What's next for Kansas high school students whose story led to principal's ouster

Monday, August 21st, 2017 

Tennessee_Watson

Photo by Emily Smith, the Redux adviser

From left to right: Bottom: Maddie Baden, Trina Paul, Kali Poenitske, Gina Matthews, Top: Patrick Sullivan, Connor Balthazor

The six high school students in Pittsburg, Kansas, whose investigative journalism led to the resignation of their newly appointed principal, are still reveling in the wake of an article that swept the nation. 

The teenage journalists from Pittsburg High School’s The Booster Redux have called for Schools Superintendent Destry Brown to take responsibility for his initial support of the principal who claimed to have a degree from Corllins University, which is not an accredited school. Robertson resigned in April, five days after the story was published.

“When we looked it up, the first things that popped up on Google search were the words ‘diploma mill,’ ” said Trina Paul, the former editor of the Redux who graduated this year.

Paul and the other students brought their concerns about Amy Robertson, the principal, to Brown in three separate meetings. 

“He just kind of pushed us off,” said Maddie Baden, another Redux editor and rising senior.

“We told him ‘I don’t think this is a real university and I don’t think she’s telling the truth,’” said Kali Poenitske, a rising senior and editor. “He didn’t necessarily seem to care that much.”

Brown and Robertson both claimed she had received her degree from Corllins before the institution lost accreditation, according to an article by The Morning Sun, a local newspaper in Kansas. 

The Redux staff failed to find a building permit for Corllins University, and Robertson claimed she had attended some classes on campus. Robertson further claimed she had a bachelor of fine arts in theater from the University of Tulsa, but that school has never offered that degree.

“I don’t think we’ve ever hired anyone from Tulsa,” Brown said in an interview with the Workshop. “We don’t know what those transcripts look like. I know what Pittsburg State’s looks like, or Kansas State University or Kansas University.” 

The students pushed for Brown to take more responsibility for his initial support of Robertson and for failing to recognize her questionable credentials. In a May editorial, the students wrote further that the Unified School District 250 Board of Education failed to hold him accountable. 

Brown now said that he’s proud of the students for their tenacious reporting.

“The kids helped us to get that moving along a lot faster,” Brown continued. “The research that the kids did helped us because it gave me leverage to use against her. I was proud of them. They certainly represented our school well, and our district.”

Poenitske knew her paper’s work would put honesty first, but she admits they wanted more, she said.

“A public apology would also have been nice, but that did not really happen from Brown either,” Poenitske said. “I think, mainly, we were wanting more of the community to believe in us.”

The Board of Education vowed to examine its hiring procedures in the wake of the story. The Redux staff met with board members to discuss hiring procedures and Brown’s initial dismissal of the journalists’ discovery. 

In response, the school board hired an independent consultant to investigate its hiring practices. The consultant recommended that the school district consider a wider pool of candidates and require potential employees to produce a teaching or administrative license from their current workplace. 

“One of the questions that school board asked was if we would ever be able to trust him again,” Poenitske said of Brown. “I know all of the parents said we would not be able to trust him. But nothing has been done right now. He is still our superintendent.” 

The story ultimately went viral, attracting widespread attention to the student journalists and their investigative reporting. 

The Washington Post, The New York Times and NPR all covered the Kansas students’ reporting, which scored them a table at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in late April courtesy of HuffPost. 

“It was such an inspiration to be in the room with such distinguished journalists, and to have the opportunity to rub elbows with people who are the best in the journalism field,” Paul said. “It was probably one of the best experiences of my life.”

Not everyone was happy with the article. Although negative reactions from other students and teachers were mostly positive, there was some backlash against their story. 

The Booster Redux staff reached out to the nonprofit Student Press Law Center, which helps student journalists navigate censorship issues, during its reporting. 

The journalists were at first hesitant to go after the story because they feared their school’s response, Poenitske said. SPLC staffers helped quell these fears by reviewing the law with the students and ensuring their were no defamation concerns. 

“We saw the train coming down the tracks but we had no idea the impact it was going to have and how it was going to reverberate around the country,” said Frank LoMonte, SPLC’s outgoing executive director. “The fact that this story was taken so seriously by people in authority, that it led to real change and that it went viral around the country was a wonderful, pleasant surprise.” 

The SPLC is the only legal assistance agency which works exclusively with supporting high school and college journalists, which, according to LoMonte, is more important than ever as mainstream journalism suffers severe job loss. 

“That’s a lot of news that’s going uncovered, and that’s a lot of responsibility and opportunity for students,” LoMonte continued. “There are definitely school districts around the country where a high school student is the only reporter who shows up at the school board meetings on a regular basis. 

To deal with heavy-handed administrators, LoMonte recommends student journalists look to the reporters at Flushing High School in New York. There, the principal prevented the publication of an article that criticized engagement of teachers at the school. The students quickly had The New York Post publish their work instead.

 “Don’t assume that just because you get a ‘no’ from the administrators that there is a brick wall,” LoMonte said.  

The students who got the story are now looking ahead to college or another year at the Redux. 

Paul, who was editor during the Robertson reporting, will attend Swarthmore College this fall. 

She is considering a major in economics and intends to continue journalism on one of Swarthmore’s student publications. She and others said they never considered how much they could do with reporting skills and journalism knowledge. 

Poenitske, who spent the summer volunteering at the Hugh O’Brien Youth Leadership program, is also considering a career in journalism. 

“After the Robertson investigation, we were all kind of like ‘Wow, there’s more to this than what we thought,’ ” Poenitske said. “I’ve thought about [journalism] more on the business side of it, maybe being a journalist but not necessarily in a newsroom.”

The future of these editors is still unwritten, as is the future of further investigations from The Booster Redux. 

The August edition of the newspaper will introduce new faculty members and welcome students back to school — under the direction of a new administrator. 

A press release from the board announced that Phil Bressler began as principal July 1. An independent firm tapped him while USD 250’s hiring methods were undergoing review. 

He has worked in secondary school management for 17 years, most recently as principal of Paola High School. 

The release made no mention of where Bressler attended school. 

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