SUNSHINE WEEK: High school journalists dig through public records to get the real dirt

From bland to bam, stories that go beyond the surface

Diana Mitsu Klos,senior project director for the American Society of Newspaper Editors, sharestips for student journalists who want to use open records to practice betterjournalism.

  • Don’t sell your readers short by doing thesame-old “surface” stories. Everyone criticizes cafeteria food. Takeit a step further. Look into how cafeteria contracts are awarded. Read throughhealth inspection reports detailing your caf’s cleanliness. See if thefood meets FDA nutritional guidelines.
  • File open records requestsseeking information about teacher and administrator salaries.
  • Delveinto the finer points of how, and who, creates the school budget.
  • Seeif the condition of your school’s buses is up to par.
  • Becauseof increased government secrecy, sometimes what should be readily available infois more difficult to access. Know what records you are entitled to before youask. Don’t back down and know how to file a Freedom of Information Actrequest.
  • Don’t sidestep research by turning a hot topic into anopinion column. “It’s much better to do the right research and getviewpoints rather than use the pronoun ‘I.’ The better you become,you realize the story is not about you atall.”

Student journalists at Desoto High School could havewritten a story on how administrators were spending money to solve the gang problem at their school.

The problem was, there was not a gang problemat the suburban Dallas school and the school district was already hurting financially,said Eric Gentry, a former staff member of the DeSoto studentpaper, the Eagle Eye.

“Therewasn’t a lot of money to be thrown around when there wasn’t muchmoney to begin with,” he said.

Intrigued by what seemed to bewasteful government spending, Gentry, along with three other staff members, dugdeeper.

After being tipped off in November 2004 in an e-mail aboutthe credibility of the company doing the investigation, Project JAMS (JustAnother Means of Success), the reporters looked through public records to learnmore about the company.

Gentry went to the administration office andasked to see the application of JAM’s director, Aman Rashidi. From there,the students grew skeptical about Rashidi’s past employment, including aclaim he had implemented his program at Columbine High School after the schoolshooting.

One by one, Rashidi’s “past employers”denied they ever employed him. Administrators from the few schools he didactually work at told Gentry, “Get your money back.”

Gentry said, to his knowledge, no criminal charges wereever brought against Rashidi.

The reporter also requested copies ofthe check the school wrote Rashidi for $65,000 — prepayment for the gangstudy. Project JAMS was requesting $1 million in all.

For the most part,administrators readily gave student reporters the information they sought. Butthere were a few times when Gentry had to threaten legal action if he was deniedrecords, he said.

“I don’t think they realized werealized what we could get,” Gentry said.

For theirinvestigative efforts, four Eagle Eye reporters and their adviser Carol Richtsmeier, who Gentry said was a huge helpguiding the students, were awarded the 2005 Courage in Journalism Award, ascholarship given by the Newseum, the Student Press Law Center and the NationalScholastic Press Association.

Gentry also received a $25,000 FreeSpirit Scholarship from the Freedom Forum in 2005 and is now a freshman atAbilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas, where he is studying the Bibleand journalism.

Many high school students are not sinking theirjournalistic chops into such meaty stories, and it may be because many are notusing public records for their research, said Diana Mitsu Klos, senior projectdirector for the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

“It’s simply a matter of understanding your basic rightsand how useful [public records are] in researching and telling stories,”Mitsu Klos said. “It’s about being able to do the type of storiesthat go below the surface.”

In December 2005 a group of studentreporters in Minnesota also exemplified not taking something at face value. Thestaff of Stillwater Area HighSchool’s student paper, the Pony Express, was excited to write astory about an interesting potential transfer student who said his name was

“Caspian James Chrichton-Stuart IV, the Fifth Duke ofCleveland.”

SPLC’s Sunshine Week stories from last year

According to PonyExpress adviser Rachel Steil, while they will deny it now, moststudents and staff believed a real 17-year-old British Duke was consideringattending their southeast Minnesota school.

But after staff membersinterviewed the Duke about his royal exploits — which included beingbabysat by Princess Diana and hanging out with Hilary Duff — something evenweirder happened. The Duke bestowed “royal” papers on the staffdemanding he have the chance to read the article before it printed. Oh, and hewanted to be referred to exclusively as “His Grace” or “YourGrace.”

The students and their adviser investigated —

making use of the National Sex Offender Registry and placing a few calls to theBritish Embassy. The newspaper staff eventually discovered the Duke was not onlya fraud, but also a 22-year-old registered sex offender named Joshua AdamGardner.

Gardner was arrested for violating parole and is currentlybeing detained in a Minnesota jail. According to an article in thePioneer Press, a local paper,sheriff’s office investigators are looking into the possibility Gardnerhad illegal sexual contact with a Stillwater Area High School student.

Pony Express staff memberscall the courthouse every day to check on the progress of the case, they said.

Studentsat both these schools enriched their stories by tapping into public records. Thestudents in Texas had the choice of playing it safe and writing that the schoolwas paying a company to look into a gang problem. The students in Minnesotacould have let their excitement get a hold of them and write about theirschool’s brush with royalty. But both followed inklings that something wasnot quite right, and they used public records to confirm theirhunches.

Doing any less would be a disservice to the school and thecommunity, Mitsu Klos said. “The biggest disadvantage is you’re nottelling a full, complete, factually driven story. Students in particular andsociety in general are ill-served when they get these small bites of informationwhen they don’t see what’s on the plate.”

by Emily Walker, SPLC staff writer

Check the Student Press Law Center’s Web site tomorrow for more examples of how high school journalists can use public records to write stories. The SPLC is running a story each day this week highlighting open records issues specific to student journalists in celebration of Sunshine Week.