april 2015 podcast: Reporting on school disciplinary issues

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By Student Press Law Center

Sarah Carr of the Hechinger Report discusses her reporting on school disciplinary issues.

Frank LoMonte: Last year, amid a growing mountain of findings that school discipline falls disproportionately on the shoulders of minority students and those in special education, the U.S. attorney general and education secretary did something really, really extraordinary. They called on the nation’s schools to abandon their reliance on zero-tolerance discipline — that system in which students are punished without regard to the circumstances of the offense.

Their call, while it made an impact in certain school systems, has not been unanimously well-accepted in the education community. There are still many who are believers in the power of school discipline to correct behavior and the need for schools to have flexibility to use suspensions and expulsions freely.

Covering school discipline as a journalist is our subject today on the Student Press Law Center podcast. I’m Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center. The SPLC is an advocate for open government and for students’ First Amendment rights, and we encourage you to check out all of our resources, including reporting guides about using public records in your journalism, at splc.org.

Recently I had the chance to go to the Education Writer’s Association’s annual convention in Chicago, and free plug here, the Education Writer’s Association is a wonderful organization that even student journalists can join free of charge just by visiting their website at ewa.org and submitting an email, it’s a great chance to interact with people in the profession knowledgable about this field, so get there and do it. The EWA every year recognizes the best in education journalism, and some of the most impressive impressive work I had a chance to see was done by our guest today, Sarah Carr of the Hechinger Report.

The Hechinger Report is one of those specialty nonprofit journalism organizations that is thriving out there in the modern journalistic economy, it feeds out material not just to one outlet, but makes it available to many, and the work for which Sarah was recognized with the EWA’s annual award in feature writing, appeared in the Atlantic and The Nation, which she has written for a number of years. Sarah is a graduate of Williams College, has a graduate degree from the Columbia Journalism School, where she works on something called the Teacher Project, that I’m going to ask her to talk about in a minute.

Her work focused on disciplinary practices in two deep south states, one of which, Louisiana, she has also written a book about, and we’ll ask her to mention and plug that in a minute as well, so Sarah, thanks for joining us on the podcast, and I guess by way of introduction, maybe you can explain what your work on the Teacher Project at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism entails.

Sarah Carr: Sure, well it’s a real pleasure to be on this with you Frank, and thanks for inviting me on. The Teacher Project is about a nine-month-old initiative at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, and it’s, as the name implies, dedicated to covering teachers and teaching, and it’s, like Hechinger, it’s a nonprofit, foundation-funded, nonpartisan journalism organization, and we partner mostly with Slate Magazine, so we’ve had 20 or so stories that you can find at Slate, and we’ve also done work with NPR and with local public radio stations and local news outlets in Louisiana and Montana, which are two of the regions that we’ve been prioritizing.

The reporting fellows are all really talented journalists who finished their degrees in the last couple of years at Columbia and stay on for an extra year or two to really do terrific reporting on teachers and teaching. I work with them, doing some of my own journalism, and also edit and mentor them.

LoMonte: Great, well as I mentioned, after Hurricane Katrina and the devastation that was visited on New Orleans including effectively wiping the existing public school system off the map, you spent time down there, produced a book called Hope Against Hope, about the rebuilding of the New Orleans school system in its aftermath, and I imagine that’s what led you to focus on that area of your work for the The Atlantic, which was about what’s called ‘no excuses discipline’ in the charter schools, which have largely replaced the public schools in post-Katrina New Orleans.

So I guess dive in and tell us about that, about what is no-excuses discipline, and what were your findings as a journalist as to how that system is or is not working?

Carr: Well after Hurricane Katrina, as you mentioned they really turned most of the school system over to independent charter operators, and a lot of those new charter schools are led by educators who are on the young side and who are new to New Orleans. The prevailing model there is what I would describe as sort of the KIPP-inspired model, and KIPP is the largest network of charter schools in the country, and it is very focused on college, sending kids to and through college, very heavily structured, and very oriented on sort of cracking down on minor offenses, whether that be violations to school uniform codes or student slouching or falling asleep in class.

I compared it in the piece almost to the broken windows approach to school policing, and the idea is that if there isn’t this crackdown on minor offenses, there is the likelihood that they could escalate into major ones that would much more disruptive to the school environment. As you can imagine it’s a very controversial approach, and I feel like there’s a lot of class and racial tensions that underly it, and a lot of diverse and legitimate viewpoints.

I’ve met families, in my years reporting in New Orleans, who really love this approach to school discipline, and others who think it’s like sending their children to a prison, and so I set out to really try to capture the diversity of these viewpoints and to try to sort of be respectful in the piece to people who are coming at these issues from a variety of perspectives.

LoMonte: The piece is titled “How strict is too strict?” It appeared in the December 2014 issue The Atlantic, which you can find online at TheAtlantic.com, definitely recommend that you check that out and share it.

When we deal with journalists around the country trying to write about school discipline, they often run up against privacy objections of various kinds, they find it an especially difficult subject to cover, and one might add doubly so at charter schools, which often resist the type of disclosure and transparency that applies at ordinary public schools.

