Kansas student journalists worried about publishing critique of principal
The week after Amy Robertson had been hired as the new principal at Pittsburg High School, Emily Smith, the journalism teacher there, gathered her student editors and a couple of other writers who were hanging around, took them into a back room and shut the door.
While trying to research Robertson for a profile story, one of the students had found some problems with her background. The student had looked Robertson up on Google and found that her education consulting firm in Dubai appeared to have been reported for violations.
Then Smith looked up the name of the university Robertson said she had attended, Collins. Smith’s son is named Collin, so she wasn’t likely to get it wrong, and she wrote down the college’s name twice.
But when Smith Googled the university, nothing came up; it appeared as if the university didn’t exist. She thought she might be going crazy.
So she set up a meeting with school superintendent Destry Brown.
To her relief, Brown said that the university Robertson had attended was actually called Corlinns. But Brown said he would help the students set up a Skype interview with Robertson, who was still living in Dubai, so they could have her clear up any confusion.
However, a quick search of Corlinns University that night revealed articles that characterized it as a diploma mill.
So during study hall, Smith took those six students, handed out stapled packets containing the information discovered so far and told them they had to decide what they wanted to do about it. She walked out of the room and let them discuss their options.
Connor Balthazor was not an editor, he just happened to be around when Smith needed another writer. This felt like a big responsibility.
“She trusted me to be a part of that process,” Balthazor remembers thinking. “I didn’t want to let her down or any of the other five writers down.”
When Smith returned to the room, the students had come to a decision: This is important, and we have to write something about this, they told her.
Their decision that day would change each of their young lives in dramatic fashion, throwing them into the national spotlight and earning them an invitation to the White House Correspondents Dinner.
But it was a decision Smith had been preparing students to make for the past seven years.
‘They are colleagues’
When Smith was told to teach journalism seven years ago, she said, she had to start from scratch – her students didn’t know the difference between a caption and a lede.
And she didn’t have much experience with serious journalism: She had edited the tiny school paper in Arma, a town of 1,500, and took a few classes in college.
But if she was going to do it, she said, she was going give it 110 percent. She separated the yearbook and journalism students into separate class periods and later added separate photography classes.
It’s not uncommon for Smith to have several students working independently every period. Often there is only one chance to take certain classes, like AP government, at Pittsburg High, so she lets students come to her when they can.
When the students need to interview someone, they just go and conduct the interview. They know not to disrupt other classrooms.
Smith has set her class up in a way that can look chaotic. But it’s an expression of her belief in how to help her students learn.
“One thing I’ve always done (is) I treat my kids like young adults, especially upper-level kids,” Smith said. “I say they are colleagues, they are making the decisions.”
And, in turn, the students drop the formalities and just call her “Smith.”
She enters the paper, the Booster Redux, into monthly local and regional competitions and takes students to national competitions.
The message is clear: In exchange for a degree of freedom, she expects the students to challenge themselves.
A few years ago, Smith’s journalists wanted to write about the extreme ways wrestlers were losing weight. That group of students couldn’t deal with the discomfort of digging and tough questions, Smith said, so the story turned into a piece about how hard the wrestlers worked.
A couple of years later, a different group of students wrote an investigative piece about the wrestlers. And that wasn’t even the lead story in that issue. The lead story won a national award. It was about boys in the school who were trading nude photos like they were playing cards. Smith finished that issue while she was nine months’ pregnant.
Last year, one of her students died in a car accident. The seniors in class were too distraught, Smith said, and didn’t think they could write about it.
But the underclassmen thought it was too important to skip and interviewed the dead student’s girlfriend, who was in the car during the accident.
That story won second place out of 922 entries at the national high school journalism convention.
But the story on Robertson would be the first time they’d turn their critical attention away from exposing their own lives to adults and instead to the adults themselves.
The students spent the entire day in Smith’s room researching and preparing questions for their Skype interview the next day.
