Rockville High School students, principal, adviser win Courage in Journalism Award for gang coverage

MARYLAND — Two Rockville, Md. high school student journalists, their adviser and principal have all received the 2008 Courage in Student Journalism award from the Student Press Law Center and sponsored by the Newseum and the National Scholastic Press Association.

The award is given annually to student journalists and advisers for demonstrating they have helped solidify the fundamental values of the FirstAmendment.

“They carefully reported and documented their stories, they wrote about a serious subject in a non-sensational way, and they got educated about their rights and worked with their administrators without ever compromising the integrity of their journalism,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. “They simply did everything right.”

Jaishri Shankar and Rachel Wagner, editors for The Rockville High School Rampage newspaper, received the award for their courage and determination when they decided to publish a package of stories about gangs despite fears of possible retaliation.

Wagner said the project took a little over three months to finish. She said past and current staff helped as well, but was excited to win the award.

“When they called me, I didn’t even know they nominated me,” Wagner said. “It’s really great for the Rampage and for Rockville High School.”

Newspaper Adviser Peter Daddone said Shankar and Wagner were nominated because of their fortitude. They helped in the entire process of the story — writing, designing and researching. They found sources from the local police department who helped them with inside information and even helped encourage a past editor in chief who was scared to run the article for fear of retaliation from gangs.

“There was a lot of trepidation, and through all, that the two kids kept their nose to the grindstone and moved the whole piece forward,”Daddone said.

Daddone and Rockville High School Principal Debra Munk also received the award for their support and encouragement to their student journalists.

“I never thought that as a high school journalism adviser I would ever have a chance to change something or to effect some kind of change,”Daddone said. “But that’s exactly what this gang spread did.”

Munk said she was excited about the award, but the students were the ones who deserved to be highlighted.

“I feel very fortunate to be honored by this award myself, but they did the work,” Munk said. “I just said yes.”

The students receive an award of $5,000, and the adviser and principal splitting an additional $5,000. Daddone said Munk has decided to give her portion of the award to the newspaper.

Daddone said the local police acknowledged that gang activity decreased and felt it was because of the article the students wrote.

Shankar gave advice to student journalists who may feel a little wary of publishing something that could seem controversial.

“If you’re reporting in a way where you respect the people and respect what they’re doing and how they’re acting, then go with it,” Shankar said. “Just report the facts.”

Munk said she was worried about the article at first because she did not want her school to be labeled a gang school, but said she felt she had to do what was right for the students.

“I felt that we were having issues and schools around us were having issues,” Munk said. “It wasn’t going to help anything by shoving it under the rug. So I sort of held my breath and said,’let’s do it.'”

Munk said she credited her anti-censorship practices to having a great relationship with Daddone, and she felt that students should be able to truthfully tell what’s going on in school.

“When our paper comes out, our students read it from cover to cover because there is something worth reading in there,” she said. “If these kids are going to be future citizens of tomorrow, then they’ve got to start practicing it today. And that’s basically what we’re doing.”