layout, amid chatter and the endless staccato of typing. But recently, the tension surrounding CPS’ interpretation of SOPPA has felt suffocating. 

Student Newspapers Online, or SNO, is an essential program that many student newsrooms use because it’s built especially for student journalists. The largest provider of college and K-12 student news sites in the country, it allows the Lane Tech Champion and many other school news organizations to easily build their websites. 

Unlike your typical website builder, it is specifically made for school newspapers and provides journalism education. Breaking news can be placed on a scrolling carousel, and the site can even be equipped with a handy staff page loaded with photos, positions, and descriptions. Above all, the site is incredibly easy to navigate. The Daily Northwestern, Northwestern University’s daily student newspaper, is one shining example of an SNO-built site. Suburban Chicago schools, such as the Glenbrook South Oracle and the New Trier News, use it, too. But CPS schools such as Lane Tech, Jones, and Northside, no longer can. 

That’s because CPS is blocking any further payments to SNO, which makes publishing tricky. We’ve been advised not to post to the site so as to avoid difficulties with SOPPA and CPS, and that has weighed heavily on us.

The news website is the heart of our journalism program. Unfortunately, the site is in danger.

Formerly the Lane Tech Champion’s photo and graphics editor, I stepped up into the sports editor position earlier this month. The position has been rewarding, allowing me to report from the sidelines and watch the best of Lane’s athletic teams. My photography and writing skills have improved, which I can attribute to pumping out stories to keep up with demanding sports schedules. What I love most about publishing a new sports story is scrolling through the photo gallery a fellow editor and I put together, and beaming over our action shots and pictures of smiley players after a win.

But this school year, it’s been difficult to publish anything new and share my reporting on our SNO-built site; it’s only in the monthly print edition and a temporary WordPress site that doesn’t look or feel the same. Fortunately, I do have alternate places to post my work, such as the Lane volleyball team’s website, where one of the coaches has graciously offered to post my stories. 

Publishing print editions of the Champion has also seen some drastic changes as a result of SOPPA. Adobe InDesign, an industry-leading student media software, is what we normally use for laying out pages. But with SOPPA’s hold on our programs, including those by Adobe, we had to find another program. 

When it became apparent that we’d have to stick to an alternative layout program called Scribus, my fellow editors and I had to learn the program and finish 12 pages in just two days. Having to adapt to Scribus was no easy feat. We couldn’t download it on our Chromebooks the school’s 1:1 student-device model provided us — so we had to download it to our personal laptops and bring them to school or, alternatively, to the classroom’s iMacs.

The editors often look forward to after-school sessions  — called Jamborees —  where we come together to lay out the paper before we send pages off to our printing company. But learning the new program made it a tiring process. We lost sleep. Although we were able to push through this critical stage of publishing, these changes and challenges shouldn’t be something CPS student journalists must endure, especially at the expense of our mental and physical health. 

With basketball season just around the corner, the regular decision deadline for college applications looming, and sports winter conditioning likely to send some of us home exhausted every night, the battle around SOPPA only adds to our stress and workload. 

As this situation unfolds, it has become clear to me how bureaucratic decisions from Chicago Public Schools’ central office can unintentionally harm students. Mounting issues with SNO and InDesign have pushed me to work harder and adapt. But they’ve also helped me understand just how vital these programs are to our role in facilitating student expression. For now, though, these tools are off-limits to us. 

Megan Camacho is the sports editor of the Lane Tech Champion and a senior at the high school. Now in her second year of writing for the Champion, she is passionate about journalism and Lane’s athletic community.