Robertson had e-mailed them materials from her educational consulting company. But the students did a reverse image search, and the pictures appeared to have been pulled from random websites. The language in one of her brochures had been plagiarized.
Robertson had sent the students a document in which the names of the schools she worked at had been redacted. But because it was a Microsoft Word document, the students could easily remove the parts that had been blacked out. They looked up the schools, and they didn’t appear to exist.
When they shared what they had learned with Brown, the superintendent, he told them everything would be fine once they Skyped with Robertson.
The next day, they got nervous as the importance of what they were about to do sank in.
“We weren’t sure what to expect; we’d never done anything like this before,” Balthazor said.
They had prepared a detailed script, with who would be asking each question. Maddie Baden would start the interview, because she was the one who had been e-mailing with Robertson.
Then they got a curveball. The morning of the interview, the superintendent said he would ask the questions. They could ask some follow-up questions. But the script they had prepared was worthless.
Britches in barbed wire
Brown was concerned about what the students had told him, but he didn’t think he could legally start talking with them about personnel issues.
To the students, it felt as if he were brushing them off and dismissing their concerns.
When Brown went back to his office after their meeting, he verified that, indeed, Robertson had plagiarized her pamphlet.
When Brown called Robertson, she didn’t want to do the interview with the students.
“What am I supposed to tell them?” Brown said she asked him.
“The truth would be really nice, because they think you are lying, and I have some questions, too,” Brown said he told her.
But to appease her concerns, he agreed to sit in on the interview.
He said he was worried about the kids. He didn’t want them to be put in a confrontational position with their new principal. And he didn’t want to start off on the wrong foot with his new principal.
“No matter what side of the fence you’re on, your britches are probably caught in the barbed wire,” Brown said of his predicament.
Interview of their lives
Robertson rambled for most of the interview, and the students didn’t have a chance to ask any of their questions.
After about 15 minutes, Smith – who was sitting behind the students – started making a chopping motion with her hands. She was trying to get them to “cut in.”
But only one of the students could see her directly. So Smith started stomping her feet to get their attention.
At one point, Roberston said she had been living in Spain, with an apartment in New York, and regularly flew to California to attend her graduate classes. The students were looking at each other with raised eyebrows and exchanging messages in a chat group on their computers. They kept egging each other on to cut in.
Balthazor was nervous. Robertson wouldn’t stop talking, so he would have to interrupt her. It felt as if he would really be sticking his neck out there. But the cavalier way she talked about flying from Spain to California to attend class made him mad.
“It was insulting to figure she could say that and not have any repercussions and not have anyone push harder,” he said.
So finally he asked her “How is that fiscally responsible?” Each student interrupted, and by the end, Brown said, he was just sitting back as the students pressed for more answers.
After the interview, Brown told the students he hoped they had all the answers they needed. Brown seemed upset at how hard the students had been on Robertson, several of them said.
Brown told them no employee he had ever hired had ever sat through something like that before. She is going to be the next principal, he told them.
Later that day, he told the students that he hoped they would write a nice piece welcoming Robertson to the community.
Balthazor understood that Brown had to defend his employee, but it also bothered Balthazor that Brown seemed to be taking sides.
They were just high school students. It was difficult to trust their own work over the word of their future principal, who said they were wrong, and over their own superintendent, who was standing by her.
“Ultimately we decided we have to go with what we found,” Balthazor said. “That was a major growing point for everybody. … We pushed past her essentially saying we were wrong.”
But their work would have to largely be put on hold: It was the start of spring break, and several of them had trips planned to Disney World and Myrtle Beach.
When the students returned from break, they got another surprise: Smith told them she couldn’t help any longer.
She had been in touch with Eric Thomas, the director of Kansas Scholastic Press Association, who recommended that she recuse herself from the story. Smith had been part of the first round of the hiring committee, which was a conflict of interest.
