With school discrimination coverage, a suburban weekly flexes its muscles

O'Fallon Weekly editor Nick Miller and reporter Angela Simmons. Photo courtesy of Melissa Federhofer/Studio 50 Photography

ANGELA SIMMONS spent the past year breaking stories on the schools beat for the tiny O’Fallon Weekly, named for its suburban St. Louis community on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. Her reporting on the Central 104 school district exposed teacher discrimination against African American students and retribution by the school board when parents spoke up. The coverage peaked in late January, when the Weekly published a 2,300-word story about a lawsuit that detailed “19 counts of discrimination and retaliation against the students, parents and coaches,” issues the paper helped to uncover.

“That’s the first time I really thought, ‘I am a journalist,’” Simmons says. “Before then, I thought of myself as a mom who writes on the side.”

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The O’Fallon Weekly is only three years old, but the hyperlocal is already digging in. Its reporters attend public meetings that previously received scant media attention, and challenge officials who try to conduct public business in private.

For her January coup, Simmons acquired video footage and documents in order to show how school officials tried to tone down parent concerns and hide disciplinary actions that it took against a teacher who called two students “slaves.” During Simmons’ reporting, the school district refused on several occasions to hand over public documents. The Weekly asked the state attorney general’s Public Access Bureau to intervene on its behalf about 10 times in order to get the documents it sought. The Public Access Counselor, on behalf of the Public Access Bureau, has responded to half of the requests so far, and each time ruled in favor of the newspaper, ordering the release of information. “We have not lost yet,” says Weekly Editor Nick Miller.

 

Parents started talking, and we started dropping FOIA requests. We knew they were talking about stuff in closed session they shouldn’t have been talking about.

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SIMMONS, WHO SPENT A DECADE working in social services, is one of four reporters at the paper, which started in 2015.

Miller started the paper to fill a hole in news reporting in O’Fallon. The daily Belleville News-Democrat, also in St. Clair County in southwestern Illinois, does not provide the kind of local community reporting that a hyperlocal can, says Miller. (The Belleville paper publishes a weekly insert called the O’Fallon Progress.)

“I was initially worried that people wouldn’t think they needed us,” says Miller, who studied journalism at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and dreamed of being a film critic. “What I found was the opposite. ‘Oh, thank God you are here. No one covers the kids. No one does this.’ It’s all the community stuff. I had worked for Carlyle and these little towns. I brought that mentality. They’ve glommed onto it.” Now, Miller picks it up from the printer each week and then mails copies to 1,100 homes in and around O’Fallon, Illinois.

The O’Fallon Weekly had been covering the usual community news—boil water orders, proposed developments, teacher pay—when Simmons attended a Central 104 school board meeting one night in November 2016.

It was the first time Simmons heard about the “F-list,” whose members were prohibited from playing in school sports events. That night, a parent and a girls’ basketball coach both spoke out against the list. “They felt it was being used as a punishment, and that only African American students were being punished or finding themselves on the list,” she recalls.

Simmons watched the reaction from the school board, whose members struck her as dismissive of the raised concerns. The teachers were portrayed by the board as caring and viewed as “one of their own,” Simmons says. But her gut told her something different.

“I messaged Nick right away and said, ‘Hey, you have to get ready for this. This is going to be big,’” she says. “It blew me away.”

 

AT A SUBSEQUENT MEETING, which Simmons could not attend, the paper sent Jeff Egbert, the FOIA-guru publisher of the Pinckneyville Press and a friend of Miller’s. Egbert noticed that the board went into special session to decide on a disciplinary action against the teacher accused of calling students “slaves.” When board members came out, they refused Egbert’s request for the public document that would have explained exactly what action they took. Egbert asked the Public Access Bureau to intervene, which it did, siding with the Weekly and requiring that the documents be turned over

The story took off from there.

“Parents started talking, and we started dropping FOIA requests,” Miller says. “We knew they were talking about stuff in closed session they shouldn’t have been talking about.”

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Although he was trained as a journalist, Miller did not have much experience with the state’s FOIA laws, he says. Egbert did; his paper had made requests that helped to expose corruption in Pinckneyville, including an effort to cover up a drunken driving accident involving the mayor’s son.

Egbert covered two O’Fallon school board meetings for the Weekly, helping out his friend and teaching Miller how to appeal to the attorney general if the paper’s requests for public information were denied.

“They went out of their way to turn me down,” Egbert says of the Central 104 school board. “It was inexperience and stubbornness.”

Both Miller and Egbert are active in the Southern Illinois Editorial Association; Egbert is a former president, and Miller is now vice president. “I actually will use Nick when I have a big story,” Egbert says. “I will bounce it off of him. I’m just a guy who owns a newspaper. Nick is a journalist. He will help me go through and copy-edit.”

Unlike Egbert’s Pinckneyville Press, which is in a smaller and more rural community, the O’Fallon Weekly is in a suburb of St. Louis, a metropolitan area where not everybody knows each other. That means the paper has had an easier time delving into sensitive issues like the alleged discrimination, Egbert says.

“What happens here if I write something about the school board is there’s a good chance those seven people are cousins with my readership,” Egbert says of Pinckneyville. “He has much more of a transient population.” (O’Fallon has a large military population connected to Scott Air Force base).

The O’Fallon Weekly’s coverage of the schools scandal was largely met with praise from the general community, both Simmons and Miller tell CJR.

“We’ve gotten some real good positive feedback about how it’s nice someone is getting into this stuff,” Miller says.

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Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. She is an associate journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.