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 StudentJournalism award from the Student Press Law Center and sponsored by the Newseumand the National Scholastic Press Association.

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

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

Jaishri Shankar and Rachel Wagner, editors for The Rockville High SchoolRampage newspaper, received the award for their courage and determinationwhen they decided to publish a package of stories about gangs despite fears ofpossible retaliation.

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

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

Newspaper Adviser Peter Daddone said Shankar and Wagner were nominatedbecause of their fortitude. They helped in the entire process of the story– writing, designing and researching. They found sources from the localpolice department who helped them with inside information and even helpedencourage a past editor in chief who was scared to run the article for fear ofretaliation from gangs.

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

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

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

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

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

The students receive an award of $5,000, and the adviser and principalsplitting an additional $5,000. Daddone said Munk has decided to give herportion of the award to the newspaper.

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

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

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

Munk said she was worried about the article at first because she did notwant her school to be labeled a gang school, but said she felt she had to dowhat was right for the students.

“I felt that we were having issues and schools around us were havingissues,” Munk said. “It wasn’t going to help anything byshoving 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 greatrelationship with Daddone, and she felt that students should be able totruthfully tell what’s going on in school.

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