So she brought in Andra Stefanoni, a local freelance reporter. Stefanoni was the mother of a Pittsburg student, so most of the student journalists either knew her or knew of her.
But Stefanoni and Thomas only had a few days to guide the students to their print deadline on Thursday. And on Tuesday afternoon, their shared Google document was largely filled with “xxxx” and “???” in place of information they still hadn’t verified.
They had to focus and decided to narrow in on Robertson’s education credentials, because they felt as if that was easier to pin down than the questions about her work experience.
If they didn’t get a response by e-mail, Stefanoni told them, they couldn’t give up, they had to get on the phone, even if they were scared.
One evening after Baden came home from dance practice, she told her parents the full story about what she was working on. They told her they were worried it could come back to hurt her when the new principal arrived. When Baden showed up at school the next day, Smith could tell how nervous she and the others were.
“It’s not always easy to do the right thing or popular to do the right thing,” Smith told them. “You guys have uncovered some information that is rock solid. You can change your mind, but you are the ones that have to make the decision. You are the ones who have to choose to go forward.”
Smith, now in the role of cheerleader, tried to get them to think seriously about what could happen. They were all so well-behaved and hard working, she said, pointing to their school IDs – they were some of the only students still wearing the IDs, like they were supposed to, she said. “You follow every rule – what could you possibly be faulted for? It’s not like you walk the line. What are you going to be faulted for? You walk away from the line.”
Smith, who has two young children, was worried about her own job as well, but she tried not to show it.
“In a battle, you don’t want the general being ‘I don’t think we’re going to win,’ ” Smith said. “Part of my job is to make them feel supported and confident.”
Even Stefanoni was worried. She relies on her relationships to get jobs as a freelancer and didn’t want to cause trouble for her son.
Trina Paul, one of the six students, had felt nervous during tennis matches and forensic tournaments, but in those instances, she was nervous just for herself. Now what they were doing would reverberate throughout the community.
Smith told them it was their choice. They had to be the ones to decide whether to go forward.
“But I just thought if we found all this and we feel that something is there, we should go forward,” Baden said.
By Wednesday afternoon, “it looked bleak,” Stefanoni remembered. “They had super-busy schedules, very little free time and lots left to do before deadline.”
One student had to try on a prom dress, another had to baby-sit after school, and a third had softball practice.
But they arranged a video chat that night. Thomas of the Scholastic Press Association helped them think about how to start the piece. Baden’s father wondered what boy’s voice he was hearing coming from her room that late at night.
On Thursday, they continued to work remotely, during their free class periods and after school, as they had done all week. Thomas would offer advice to one student, who would then hand the phone to another student. They were rewriting each other’s sentences.
Because of their busy schedules that week, Stefanoni would often be at the grocery store or cooking dinner and receive an alert that a student had made a correction.
The school paper was printed by and inserted into the local paper, the Morning Sun, so they couldn’t delay any longer. Smith didn’t see the final story until right before it was pasted onto the front page.
“I felt very relieved slash scared,” Baden said. “What’s the community think? What will the superintendent think? What is Amy Robertson gonna think?”
“I was confident in the content we had produced,” said Gina Mathew. “I was most afraid that nothing was going to change.”
Prom and commencement
When Balthazor walked through the front doors of the school on Friday, he saw one of his friends reading the paper.
“Hold on, I’m not finished reading it yet,” his friend told him.
Several other reporters were decorating for prom and received messages that the school was buzzing about their story.
But just as the students were getting dressed for prom on Saturday, the local paper published an article headlined “Brown refutes claims in school paper – Superintendent maintains new principal highly qualified, best candidate.”
Then, the next day, the school board called a special meeting for Tuesday. It appeared as if the school board might stand by Robertson even after their article was published, Smith thought.
On Tuesday, Brown called a faculty meeting at the high school, before the school board meeting. Before spring break, they had held another faculty meeting in which several teachers said Brown had criticized the faculty for undermining the new principal.
