How Kansas high school journalists exposed a principal’s puffed-up resume

By now, you’ve probably read about the teenage David Fahrentholds in Kansas who published a report Friday about their recently hired principal, whose credentials raised questions. Well, I had a front-row seat to the reporting process, and I’m excited to share some of what I saw.

The basic story: Student journalists at Pittsburg High School had budgeted a piece about their incoming principal, Amy Robertson, to introduce her to the PHS community. When they tried to verify claims she had made about her education and professional experience, however, the students hit a wall. Then another. And another.

The claims didn’t check out.

Ultimately, the students produced a 1,600-word story that peeled back, layer by layer, Robertson’s resume. They called government offices, dredged databases, interviewed people, and conducted international conference calls—all while some district officials, including the superintendent, stood by the principal.

State papers followed up on the students’ reporting, and by Tuesday night Robertson had resigned. The local board of education issued a brief statement saying she felt it was in the district’s “best interest” because of “the issues that arose.”

So how did I have a front-row seat? When I’m not writing for CJR, I’m a journalism professor at the University of Kansas, home of the Kansas Scholastic Press Association. Its director, Eric Thomas, called me March 14 to tell me about a story he was working on with student journalists for the PHS paper, The Booster Redux.

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He described the origins and outlines of what would become the groundbreaking story, and we discussed strategies for reporting it. He would go on, with PHS journalism adviser Emily Smith and former Booster Redux editor Andra Stefanoni, now a freelance journalist, to support and guide the students to press. I just offered, along with Frank LoMonte of the Student Press Law Center, my thoughts on how to gather and write up certain information.

What amazed me throughout the process was the students’ resilience—and that of Smith, Thomas, and Stefanoni. First, they worried the story would provoke a retaliatory response from the district. Although the superintendent encouraged the students to report it (thanks to the Kansas Student Publications Act as much as his benevolence), he also said publicly that the concerns about Robertson’s credentials were much ado about nothing.

“That was disappointing,” Thomas tells me. “The superintendent gave the impression that the new principal had answered everyone’s questions fully and satisfactorily. And so by extension, that meant the students were wasting their time. But they put their heads down and kept working.”

(The superintendent did not respond to an interview request from CJR.)

The Booster Redux also worried about the relative quiet after publication. From Friday to Monday, the only notable response had come from the superintendent, who told the local newspaper, the Morning Sun, that the concerns about Robertson’s credentials were, as the paper put it, “groundless.”

“A long few days,” Thomas says. “Eerily silent. We thought for a little while that we had published a major story and that nobody cared, no change would occur. That had been a concern of ours before publication, too.”

Thomas shared the story with reporters at the Topeka Capital-Journal and the Associated Press, among others, with the hope that they would follow up. The Capital-Journal broke the silence Monday, having initiated its own investigation the morning the students’ story went up. The next day, the Kansas City Star weighed in.

“That’s when we felt a bit better,” Thomas tells me.

For their part, the students have been on an out-and-back roller coaster. “I was so nervous about the whole story,” Maddie Baden, a 17-year-old Booster Redux writer who worked on the story, tells me. “I knew we had good sources, but I’m not the go-getter type. This was really difficult from that standpoint. But we understood it was an important story, and we were capable of telling it—and that’s what we did.”

I asked her how it feels now, listing some of the professional journalists who have noted their work.

“It’s shocking,” she says. “I never thought this story would be as big as it’s gotten. We’ve all been excited to have so many people read the story and take it seriously. We’ve been overwhelmed. This whole experience was a great opportunity and brought us closer as a staff.”

But she hastened to add that it was also hard work.

“[Smith, Thomas, and Stefanoni] required us to have good sources—multiple sources—to back up all of our claims,” Baden says. “And then we had to figure out how to take all of the information we had and not just present it as a list—but as a narrative that made sense and was interesting. I didn’t know at first how hard that would be.”

Part of a curricular newspaper class at PHS, The Booster Redux is published 10 times a year and has 25 staff members, and six of them—all juniors but one, between 16 and 18 years old—produced the story about Robertson. They did the reporting over roughly two weeks and wrote it in a couple of days, using a shared Google Doc. Each writer added his or her own piece and helped edit the others, while Thomas and Stefanoni offered guidance and delegated.

“We couldn’t have done the story if they hadn’t pushed us the way they did,” Baden tells me. “They didn’t tell us what to do, but they helped us set goals and reach them. It was so amazing to learn from them.”

By then, Smith, the PHS journalism adviser and teacher, had recused herself from the editorial process because she had served on the school resume-review committee that recommended Robertson for an interview and follow up.

Thomas, Stefanoni, and the students held a conference call the day before the story went to press and two calls the day it went.

“We wanted to be sure everyone was on the same page, that we had done all we could do and that we were comfortable with it,” Thomas tells me. “The hardest part for the students was writing and editing the first five grafs. They didn’t see what the story was, its central features, so we had discussions about what the reader needs to know up top to understand what comes later. Then they saw it and got it.”

Thomas says they also needed to fill in some holes. “When we started editing, we found that some sources in the story had been interviewed and identified informally—without last names, for example,” he says. “We adopted a rule that those sources couldn’t be used, so the students, on deadline, called those sources again and confirmed all the information, with full names and titles. It was a learning experience. And then I bugged you again.”

Thomas called me the day before the story went live to ask me to read the final draft—to flag any reporting deficiencies. I made a couple of very minor suggestions, and I told him I thought the students had done a hell of a job. And soon the journalism community writ large agreed. They’ve been covered by news organizations around the world, and they’ve received enthusiastic notes and tweets from journalists at The New York Times, Boston Globe, The Washington Post, even Fahrenthold himself.

I’m proud of the students—and I’m beyond happy for Smith, Thomas, and Stefanoni, who expertly guided and supported them. They richly deserve the kudos they’re getting. I’m also happy for The Booster Redux, because it’s had a difficult 13 months, after losing a staff member in March 2016 to a car accident.

“That was devastating for the staff,” Thomas says. “It’s nice to see them in the sunshine again.”

I’ll be curious to see what comes next, too. The students have said they plan to do follow-up reporting on the Robertson affair, and as high school juniors and seniors, they’re trying to figure out what to do after they graduate.

“A lot of us hadn’t thought about journalism as a career, but this has sparked my interest,” Baden tells me. “I’ve always thought I wanted to teach at the elementary level, but maybe I’ll change my mind. This was fun. And I’m glad we did it.”

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Jonathan Peters is CJR’s press freedom correspondent. An attorney, he is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, where he teaches and researches media law and policy, with an affiliate research position exploring big data and Internet governance in the KU Information & Telecommunication Technology Center. Peters has blogged on free expression for the Harvard Law & Policy Review, and he has written for Esquire, The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, Slate, The Nation, Wired, and PBS. Follow him on Twitter @jonathanwpeters.