Introducing Active Voice Fellow Paula Pecorella

An extensive background check on Active Voice fellow Paula Pecorella will reveal that she was arrested at seventeen. This has led to some uncomfortable conversations with employers, she said, but she can explain.

As a senior, Pecorella led an investigation on her school’s security procedure as the managing editor for Paw Prints, the West Islip High School newspaper. Looking for the next big story to win the Long Island Press high school journalism award, she instead found herself handcuffed in the back of a police car, charged with trespassing – a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail.

Her story started when West Islip charged students $10 each for key cards to access its buildings. The school called it a security measure; Pecorella called it a money-making “ridiculous policy.” She thought the cards to be ineffective on school grounds loosely monitored by oblivious guards and outdated surveillance cameras, which clever students and outsiders could circumvent.

As an experiment, Pecorella asked two friends at different high schools in the area to walk onto her school grounds to see if they’d encounter any resistance from security. They did not. After walking around the first and second floors, they exited the building without any problems. To take this story one step further, with the approval of her newspaper advisor, Pecorella and the Paw Prints Features editor headed over to North Babylon High School to test if another high school’s campus security would be as lax.

Security guards immediately approached the student reporters after they stepped into a building and asked for identification. At this point, the students lied and said their cards were in the car and were escorted out the doors, ordered not to come back without proper ID. They managed to get back in, however, when a student exiting the building opened the door for them, only to be apprehended again by security and this time, escorted to the dean’s office.

Despite their explanation that this was for an investigative story, the dean called the police and had the students arrested to show them his school’s “full extent of security.” From a jail cell, Pecorella used her one phone call to reach her advisor before being bailed out by her parents for $50.

“That night, we got right on Skype and wrote up the whole story. In the morning, we brought it in to [our advisor] who told us it was brilliant, and agreed that it was a strong contender for Story of the Year,” Pecorella said. “Only about an hour later, she was called into a long meeting with the principal, superintendent, head of the English department, and other administrators to discuss what had happened.”

After the meeting, Pecorella’s advisor told her that she would not be allowed to run the story or risk not being able to walk at graduation or go to prom. The administration also warned the students about their reputations with colleges, threatening to compromise their prospective acceptances.

“It was a senior’s worst nightmare,” she said.

Pecorella then pleaded with the principal, who dismissed the story as a whole because he felt it “glorified” their actions and “made the school district look bad.”

“He basically told me, ‘School security story is off the table. Don’t bring it up again,’ and in that moment, I felt so angry because I realized that I was being censored.”

Near the end of the school year, Pecorella’s advisor wanted to dedicate the last issue’s editorial thanking the principal. Infuriated, she wrote to the New York Times and, within minutes, picked up a call from Al Baker who helped her break the headline she wanted.

“I didn’t know my rights as a student,” Pecorella said. “I didn’t know where that line was drawn about free press and free speech.”

This is what pushed Pecorella to apply to Active Voice: to be able to educate high school students about their rights. She hopes to do this through teaching video storytelling to younger girls, combining her passions of students’ rights and journalism.

“I love to tell stories and I have always felt that video is the most effective form of storytelling when you have a big topic to cover,” she said. “During my internship last year with CBS News, I got to see how the entire production process works in a national news room and I fell in love with the television industry.“

In addition to an internship with CBS’ 48 Hours, Pecorella was selected last year as the Global Integrated Journalism Fellow of Stony Brook University in New York. As a junior, she traveled to eleven countries by sea. When she wasn’t in classes on a boat, she wrote feature stories about the places she visited. Among her favorite stories was one she wrote on a Burmese monk who broke tradition by using technology.

After college, this Active Voice fellow hopes to become an executive producer at a major network and possibly run a show on scientific developments and new technology.