Dogged reporting earns student journalists, adviser national award

Friday, November 11, 2005

The next generation of intrepid student journalists will be recognized tomorrow when four students from DeSoto High School in Dallas and their media adviser receive the 2005 Courage in Student Journalism Awards.

Eric Gentry and Zach Krohn, former editors of the student newspaper the Eagle Eye, and reporters Whitney Basil and Jeremy Willis will share the $5,000 scholarship awarded by the Newseum, the Student Press Law Center and the National Scholastic Press Association. Carol Richtsmeier, the students’ media adviser, will also receive a $5,000 award for her role.

Gentry and Richtsmeier will accept the award at the National Scholastic Press Association/Journalism Education Association Fall Convention, which will be held in Chicago.

“This year’s awards could not have gone to a more deserving group,” Newseum Programs Director Rich Foster said in an Oct. 27 press release. “The courage exhibited by these students and their adviser is matched by the superior quality of their research and reporting.”

In November 2004, the students began an investigation into a $65,000 program approved by the DeSoto school board to determine the extent of gang-related activity at the school. The program, called Project JAMS (Just Another Means of Success), was scheduled to run for five years and help eradicate gang violence in the school.

“There’s not a gang problem at all, it’s just a bunch of high school kids — crazy high school kids, but not bad high school kids,” Gentry said. “Since we knew we didn’t have a gang problem, that was one of the first things that we checked into, and Zach (Krohn) wrote a story about that.”

Sportswriter Basil moved beyond her usual role covering school sports to research whether DeSoto High School had any other programs similar enough to Project JAMS to make it a superfluous expenditure.

“My role was to figure out what other programs we had at our school that were similar to (JAMS director Amon) Rashidi’s program,” Basil said. “What I found was that the school already had two intervention programs, so there was really no need for Project JAMS.”

“When I talked to other students,” Basil said, “what they said was that it didn’t seem like he [Rashidi] would even be needed at our school.”

The students, unnerved by Rashidi’s request for nearly $1 million before the program even began, set out to investigate Rashidi and the program. In a series of articles in the Eagle Eye, the students alerted their readers to a history laden with scandal.

“We looked at (Rashidi’s) resume that he turned in, because it’s public record, and he listed all these awards that he had won, that he was on TV all the time, but none of us had ever seen him or heard of him,” Gentry said. “It seemed a little suspicious, so that was when we started checking him out.”

“We checked the references on his resume, calling the places that he claimed to work, and most of them were like, ‘Well, he’s never worked here,’ and the few schools that he had worked at were saying, ‘Get your money back, he’s a con man, and he’s going to steal all your money,’” Gentry said.

Even with well-sourced stories, the students still were criticized for what they were writing.

“We had a lot of students who didn’t think we were doing the right thing, students who supported Project JAMS,” Krohn said. “Most of our criticism came from adults who hadn’t been to our school who had heard what was going on.”

The DeSoto school board threatened to censor the paper, and Project JAMS warned of legal action, although neither action was taken against the Eagle Eye.

For the students, the Project JAMS story proved well worth pursuing. Although the Desoto High School did approve an initial $65,000 payment to Rashidi, the additional money he had requested was denied, and the program was canceled.

Despite criticisms and the school board’s condemnation, Richtsmeier stood behind the investigative work of her students because she said she believed in the lessons taught in the newsroom.

“I think that it is really important for teenagers in particular to exercise their First Amendment rights. If we don’t teach them the responsibilities associated with them, then we fail to make them good citizens,” Richtsmeier said.

“You can’t teach them about the First Amendment if a school newspaper doesn’t function like a real newspaper.”

Richtsmeier said she was taken aback to hear she had won the Courage in Student Journalism Award. She had simply performed her duties as a journalism teacher, she said.

Winning the award “was surprising in the sense that I felt that I did what any media adviser would have done,” Richtsmeier said. “I stood up for my kids. I just really don’t think that I would have been a good adviser if I hadn’t stood behind them.”

Richtsmeier said she left DeSoto High School at the end of the 2004 school year because of the school board’s censorship threats.

“After 15 years, I had to leave a nationally recognized program because I could not, in good conscience, work for a school district that did not support my students and who philosophically began its walk down a path toward censorship,” Richtsmeier said in the Oct. 27 press release. She is currently a publications adviser and journalism teacher at Midlothian High School in Midlothian, Texas. Richtsmeier said the attitude at Midlothian High school was much more encouraging and supportive of student journalism.

Almost a year after publishing their first story on Project JAMS, Krohn says he believes in what he and the other students did, and the lessons he learned.

“I think that the process taught me a whole lot. The truth will always win out,” Krohn said. “I think the truth is always worth fighting for, even if you are the only one fighting for it.”

For Krohn, the First Amendment served as a useful tool, but he stressed using it “responsibly.”

“There are a lot of papers and TV shows out there that don’t relay the truth, that misuse the First Amendment,” Krohn said. “In our case, we double- and triple-checked everything. [Our critics] didn’t have the grounds to say we shouldn’t have printed what we did, based on the First Amendment.”

“I definitely think though that the First Amendment was one of our sticking points,” Krohn said.

Basil and Krohn are freshmen at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and Willis is in his first year at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Gentry, now a freshman at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas, also received a $25,000 Free Spirit scholarship from the Freedom Forum in March 2005.

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