Photo by: Cassidy Hull

Why Every Staff Needs a Policy Manual

Written by Vanessa Martinez, CJE

I’m incredibly proud to say that I’m a teacher. I’m lucky to teach photography, graphic design and journalism – subjects that many other publication advisers do as well.

“Oh, the fun stuff!” is usually the response whenever I tell someone this. I do teach the fun stuff, but that doesn’t mean that advising student publications is always giggles, sunshine and happy students.

If advisers have been guiding student journalists through theme creation, deadlines, design ideas, photo shoots, writing assignments, ad sales, interview mishaps, fundraising issues and coverage questions long enough, then they know that the joy of advising publications can be broken up by frustrating, challenging and sometimes even tragic situations.

It is in those moments when you receive an angry email from a parent, a concerned call from an administrator, or the saddest news of all — the death of a student or faculty member — that a need for consistent and clear policies can make a difficult situation that much easier to handle.

Life isn’t perfect, even for yearbookers, and this is why every staff must have a policy manual. Whether it’s a handbook, a contract, standard operating procedures or a combination of the three, a policy manual approved by your principal is the best way to be prepared for any of the hairy situations that can involve student publications. I’m including my own policy manual for an easy reference at the end of this article as well as items for you to consider when building your own.



By nature, I’m a planner and a worrier. I worry about how well I have planned for a lesson. I obsess over the details of an email I’m about to send or a tough conversation I need to have with an underachieving student. Responding with consistent policies and standards, documented in an annually updated and approved manual, decreases the drama and indecision of a challenging situation and minimizes the anxiety that advisers may face.

You might be thinking, “Great, another thing to add to my to-do list!” When I first learned about staff manuals, I thought the same thing. But over the years, I faced several situations that made me so grateful for our policy manual at El Dorado High School in El Paso, Texas.

You likely already have policies in place you rely on, whether that’s for grading yearbook students, signing out photography equipment, posting images on social media or creating senior dedication ads. It might be time to bring those policies together in one place.



If you aren’t sure where to begin, here is a list of topics and questions to consider creating policies around. This list isn’t exhaustive, and I’m eager to read about other policies that advisers think should be included in the comments. As you’re reading through this list, consider existing policies that your campus or district may already have in place that you can implement.

Topics to include in a policy manual:

  • Travel: Which students are eligible for yearbook trips? How are those trips paid for? What are the expectations for student conduct while traveling, including what takes place in the event that a student needs to be disciplined?
  • Staffer code of conduct: What are the standards and repercussions for publications students failing other classes, accumulating loss of credit due to absences, earning detention, referrals, suspension, etc.? What would cause a student to lose an editorial position? What will be your procedure for parental involvement?
  • Student or faculty member death: How will you cover the death of a student or faculty member? Does this decision will depend on the circumstances surrounding their death? Coverage may vary between suicide, illness, motor vehicle accident or a victim of violent crime. Advisers should create a policy that differentiates between covering public memorials at school or in the community and private religious or funeral services for the family. How will coverage refer to details from a pending criminal investigation? In covering the death of anyone on campus, regardless of manner of death, permission and cooperation of the surviving family should be sought by the adviser and student reporter. The adviser and staff may also consider working with the family to create an unpaid dedication ad. The staff should carefully balance the need of the campus to grieve and remember the deceased person with the surviving family’s right to privacy. Also decide if younger students will be included in future yearbooks – for example, if a freshman student dies, but the parent would like them included in the senior yearbook, do you have a policy in place to be able to respond to this request.
  • Refunds and exchanges: How will you handle requests for refunds of a senior dedication ad or yearbook? Under what circumstances would you permit a refund or exchange? In most cases, a refund shouldn’t be granted unless the adviser and staff know that they allowed an error with malicious intent. Otherwise, the adviser should try to correct name misspelling with corrective stickers from Walsworth. The exchange policy should also be clearly posted at distribution.
  • Equipment usage: How are cameras, lenses, laptops, etc. checked out for usage? Who is allowed to use the equipment? When is the equipment due back? What happens in the in the event that the equipment is damaged, lost or stolen?
  • Interviewing: What are the expectations for interviewing sources? How will students record and store their interviews?
  • Staffer commitments and grading: What are the expectations for working on the yearbook or newspaper outside of school hours? How are students graded? Do staffers and editors have different commitment expectations?
  • Sharing and publishing photos: How are photographs taken by students on assignment with school equipment shared, turned in and stored? Are students allowed to post images on their personal social media or send files to classmates and parents? Do you require a watermark? How can parents and students request a digital copy of images? Will you charge for those files?
  • Senior honor cord and/or stole requirements: What are the requirements for senior honor cords and stoles? Do students need to participate in fundraising, community service or have a certain amount of after-school work hours for publications? What are the requirements for grades, LOC and discipline? Will you require that students apply for the honor cord or stole?
  • Senior dedication ads and paid club/team spreads: What are the logistical arrangements for how parents and teachers can reserve and pay for dedication ads and paid spreads? What is process of accepting content for ads? How will you go about getting approval of dedication ads? Will you have a policy of prior review for coaches and teachers on their paid spreads?
  • Staff handbook and workflow: How will your staff make their deadlines, and understand the editing process for their yearbook spreads and newspaper assignments? What are the procedures for creating, storing and turning in work?
  • Portraits: Who takes the senior portraits from your yearbook? What are the deadlines and expectations for parents and students when it comes to senior portraits? Will your publication accept senior portraits for the senior section from multiple photographers? If a student moves to your school mid-year, what is the cutoff date for when they can be included in the portraits?

For the program I advise, I have created a policy directory document in my Google Drive with links to several documents and resources that contain various guidelines and FAQs, along with written explanations for additional policies. I recommend revisiting your policies annually to update, add and remove, as necessary. Be sure to notify administrators when you have updated policies or student contracts.

Even a mission as fun and fulfilling as ours — creating a visual story of our campuses and communities — can present challenging moments. A policy manual is a must-have tool to consistently guide advisers, administrators, student journalists and parents.

Link to EDHS Student Publications policy directory: EDHS Student Publications Policy Directory

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Vanessa Martinez, CJE

Vanessa Martinez, CJE, advises The Legend yearbook and AGO News at El Dorado High School in El Paso, Texas. She teaches graphic design and commercial photography. She started advising in 2014 and earned the JEA Rising Star Award in 2019. The Legend has earned multiple CSPA Crowns and NSPA Pacemakers, along with NSPA Design of the Year in 2020.