Interview by Rei Wolfsohn, Storytelling Intern at the Student Press Law Center. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Student journalists are instrumental in telling important — and often untold — stories for their communities. In our series, Behind the Story, SPLC highlights examples of bold journalism done by high school and collegiate student journalists.
SPLC spoke with Leila Saidane, a sophomore at the University of Texas, Austin, to chat about her story, “Putting a wrench in the school-to-prison pipeline: Alternatives to zero-tolerance discipline in public schools.” Saidane works as the investigative reporter and associate photo editor for The Daily Texan.
Check out past Q&As here.
RW: How did you first come across this story?
LS: This summer for The Daily Texan, my beat was research, and so my job was to comb through things like Nature.com and publications the university put out and see if there’s anything that was newsworthy for students. I found this student paper in a publication by a bunch of seniors or masters students that each focused on a certain element in social work. One that caught my eye was the school-to-prison pipeline [piece] because I thought there were a lot of newsworthy elements to tie into it.
RW: What was it like reporting on this story? Did you face any challenges?
LS: I think any difficulties in particular were identifying the issues that I wanted to highlight in the article because I think that the information I got was a lot. One of the challenges was making a Texas tie.
RW: Were there any pieces of work that popped up that you didn’t expect?
LS: The stats that came up were really crazy. As someone who went through public school in Texas from kindergarten through to higher ed, it was really interesting to see these patterns and think I totally saw this at school and I saw the results of the kids who got caught into this system because I saw the methods of zero-tolerance.
RW: What is something you learned while you were working on this story?
LS: I think I learned how to approach a topic like this. This was the first time I tackled school-to-prison pipelines. And when dealing with sensitive topics like these, that especially hold so much weight because of other issues with racism and bigotry and social tensions, it was a learning experience to use the right language and figure out the right issues to address.
RW: What advice would you give to other student journalists who are looking to report on an important story like yours?
I would look under every rock, in every nook and cranny, because you can find some really valuable research and dialogue that students and professors are creating.— Leila Saidane
LS: Specifically, on issues like this, I think that looking into your social work school or looking to restorative justice and the kind of work researchers do at your school is a great way to write about issues that you really care about.
RW: Why is it so important to tell stories about prison and the school-to-prison pipeline?
LS: This story, I hope, has put more of a name and a definition to the phenomenon that a lot of us Texas students have gone through or have observed in the school system. I think it’s important to societally address the issues and why things like zero-tolerance are an issue and why other things work. It’s not a discipline issue, it’s a compassion and support issue. If we can define that narrative societally, that works toward the issue of the school-to-prison pipeline.
RW: What did your editors have to say about the story before you published it? Did they want you to adjust the story in any way?
LS: What I did have to do is go through the Diversity and Inclusion board [at the paper] to make sure that everything was accurate and sensitive. With my editors, we really had to find exactly the angle I wanted to take on this because there were a lot of elements to throw in. I was talking about both the research paper and this past study from 2012, so it was like how can this be newsworthy and relevant but how can this not focus on just a paper. I think the lede really tells why this story is important. This story was really streamlined for me to write after I could identify why it was important to write.
RW: Do you have anything else to add about the story or journalism in general?
LS: Student journalism is a great way to get involved and informed on your community, and to get others involved and informed on your community. I think little stories like this that add chips to the pile of addressing an issue or bringing social awareness, is more valuable than one might think. That’s why I think journalism is valuable and student journalism is really valuable, even if reporting is not a lifelong career that you want to pursue.
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