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High school yearbook ignites controversy with stories about sex, drugs and alcohol

The yearbook staff at this Missouri high school argue that they are "simply trying to record the real history of the year."
/ Source: TODAY

An award-winning student yearbook staff in Kirkwood, Missouri, has found themselves at the center of a controversy after printing pages dedicated to sex, drugs and underage drinking.

Nicki Walker, a mom of two, couldn’t wait to get her hands on the newly released Kirkwood High School yearbook. 

Walker’s son, who is in eighth grade, interacts with students at the high school through extracurricular activities, and asked his mother to order him a copy.

“The yearbook is a really big deal in our town,” Walker tells “We were both so excited.”

Walker’s excitement quickly turned to disgust. 

“You start flipping through, and it’s really nice — you see the swim team and the basketball team, and all their accomplishments," Walker says. “Then you turn the page.”

controversial page of yearbook
Students opened up about hook-up culture at school.Courtesy Nicki Walker

Walker says she was “horrified” to discover sections written by students about marijuana, alcohol and hook-up culture.

“When you land on the drugs and alcohol page, there’s a picture of vape pods and beer, and then there are some surveys where the kids say they prefer drinking over smoking,” Walker says. The spread also includes quotes from students who abstain from drinking, vaping and using drugs. 

“I don’t think young people should be drinking alcohol,” one student shared in the yearbook, noting that “it can get to the point where it’s dangerous for them.”

controversial page in yearbook
There were pages dedicated to drinking and drugs.Courtesy Nicki Walker

Just when Walker thought it couldn’t get any worse, she came across a page with the headline, “Hooked(ish): Students share their opinions on hook-up culture, the concept of a casual sexual relationship without labels, and its benefits and consequences.”

The spread is decorated with images that include emergency contraceptive Plan B One-Step, a pregnancy test and condoms. In the text, students dish about things including the “weirdest” places they have hooked up. Answers range from “the football field” to “a bowling alley parking lot in the back seat of someone else’s car.” 

controversial page of yearbook
One student shared that they "hooked up" in a mall fitting room.Courtesy Nicki Walker

“What kind of sicko is allowing this sort of stuff to be published?” Walker says.

It’s not the faculty members.

“School officials do not engage in prior review of the yearbook,” a spokesperson for the district told in a statement. “The content of KHS Media is determined by and reflects only the views of the student staff and not school officials or the school itself.”

Principal Michael Havener did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Avery Oppermann, Pioneer Yearbook editor-in-chief, also shared a statement with

"As high school journalists, we are simply trying to record the real history of the year. Yearbook is journalism, so there is good, sad, happy, and bad; just like high schoolers lives. Those are the things we want to reflect," Oppermann wrote. "I think it’s important to give students voices and we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about these types of topics or any topics for that matter. Covering topics that matter help spur discussion and help to educate people."

In her statement, Oppermann praised her school principal, Dr. Mike Havener, and yearbook advisor, Mitch Eden, for empowering student journalists to use their "voices for good."

Eden declined to comment to, mentioning that the students themselves created and own the work.

Walker finds it “disappointing” that the school won’t interfere with the yearbook’s content as she believes the faculty at Kirkwood have a duty to teach their students “responsible journalism.”

“They have taken the stance that the journalism program at the high school is 100% student led, and that’s a great point of pride for them. They have made it clear they are not going to take any steps to take editorial control of the yearbooks,” she says. 

“That yearbook is sensational and classless,” Walker adds.

Other folks in town expressed similar sentiments on Facebook. In their posts, they included photos of the controversial pages.

"Kirkwood High School Yearbook……This is an incredible community and their kids deserve much better. My heart breaks for all of our children and their entire generation," Kerri Tumminello Fenton wrote. In a follow-up post, she argued, "It is deeply disturbing to see a school openly exploiting the illegal sexualization and drug and alcohol abuse of minors."

Jennifer, who asked that her last name not be used because she knows some parents have gotten threats over the issue, is glad the school is standing behind the kids. Jennifer is a former Kirkwood High School parent and she had a daughter on the yearbook staff.

“The students have always determined what goes in the newspaper and the yearbook,” Jennifer says. “It’s a cornerstone of our journalism program. The kids have won so many awards.

“Kids today process stuff by writing and sharing. It wasn’t like that when we were growing up,” she continues. “We didn’t talk about things openly.

“The yearbook is a reflection of their experience. It’s not for parents. It’s not for grandparents. It’s for them.”

“The yearbook is a reflection of their experience. It’s not for parents. It’s not for grandparents. It’s for them.”

Jennifer, mom of a former Kirkwood Student

Jennifer notes that the Kirkwood Yearbook is not a stranger to controversy. The staff has always pushed boundaries and taken risks. 

“I was at the high school for 10 years with kids, and every year there are topics in the yearbook that are difficult, and a little contentious,” she says. “But this is their world, it’s their reality.” 

As a mom, Jennifer understands it might be uncomfortable to read about the sexual exploits of kids. 

“No one wants to hear about their child hooking up in a mall dressing room — but it’s not our yearbook,” she says. “Censoring our kids doesn’t change the fact that it’s going to happen. If your kid has a cavalier attitude about sex, that’s not going to change because of a yearbook spread.”

While speaking to a local NBC affiliate, Kirkwood High School parent Dr. Derek Byers explained that the yearbook "isn't condoning" underage drinking and drug use.

"It’s just saying their experience,” Byers said. “It’s sort of recognizing what kids are dealing with these days, which is gender issues, racism, censorship, sex, relationships.”