Public records key to Ohio high school newspaper's scoop in story about on-campus sexual assault

OHIO — When two high school students walked into their local police station and asked to see a public record, they were given what one of them called “the runaround.” But they stuck it through ’til the end, and that end was a scoop that later ended up on TV and radio stations across Cleveland.

One day before that visit, Shaker Heights High School had notified students of an assault inside its Shaker Heights, Ohio, campus. The police report showed the incident was more serious though, something school administrators said they did not know.

“They found out through our reporting that it was actually more than that,” said John Vodrey, an editor of the student newspaper, The Shakerite.

Vodrey and another editor, Shane McKeon, obtained a police report that identified the incident as a rape, a much more serious crime than the school had indicated.

While obtaining police incident reports should be matter-of-fact, volunteer Shakerite adviser Emily Grannis said the students did something that day that she hasn’t been able to pull off in her 10 years of advising.

“They walked into that police station and they walked out with a record,” she said.

Grannis, who is a Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press fellow, talked with Vodrey on the phone while he was in the station, helping him cite the appropriate state statute and legal language to ask for an incident report. After jumping a few hurdles, she said, a supervisor handed it over.

Identifying the crime as a rape rather than a simple assault brought a torrent of both positive and negative reaction, McKeon said. But he said the editorial board felt they had an obligation to inform the community.

“It was really a matter of clarifying what actually happened,” McKeon said. “Had we handled it less professionally, the pushback would have been much worse. And the pushback would have been justified.”

McKeon wrote an open letter to readers outlining the Shakerite’s reasons for pursuing the story. Vodrey wrote a story for the next issue exploring the school’s heightened security measures, which the administration put in place after the Shakerite broke the story, although the school did not acknowledge that that particular incident had prompted the changes.

“We have no reason to believe there is any threat to the safety of students and staff,” superintendent Gregory Hutchings wrote on the school website two days after the incident.

The uproar hasn’t dampened the Shakerite’s enthusiasm for reporting in-depth stories, McKeon said. In an investigation last year, it revealed that three sexual assaults at the high school had been reported to police in the last five years. McKeon said the paper is focusing even more on investigative journalism this year.

Both he and Vodrey expressed gratitude for the openness they’ve found in their school district and their community.

“Just about everyone has been extremely forthcoming and supportive, even when the stories don’t put them in a favorable light,” McKeon said.

The rape suspect is on “home detention,” Vodrey said, and has a preliminary hearing on Oct. 23. Grannis said she was proud of the students’ tenacity in covering the alleged crime.

“I think they’ve done a phenomenal job with it,” she said. “They’ve handled it like professional journalists would.”

Correction, Oct. 17: An earlier version of this story misattributed the source of information about the status of legal proceedings in the case. 

By Samantha Sunne, SPLC staff writer. Contact Sunne by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 123.