I wonder what obstacles, if any, you might have encountered there, and what you did to surmount them.

Carr: Well, I find one of the best approaches to writing about school discipline is to start off with families, and to really put that at the heart of your reporting, because a lot of the obstacles with privacy are eliminated or made a lot easier if you have the cooperation and support of families from the get-go, in that they are ultimately the ones who can talk about and release information about their children most easily.

Instead of starting with the school and having the school sort of be the broker between myself and a family, I just usually approach the families directly, and I did actually receive some help in identifying some families from the Southern Poverty Law Center, and also just having been a reporter in New Orleans for several years beforehand, I was able to reach out to families on my own as well. But one of the obstacles with the charter schools piece that ran in The Atlantic was, I had difficulty getting access to the school that I focused on, which was a school in what’s known as the Collegiate Academy Charter Network there, and that actually is relatively unusual for me. I’ve found that in New Orleans and elsewhere, schools are usually pretty open and surprisingly transparent at times, and really have an interest in having good journalism that explores their strengths and challenges, but I think that particular school at that time felt kind of so under siege because of some of the pushback that they were experiencing around discipline in particular, that I couldn’t visit that school specifically for that story.

In this case, I had spent a lot of time at one of those network schools in reporting my book, so I had a lot of contacts and first-hand experience with their approach, which helped. But I think the two most important things are to try and make direct contact with families and to be as open and honest about the kind of story that you want to tell to them and to try to get as much assess to schools as you can.

LoMonte: One of the things that we’ve often encountered is, even when journalists ask for statistics, numbers, patterns and trends, they’re told all of that stuff is confidential under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, that’s almost never the case, that’s almost always a misuse of FERPA privacy, and yet it persists and schools know very well that journalists are not motivated to sue them for that type of information, so often they are forced to do without.

You were able to get some information about statistics and trends in the schools that you wrote about, about their suspension rates and about whether they were going up and they were going down. Did you find the schools to be relatively cooperative and forthcoming in providing that, or was that something that had to be extracted from them?

Carr: I found that they were relatively cooperative in providing that. One of the challenges is that so much of the data is self-reported, and I mean, I think most school operators who you deal with really do want to report data honestly and accurately, so I think it’s people who are forthright are more the norm rather than the exception, but you do have to be skeptical about any data that is self-reported, and that when I think balancing out the quantitative information with qualitative experience in a school and with interviews with teachers and families really helps.

I think in that piece, and certainly at other times in reporting on school discipline, there might be a disagreement between sort of what a school’s data suggests and what a family or a student’s impression is. Sometimes in those cases all you can really do is kind of a he said-she said type approach and say that the schools data, for instance, shows a relatively low suspension rate, but families and students say that’s out of touch with their reality. But I think it’s important in these kinds of stories not to rely on a single source of information and to try and balance the data that you’re given, if you’re given it, with first-hand observations and interviews with people who have real meaningful experience in the schools.

LoMonte: You also relied on data from the state department of education, obtained through public records requests for another piece in this award-winning package of work. That’s the piece that appeared in The Nation magazine called “Why are black students facing corporal punishment in public schools?” That piece, which was published in April of 2014, is available on TheNation.com, if you just look up Sarah Carr’s work there, and Sarah, I guess let’s pivot a minute and talk about that project, which focused on Mississippi in particular.

There are still 19 states in this country where corporal punishment is legal. They tend to cluster in the south, Mississippi being one of them. I guess, tell us Sarah, how that project came to be, where your interest came from, and what you found.

Carr: Sure, and first as I would be remiss on the data side with both corporal punishment and suspensions if I didn’t point out that there is really good Office of Civil Rights federal data on school discipline, and good in the sense that they’ve really prioritized this as an issue and have gathered a lot of information on school discipline trends, and that data is sort of the source of a lot of the concerns and publicity that we’ve seen in recent years around racial disparities in school discipline rates, and I did get some good data for the corporal punishment piece from that site.

It’s not so great data in the sense that it’s very unclean, partly as a result of the self-reporting aspect and just sort of the unwieldiness in the size and scope and I think limited staffing in terms of data collection and substantiation. It takes a lot of cleaning, and there were some errors that we found in it that we had to address when we were putting together these stories.

LoMonte: Let me just stop you right there, because that’s a wonderful caution for people. When you find a piece of data that seems too good to be true, or that seems unbelievable to you, it is possible that you do have an unbelievable story, but it is also possible that you have buggy data, and so we always caution people not to run to the presses instantly with the too-good-to-be-true story, but rather to ask questions and to find out whether there is a logical explanation, which could be data entry error, it could be some very odd one-time occurrence that happened at the school, it could be falsification, it could be a combination of several things. So that’s a very good caution for people who are doing data and statistical reporting.

Go ahead and talk about the substance of the findings when you looked at the use of corporal punishment in Mississippi.

Carr: Sure, well that story idea really came about less from the data than some of my own sort of experience watching the issue play out in New Orleans. New Orleans was home to the last Catholic school in the county that openly used a paddle, and it was an all-male, almost all-black middle and high school in New Orleans known as St. Augustine.

