NEWS RELEASE: Not “fake news:” National award celebrates tenacious New York City high school journalists whose reporting forced school leadership change
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Nov. 16, 2017
For its intensive coverage of the combative tenure of an interim principal whose reign sparked a campus sit-in and petitions, The Classic at Townsend Harris High School is the recipient of the Student Press Law Center’s 2017 Courage in Student Journalism Award.
“These stories were maligned as “fake news” by the subject of these stories and her supporters,” said SPLC Executive Director Hadar Harris. “We’re here not only to affirm that the journalism done by these young reporters is accurate and in context, but to celebrate it at a national convention of 4,000-plus high school journalists.”
Led by 2016-17 Editor-in-Chief Sumaita Hasan and Managing Editor Mehrose Ahmad, The Classic, based in Flushing, N.Y., published a series of stories about the interim principal’s alleged rude interactions towards students and teachers, which reportedly also occurred at her previous outpost. They also reported she was shopping for office furniture, though her appointment had not been made permanent.
Discussions of the interim appointment were conducted in secret, and The Classic filed a Freedom of Information request to get the names of the 38 applicants. Coverage included live streaming a protest. After months of turmoil, students, teachers and parents rallied and in the spring of this year, someone else was appointed principal.
“I think that Mehrose and I simply wanted to report on the truth amidst a tense environment where there was a lot of hearsay circulating,” Hasan said. “As a school with First Amendment rights, it was our duty to share the truth with the public and bring controversies to light. We were the only source with direct access to the students and teachers involved.”
“I primarily hope that our story teaches other students to recognize their own self-worth and their ability to create significant changes in bureaucratic systems,” Hasan said. “As students, we often get lost in the monotony of schoolwork. We are far from realizing our true dreams and the longing to get to them fast enough becomes burdensome. Partaking in activities like high school journalism truly trains students to go after their bigger dreams. Thus, for those who are currently working on difficult stories, remember that it is very possible to attain success. Also, remember that all the work you put in will shape your character for the rest of your life. Mehrose and I continue to encounter situations in which our journalistic skills come in handy. We are now braver than we were in the past.”
Hasan is currently a freshman in the Macaulay Honors program at Hunter College and Ahmad is a freshman at Barnard College of Columbia University, both in Manhattan.
“Receiving this award directly refutes the label of “fake news” that members of the Department of Education used to target our work,” Ahmad said. “This award demonstrates how our simple mission of trying to provide our direct community with accurate news developed into something much more admirable. I think that this award also will allow other student journalists to recognize how much impact they can have on a wide range of communities.”
“I advise other high school journalists to remain persistent and continue to write for the sole purpose of providing accurate information. Remaining persistent is the key to establishing contacts amongst your community, and these contacts will fuel your stories. Remain fearless and unafraid when confronting those of higher authority. Speak the truth and stand by the truth and know your rights.”
Both students credit adviser Brian Sweeney with backing them as the controversy heated up and the school got the attention of The New York Times, WNYC public radio, the Village Voice and even Teen Vogue.
“When you have students as gifted and courageous as Mehrose and Sumaita, your role as an adviser is clear: do whatever you can to support them,” Sweeney said. “Once Mehrose and Sumaita made the decision to livestream a controversial event at our school, there was no going back: they were out there and they needed me to be out there with them.”
“I think the most difficult job of an adviser is knowing when to step back and when to step in. When I stepped back, Mehrose and Sumaita never failed to earn the total trust I placed in them, and when I stepped in to be more involved, they knew how to learn enough from my advice to make it possible for me to continually step back more. It was an ideal relationship, and there are few chances that educators get to witness and contribute to students who can perform at their level. I am proud to be honored in the same category as Mehrose and Sumaita,” Sweeney said.
“When I was hired, I was told that it was now my responsibility to defend the First Amendment rights of the students of Townsend Harris. I am lucky to work at a school that makes passing on that responsibility a priority, and I don't believe any educational institution can truly say that it promotes critical thinking unless it supports and defends a free and open press within its walls,” Sweeney said.
The award is jointly sponsored by the Student Press Law Center, the Center for Scholastic Journalism at Kent State University and the National Scholastic Press Association. The CSJ provided the $1,000 award to The Classic.
It will be presented on Nov. 18 at the fall National High School Journalism Convention in Dallas
The Student Press Law Center (splc.org, @splc) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit founded in 1974 to provide legal support for those working in student journalism nationwide. The SPLC advocates for openness and accountability in educational institutions through rigorous enforcement of state and federal disclosure laws.
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