Sahana Unni’s reporting explores challenges LGBTQIA+ students face at her school

Sahana Unni working at a desktop in her newsroom with the Behind The Story logo to the left

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 SPLC’s series, Behind the Story, we highlight examples of bold journalism done by high school and collegiate student journalists across the country.

Headshot of Sahana Unni.

This week, SPLC spoke with Sahana Unni, a junior at the University of Chicago Laboratory High School. Unni, the features editor at U-High Midway, shared what it was like writing her story “Pronoun Problems: Students frustrated when teachers don’t use the right pronouns.” 

RW: What was it like reporting on this story? Were there any challenges you faced?

SU: It was really fun to report on. I think the biggest challenge that I faced was when finding sources. Because, first of all, there isn’t a huge population of nonbinary students at my school, and that was kind of what the story was focused on. And, the bigger issue was that there weren’t many that were willing to go on the record about their experience, because I think that in high school, students are worried about talking about how teachers are treating them. I did an interview where the student at the end of it asked me not to use their name or anything. So it made it a little bit difficult to respect the student’s privacy while still creating an accurate depiction of their experience.

RW: Were there any pieces of work that popped up that you didn’t expect?

SU: A Spanish teacher at my school named Ms. Foote talked a lot about the difficulties with having such a gendered language, like Spanish, and trying to make students feel validated and comfortable if they choose to go by they/them pronouns. Also, she talked about this movement in the Spanish language to make words less gendered and how it has been difficult to create a standard in high school when it’s so up in the air. 

RW: What is something you learned while you were working on this story?

SU: I learned a lot about nonbinary students’ experiences at my school. Since there isn’t a huge population of them at my school, I hadn’t had any deep conversations about what it’s like. And so, I learned a lot about day-to-day struggles that they have. And I think that it really built a lot of empathy in me and made me want to act more on their situations. 

RW: What advice would you give to other student journalists who are looking to report on an important story like yours?

SU: I got very lucky because my school has pretty easy-going rules when it comes to censorship and everything. There aren’t really rules for what we can and can’t report about. But I think, honestly, the biggest thing is to, first of all, take on challenges and try to not be super afraid of the consequences you may face when writing such an important story. And then, also, just to really try to capture your sources’ experiences. Because when writing such a contentious story, it’s really important not to misconstrue people’s words. So you have to be really careful about that. 

RW: Why is it so important to tell stories about gender?

SU: Right now, where we are in American society, there’s a lot of debates and questions about gender specifically. And, in a high school, you really want to make sure that all students feel comfortable, included and safe. So I think that telling this story and trying to make sure that other people understand these experiences brings to light these struggles that they’re facing and puts pressure on schools to address these struggles. 

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