PRESS RELEASE: Newseum, Student Press Law Center & National Scholastic Press Association Announce Winners of 2005 Courage in Student Journalism Awards

Contact: Mike Fetters of the Newseum, 703-284-2895

ARLINGTON, Va., U.S. Newswire, Oct. 27 — Four students from DeSoto High School in suburban Dallas, Texas, and student media adviser Carol Richtsmeier will receive the 2005 Courage in Student Journalism Awards presented by the Newseum, the Student Press Law Center and the National Scholastic Press Association.

The Courage in Student Journalism Awards are presented each year to student journalists and a faculty administrator who have demonstrated exceptional determination and support for student press freedom, despite resistance or difficult circumstances.

Students Whitney Basil, Eric Gentry, Zach Kroh and Jeremy Willis, who reported for DeSoto’s school newspaper the Eagle Eye, will share the $5,000 student prize. Richtsmeier will receive a $5,000 award in the adviser category. Gentry, former Eagle Eye editor in chief, and Richtsmeier will accept the awards at the National Scholastic Press Association/Journalism Education Association Fall Convention in Chicago, on Saturday, Nov. 12.

“This year’s awards could not have been given to a more deserving group,” said Newseum Programs Director Rich Foster. “The courage exhibited by these students and their adviser is matched by the superior quality of their research and reporting.”

Basil, Gentry, Kroh and Willis are being recognized for their commitment to journalistic principles and defense of press freedom in the face of resistance.

In November 2004, the DeSoto school board approved a $65,000 payment to Project JAMS (Just Another Means of Success) for an assessment of gang-related activity at the school. The board also began consideration of a costly, five-year intervention program proposed by Project JAMS.

The students, suspicious that Project JAMS had overstated the level of gang-related activity at the school, launched an investigation. Delving deep into the background of Project JAMS and its founder, Amon Rashidi, the students raised critical questions about the program’s credibility and uncovered years of false claims, unfulfilled contracts and unsubstantiated statistics.

DeSoto’s school board responded with threats of censorship, and Project JAMS responded with threats of legal action. On several occasions the students were accused of being racist and un-American and were alienated by school administrators who supported Project JAMS. Although pressured to stop their investigation, the students continued. Eventually, their efforts led to a series of town meetings and gained the attention of The Dallas Morning News and local television news operations. As a result, the nearly $1 million in additional funds requested by Project JAMS for program implementation was not approved.

Eagle Eye student newspaper adviser Carol Richtsmeier encouraged Basil, Gentry, Kroh and Willis throughout their investigation of Project JAMS. Knowingly jeopardizing her position at DeSoto High School, Richtsmeier stood before the school board and defended her students’ coverage and their press freedom. Despite frequent public criticism by the board, Richtsmeier’s unwavering support of the Eagle Eye staff paved the way for their investigation and set a courageous example of strong journalistic principles for her students to follow.

“This is the first year the Courage in Student Journalism Award has been presented to an adviser,” said SPLC Executive Director Mark Goodman. “We could not have hoped for a more deserving recipient than Carol Richtsmeier.”

Although their reporting efforts were ultimately successful and the Project JAMS contract was canceled, the school board’s continued threats against the First Amendment rights of the Eagle Eye staff prompted Richtsmeier to resign her position at DeSoto following the investigation. Today, she serves as publications adviser and journalism teacher at Midlothian High School in western Texas.

“After 15 years, I had to leave a nationally recognized program because I could not, in good conscience, work for a school district that did not support my students and who philosophically began its walk down a path toward censorship,” said Richtsmeier. “I have been blessed, though, that the Midlothian School District hired me to build its journalism program because they, too, share in my First Amendment philosophy.”

Gentry is currently a freshman at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. Basil and Kroh are freshmen at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and Willis is attending Howard University in Washington, D.C.

The Courage in Student Journalism Awards are sponsored by the Newseum, the Student Press Law Center and the National Scholastic Press Association.

“Our organization is committed to recognizing students and school officials who serve as role models to all of us in their defense of press freedom,” said NSPA Executive Director Tom Rolnicki. “Co-sponsoring the Courage in Student Journalism Award is one important way we do that.”

The Newseum, the interactive museum of news under construction in Washington, D.C., is scheduled to open in 2007. Newseum operations are funded by the Freedom Forum, a nonpartisan foundation dedicated to free press, free speech and free spirit for all people. In March 2005, Gentry received a $25,000 scholarship from the Freedom Forum through the foundation’s Free Spirit program. The Courage in Student Journalism and Free Spirit awards are administered separately.

Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has been the only national organization exclusively devoted to providing free legal advice and assistance to student journalists and advisers and serving as an advocate for their free press and freedom of information rights.

Founded in 1921, the National Scholastic Press Association and its college division, the Associated Collegiate Press, provide rating services and critical analyses for print and electronic student news media and sponsor the largest annual national conventions for student journalists and their advisers.