“I shouldn’t be so concerned about doing the right thing,” Smith said. “But that’s the reality of the world we live in. You might be doing what’s right, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to end well.”
Smith asked two of the students who worked on the article to hang around after school: If she was going to be fired, she wanted reinforcements nearby to help rally the troops. So Mathew and Paul snooped around, trying to find a place where they might be able to listen. After the teachers left the meeting, Mathew heard it first: Robertson had resigned.
“I was shocked,” Mathew said. “I don’t think I really comprehended what the possibilities were or outcomes could be, to hear it be so final.”
Behind the scenes
Although publicly he still supported Robertson, behind the scenes, Brown had started to feel the pressure.
On Sunday, he demanded that Robertson produce her undergraduate diploma from the University of Tulsa by Tuesday or she would be fired. Robertson told Brown it was all a big misunderstanding and she would talk to the university to get everything straightened out.
“She always had a good reason, a good excuse,” Brown said. In the first round of her interviews, 22 of the 24 hiring committee members had given her the highest marks for the quality of her answers. She had sent Brown unofficial transcripts that had official-looking seals.
But on Monday, when Brown called the University of Tulsa, he was told that Robertson had never contacted them and that the transcript she had provided him did not come from them.
“I feel a sense of I let people down,” Brown said. “In 33 years, I’ve not had something like this.
“You just feel like you do what is right and try to do right by people and something like this happens and you get duped. No matter how hard you try to do right, sometimes doing right isn’t right. Or maybe what you thought you were doing right wasn’t right.”
The adult world
At the end of the school board meeting on Tuesday night, Brad Bourbina, a parent, stood up.
“Wait a minute,” Bourbina told them as the meeting adjourned. “These young people just did the job that you already should have done and they came here with the expectation of at least getting a little bit of information about what happened and why.”
Most of the meeting had been spent in executive session after the board announced Robertson’s resignation. The board’s brief statement at the end of the meeting didn’t clear up what had gone wrong, he said, nor acknowledge the hard work of the six journalists.
When Smith showed up at school the next day, the secretary told her she had messages from several national publications and from Duke University inviting her journalists to apply.
The six journalists went to first-period classes but spent the rest of the day answering calls from reporters who wanted to know more about how these Davids had managed to slay Goliath. They did interviews for CBS and “Good Morning America,” the Washington Post and the New York Times.
Although they didn’t predict it in advance, several of the students think they know why their work resonated across the country.
“In the era of Trump, it kind of stood out. A lot of journalists have been receiving a lot of heat for not reporting on him the proper way,” said Paul. “A lot of people view this as we’re holding people in power accountable for telling the truth.”
They continued to receive e-mails and packages in the mail for weeks afterward and were invited by the Huffington Post to be special guests at the White House Correspondents Dinner.
Brown brought pizza and tried to make amends with the students as the interview requests poured in. He thanked the students for speeding up the process of discovering Robertson’s duplicity. But Brown said he remains confident that even if they had not, when Robertson showed up, “the house of cards would have fallen.”
Brown was surprised to receive e-mails from people across the world who had been deceived by Robertson before, he said. But he was even more surprised by hateful messages he has received.
“I guess people felt like I had broken their trust or that I had put kids at risk or something, I’m not sure,” Brown said. “Most of (the messages) I received would probably not be repeatable in the news. Most of them had to do with my stupidity, that I am an embarrassment to Pittsburg and the board needs to get rid of me.”
Although they will be recognized for their perseverance, Balthazor says he will always remember how, even as Brown tried to shield them from the dangers of the adult world, Smith pushed them to take responsibility for it.
“She’s probably the best teacher I’ve ever had,” Balthazor said. “Simply from a human being perspective. She has incredible moral integrity.”
“You are fighting the good fight; you’re doing the right thing by doing this,” she told them 20 times a day, he said. “This is some of the most important work you’ll ever do.”
“And she was right.”