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MUCKRAKERS SCORE BIG IN SCHOOL PAPER

Score another scoop for the muckrakers at Palo Alto High School.

The school district is taking a closer look at its credit-card policies after the Campanile student newspaper questioned several hundred dollars in meal charges and the district's enforcement of spending limits.The story was just one of many investigative articles by the award-winning newspaper. Unlike many high school papers, the Campanile doesn't mind sticking its nose into sensitive issues.

"The primary purpose of the newspaper should be to inform the public," said Ben Hewlett, the reporter who wrote the credit-card story and grandson of Hewlett-Packard co-founder Bill Hewlett. "The more people who know about this issue, the better."

The district criticized the story but not the students' decision to report it or their aggressive pursuit of scoops.

"We are very proud of them," said Jim Brown, superintendent of the Palo Alto Unified High School District. "This is not your usual high school newspaper."

Brown, who said the district has done nothing wrong, contends the front-page article on April 29 suggests improprieties but isn't backed up by facts. Faculty adviser Esther Wojcicki said the paper stands by the story.

Brown has asked the district's independent auditors to give the issue a closer look. Previous audits have found no problems with credit-card charges, Brown said.

Articles like Hewlett's aren't unusual for the Campanile (pronounced Cam-pan-EEL-ee). In March, the paper questioned a $9,000 raise given to an administrator after a closed-door meeting.

Other recent issues have included: editorials criticizing Pat Buchanan, a feature on resources for gay and lesbian teens, a two-page graphic showing how the district gets and spends money, and an in-your-face column on "Being Asian in Whiteville, USA."

"We have the freedom to report on whatever we want. Some school papers are hampered by `that wouldn't look good,' " said Ben Elkin, one of the paper's six senior editors. "But here it's no holds barred."

Like other high school papers, the Campanile also reports on student elections and sports, offers features on student life and reviews music, movies and restaurants.

The 20-page paper, founded in 1918, won Columbia University's Gold Crown award for high school papers last year.

Jack Kennedy, who heads curriculum development for the national Journalism Education Association, estimates that only a few hundred of the tens of thousands of high school papers nationwide write investigative stories.

It will be up to new editors, now juniors, if the Campanile is to continue its investigative reporting. Current editors, all seniors, said it's been worthwhile, though very difficult.