The Student Press Law Center is proud to honor student journalist Riya Vyas of The Union at Milpitas High School with the inaugural Student Freedom of Information Award, as well as two other high school reporting teams as finalists.
Vyas is recognized for her use of public records to report that her school had allowed teachers accused of inappropriate behavior toward students to resign quietly rather than pursue formal dismissals. The practice is a national issue that can permit offenders to find jobs at other schools, which The Union noted can continue the cycle of harassment and abuse.
SPLC announced the honors on Nov. 4 at the Fall National High School Journalism Convention in Boston, Massachusetts. The Brechner Freedom of Information Project at the University of Florida sponsors the $1,000 prize for the award.
“The winner and finalists of this year’s FOI Award illustrate how high school student journalists are tackling complex issues in their communities, and in many cases are the only ones reporting on the issues,” SPLC Executive Director Gary Green said. “From allegations of teacher misconduct to dysfunctional government agencies and unsafe school environments, these student journalists are providing a public service to their communities by investigating and holding officials accountable.”
Vyas spent more than a year reporting two April 2023 stories revealing that two Milpitas (California) High School teachers who had disappeared from school had done so after accusations of inappropriate behavior with students. Both teachers denied the allegations, which included inappropriate touching of female students.
Using public records she obtained from the district and local police, Vyas reported on the accusations and the investigations, as well as the district’s resignation agreements with the two teachers. She also spoke with students who experienced the alleged behavior and attempted to speak with school officials.
“Through the process of investigating and writing these two stories, I gained an immense amount of respect for journalism and realized its ability to make an impact,” Vyas said. “I hope this award inspires other student journalists to pursue stories that question authority and shed light on hidden problems, even if they seem improbable at first. It’s absolutely essential that we, as students and student journalists, use our power to inform and create change in our communities for the better.”
Vyas’ courageous reporting not only corrected rumors and provided transparency on these two specific incidents, but it revealed systemic issues with how the district settled allegations in a way that might allow accused teachers to find employment at other schools.
In an editorial in the same issue of the newspaper, The Union called on their district to stop signing these resignation agreements, in which the district promised not to reveal the allegations against the teachers to prospective employers. Instead, the editorial argued that, if the allegations are found to be substantial, the district should spend the time and money necessary to fully dismiss the proven offenders so they cannot gain work in other school districts. If a teacher is falsely accused, the editorial argued, an administrative hearing would likewise be worthwhile to absolve that teacher.
“This is a phenomenal use of public records laws that demonstrates the power of journalism,” said David Cuillier, director of the Joseph L. Brechner Freedom of Information Project at the University of Florida. “We hope other high school students are inspired to shed light on their schools through freedom of information.”
After Vyas broke the story about the two teachers’ resignations, a local news outlet later obtained the same public records to report a similar story.
“I would like to thank my journalism adviser, Mr. Roy, for encouraging me each step of the way and working with me to ensure the final product was objective, accurate and protected those involved without sacrificing the gravity of the story,” Vyas said. “I also want to thank all my fellow reporters for The Union, because they were incredibly supportive and constantly inspired me with their dedication to the paper.”
Two other reporting teams are also recognized as finalists for the 2023 Student Freedom of Information Award for their outstanding public records reporting.
The Globe and reporters Alexandra Cohen and Caitlin Kuhlmann (Clayton High School)
Finalists Alexandra Cohen and Caitlin Kuhlmann of The Globe at Clayton High School in Missouri used public records to report a complex story on the significant mismanagement of the St. Louis County animal shelter as it was being taken over by a nonprofit organization.
After reviewing hundreds of pages of audit data, meeting notes, renovation plans and partnership agreements, the student journalists pieced together five years of neglect and abuse at the government-run shelter. This included hundreds of mistakenly euthanized animals, years of delays in the implementation of new procedures, and issues with the process of selecting an outside nonprofit to manage the shelter.
The Graphic, reporter Talvin Dhingra and adviser Sara Barber-Just (Amherst Regional High School)
The Graphic, led by reporter Talvin Dhingra with help from adviser Sara Barber-Just, used public records to support powerful stories about transphobia and anti-LGBTQ+ behavior by students and staff at the local middle school as well as broader management issues within the school district.
Numerous sources shared detailed allegations with The Graphic that three school counselors routinely misgendered trans students and failed to support them or to address growing transphobic bullying at the middle school. The team’s story also revealed that a previously undisclosed Title IX investigation was underway.
Their story drew media attention from outlets like MassLive, The Boston Globe and WBUR, and it had a major impact toward making schools safer for LGBTQIA+ students. Among other changes at the district, three staffers and an assistant superintendent were placed on administrative leave, the superintendent took health-related leave (and has since resigned) and the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth implemented a district-wide Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students training.
About the Award
The Student Freedom of Information Award recognizes a student journalist or team of journalists for outstanding and tenacious use of public records in reporting that promotes transparency and brings important issues to light in their school or community. SPLC presents the honor in partnership with the Brechner Freedom of Information Project at the University of Florida, which provides a $1,000 prize to the high school winner.
This year’s winner and finalists were selected from a competitive group of nominations by an advisory committee of experts on public records, including Barbara A. Petersen, executive director of the Florida Center for Government Accountability; Albert Serna Jr., Whitmore FOIA Fellow at MuckRock; and Gunita Singh, staff attorney at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
The Student Press Law Center (splc.org, @splc) is an independent, nonpartisan 501(c)(3) nonprofit working at the intersection of education, journalism and the law to promote, support and defend the rights of student journalists and their advisers at the high school and college levels. Based in Washington, D.C., the Student Press Law Center provides information, training and legal assistance at no charge to student journalists and the educators who work with them.