They were under pressure a few years ago from the archdiocese in New Orleans to end their use of corporal punishment, and even though the debate was sort of ostensibly about the use of the paddle, there was also a lot of tensions that emerged just about race and sort of a community’s right to determine how it disciplines its kids.

There were a lot of black leaders who felt this was a white-led archdiocese saying ‘we’re going to tell you how to run your school and how to discipline your kids,’ and so I thought sort of there was a much more kind of nuanced, complicated story to be told about paddling, and that’s definitely what I found in Holmes County, Mississippi, which is the place that I focused on for that piece. There were similar tensions about just sort of the history of the paddle and this fear of sort of outsiders, and a lot of times they’re cast as elite outsiders, coming in and saying ‘this is how you need to discipline or control your kids.’

And then that one, the data was even kind of more difficult just because it is, I mean, it’s such a complicated thing, and I think in that case, the state’s data didn’t match the district’s data, it didn’t match the federal data, and so it was really one where it was important to do a lot of kind of quantitative analysis and qualitative reporting to make sure that I wasn’t sort of presenting trends in a way that was too simplistic or too reliant on one source of information.

That story, in some ways, was more challenging than the school discipline piece in New Orleans just because I was an outsider to that community, and it’s a lot easier, I think, when you have lived in a place for at least a few years and you have a sense of who some of the players are and some of the context surrounding the debate, but in that case I was sort of doing a much more parachute-in approach and trying to win the trust of people to talk with me about a very sensitive and divisive issue.

LoMonte: Well one of the things that’s common to both pieces that I think really is a good tip to student journalists, who I don’t think use this resource enough, is the reliance on parents as a source. Parents provided quite a lot of the information in both pieces and were a resource and a source of some of the best and most colorful comments and quotes in these pieces. I’m looking at the paddling piece on TheNation.com and there is quite a strong difference of opinion among parents, and interestingly even among students.

There are some students that support relatively rigorous disciplinary practices, so that’s another tip for reporters working on these stories is that there is no such thing as a student perspective or an administrator perspective or a parent perspective. There are multiple perspectives, and it is important to capture those.

Carr: Yea, exactly, and I think both of those stories kind of emerged out of this really polarized debate between school administrators who felt sort of one way, and kind of an activist community that felt another way, and that really, at the end of the day when I went out and talked to parents and students, they had much more nuanced views than either the sort of the quote unquote activists or the school administrators did, and so I think, not always, but sometimes they can really play an important role in kind of complicating some of the more simplified rhetoric around these issues.

LoMonte: Well we’re going to wrap up in just a moment, but Sarah Carr, I wanted to give you a chance to just, by way of closing, just pass along any tips or advice. Let’s say I am a high school journalist, I’m interested in writing about discipline. I know it to be a sensitive subject with a lot of privacy concerns surrounding it. Perhaps something frankly that the school administration isn’t that proud of or that interested in talking about, and doubly so to a student as opposed to a professional journalist with many years invested in the field. Given all of those possible obstacles, how might you advise a student journalist to go about tackling this subject area?

Carr: I would first sort of not be daunted by kind of what you don’t know. I’ve seen probably student journalists turn away from stories like that just because they’re fearful they wont ever get sort of the data that they need, and sometimes it takes time, but I’ve just found that nine times out of 10, if you’re tenacious and have the time, it does work out in the end.

I would go back to something I said to just try and substantiate different things in as many different ways as you can through data, through first-hand observations, through interviews with people who contradict each other, and to not be overly reliant on either the sort of qualitative or the quantitative side of things.

I think we saw with the Rolling Stone piece, just the dangers of being too reliant on a single source for reporting on a really sensitive subject. As good as one person’s story might be, to always try and talk to as many folks as you can to challenge their portrayal and to challenge maybe some of your own assumptions going into reporting these pieces.

That’s another thing. I think we all have our own experience in the schools, and this is an issue where I think people in particular have kind of their own biases, and I sort of continually found my own assumptions being challenged when I was interviewing people who supported the paddle, when I was interviewing 16-year-olds who felt like no-excuses, very rigid discipline had been helpful to them, and so I just think you need to constantly remind yourself to have an open mind.

LoMonte: That’s good advise for journalists of all levels of experience, but particularly for students. I want to thank Sarah Carr for being our guest on the SPLC podcast, and I want to commend her work to everyone’s attention.

The easiest way to find it is just to go to the website of The Hechinger Report, I’m going to spell that so you can locate the website, it’s HechingerReport.org. Her excellent education reporting, and that of her colleagues, is archived there. You can just search her by Sarah Carr’s name, Sarah with an “h.”

So thanks again for joining us and I want to encourage everyone listening to check out, not just The Hechinger Report and not just the Education Writer’s Association, although please do that, but to check out all of the resources that we have for you at www.splc.org. Our attorneys are always happy to help with any reporting obstacles that you’re encountering. You can contact us at 202-785-5450, or by writing to splc@splc.org.

Thanks for listening and we’ll talk to you next month.