PITTSBURG, KANSAS–The story had fallen into our laps. We had a new principal whose credentials boasted foreign experience, a doctorate and experience in school consulting. We were told that she was charismatic, personable and that she interviewed well. She had impressed every person involved in her hiring. And yet, as I, along with five other members of The Booster Redux (the Pittsburg High School newspaper in Kansas where I’m a co-editor), dug deeper, her credentials didn’t pan out.
Amy Robertson was hired on March 6, 2017 by the USD 250 school district. Shortly afterward, a member of the Booster (our nickname for the school paper) was scheduled to write a routine piece introducing Ms. Robertson to Pittsburg High School. What that member stumbled upon while researching the article was much more controversial than I had ever anticipated. Ms. Robertson claimed to have received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Tulsa and a master’s degree and doctorate from Corllins University, a university that the Internet had deemed a “diploma mill.”
Google search quickly became our greatest asset. We began scouring the Internet, intent on finding as much about Corllins University as Google search would offer. The story we were writing about Ms. Robertson quickly transformed from a simple introduction into a discussion about accreditation mills and scams.
When we took these concerns about her educational background to an administrator, he recognized our worries, and a Skype interview with Ms. Robertson, the administrator, our adviser and the six members of the Booster was scheduled.
Ms. Robertson, we soon discovered, was not as personable when questioned about her educational background. The conference call justified all our concerns. Ms. Robertson repeatedly failed to properly answer questions about the location of Corllins University and its lack of accreditation status. Our story became not just important, but essential.
After a week-long hiatus for spring break, our team hit the ground running. We made numerous calls and emails to the Kansas Department of Education, various city departments in Stockton, California and Pittsburg State University. Our adviser, Emily Smith, became our greatest proponent. While she had recused herself, for reasons regarding her role in the interviewing process, she encouraged us to be headstrong in the pursuit of our story. When we felt apprehensive about printing the story, Mrs. Smith provided us with the pep talk needed for us to recognize the significance of our work.
As the print date loomed ahead, Eric Thomas, director of the Kansas Scholastic Press Organization, and Andra Stefanoni, a freelance journalist, also assisted us in the creation of the story.
For two nights before the story was published, I was overwhelmed with feelings of fear and anxiety. While Eric, Andra, and Mrs. Smith remained supportive, self-doubt crept in. We were teenagers exposing the faults in a system that was created by adults who were supposed to be more experienced and intelligent than us.
The day the story printed, it felt like the calm before a storm. Our adviser had a member of our team send out our story to various newspapers in Kansas to rally support for it. Faculty members, students, and community members remained mute as they processed the immensity of the story we had just published.
On April 4, 2017, the USD 250 board of education held an emergency board meeting. At the meeting, the board announced that they would be accepting the resignation of Amy Robertson.
When Mará Williams, a reporter for the Kansas City Star, published her article about Ms. Robertson’s resignation and our work in the Booster that same day, her article became the catalyst for the publicity that followed.
During the next few days, The Washington Post, CNN and Good Morning America flocked to our high school in southeast Kansas. Those two days were marked by a torrent of phone calls, emails and on-camera interviews. Room 604, our student publications classroom, became our headquarters as we fielded calls and requests from various media sources.
The amount of press we received was incomprehensible. We watched as people from around the world responded to us, teenagers in a small town in Kansas. I’m incredibly thankful for the support we received from anyone who shared, commented or reached out to us on social media.
As a student journalist, I continually strive to provide factual, well-written pieces for my school newspaper. The press we received for this issue was monumental, but it shouldn’t overshadow the work done by student journalists all the time. The other editors and I were merely doing the duty of all journalists when we stumbled upon this story: seeking the truth. Our administrators, adults and people in power should be held accountable for telling the truth. Deceit and dishonesty should not be rewarded with handsome salaries and positions of power, and to do so would be to encourage those in power to lie.
Journalism is necessary to ensure that those around us are being honest. Its ability to rally, divide and inform the public comes from its simple reporting of the facts. This experience has provided me with a firsthand view of how journalism has the ability to instigate real, impactful change. And I’m eternally grateful for all of it.
Trina Paul is a senior at Pittsburg High School. She currently works as a co-editor, writer and designer for The Booster Redux. She enjoys battling the effects of senioritis while figuring out where she will attend college.