Classic Journalism

Secret recordings and charges of ‘fake news’: How two award-winning student journalists exposed their principal’s missteps

Mehrose Ahmad and Sumaita Hasan ran the Townsend Harris High School newspaper, The Classic, which recently won a national student-journalism award.

Last Dec. 8, the managing editor of the Townsend Harris High School newspaper, The Classic, recorded a remarkable scene on her iPhone: Her classmates at the celebrated Queens school were staging a sit-in.

As the editor, Mehrose Ahmad, defied the school’s cell-phone ban to record rows of students sitting shoulder to shoulder against the fourth-floor lockers, the paper’s editor-in-chief, Sumaita Hasan, interviewed her classmates and provided commentary for those watching the video live on the Classic’s Facebook page.

Hasan explained that the students were protesting the school’s interim principal, Rosemarie Jahoda, whose unpopular policy changes the paper had written about just days before. Ahmad then recorded an education department official sharply questioning students about their grievances while Jahoda stood by silently and watched, a spectacle that outraged some viewers.

Within days, the school’s parent and alumni associations — citing the Classic’s reporting — had called for Jahoda’s ouster, while the paper’s video of the protest went on to rack up more than 30,000 views.

“The beauty of our coverage was that it was so sudden,” said Hasan, now a freshman at the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College in Manhattan. “From there, it just took off.”

At a time when news organizations are fighting for credibility, the coverage at Townsend Harris has been seen as a powerful display of journalistic persistence and accomplishment.

In the months following the sit-in, Ahmad and Hasan cultivated confidential sources, obtained secret recordings, and filed public-records requests as they chased the biggest story of their fledgling careers: the controversy surrounding Jahoda and the search for a permanent principal.

In the process, they confronted unresponsive officials and accusations of “fake news” even as their paper’s readership swelled and the city’s major news outlets scrambled to match their reporting.

For their leadership, Ahmad and Hasan and their colleagues at the Classic were recently awarded a 2017 Courage in Student Journalism Award from the national Student Press Law Center. Earlier this month, the pair flew to Dallas with the paper’s faculty advisor, Brian Sweeney, where they accepted a $1,000 prize and a standing ovation from thousands of fellow student journalists.

“They were the right kids at the right time,” said Sweeney, an English teacher who tapped the duo for the Classic’s top posts when they were only juniors. “The magnitude of what they were doing was not lost on them, but they were never overwhelmed by it.”

After the sit-in, the journalists began to aggressively report on staff and student complaints about Jahoda, who had arrived at Townsend Harris that September after clashing with teachers while serving as an assistant principal at the prestigious Bronx High School of Science.

In quick succession, they wrote about longtime Townsend Harris faculty members searching for other jobs, Muslim students alleging that Jahoda responded insensitively after another student harassed them, and Jahoda using profanity during a staff meeting. (Jahoda did not respond to a request for comment for this story, but she has previously called some of the allegations against her inaccurate.)

Other schools might have blocked their student papers from running such explosive stories, in light of a past Supreme Court decision that limited students’ First Amendment rights. But the 33-year-old Classic, which dozens of students contribute to each year, is uniquely protected: By tradition, incoming Townsend Harris principals (including Jahoda) sign an agreement not to censor the newspaper.

The editors used that freedom to undertake hard-nosed investigative reporting, which often required convincing school staffers to share sensitive information about the principal.

“The secrets that these two kids held could have destroyed a number of people,” Sweeney said.

The pair continued reporting on Jahoda during winter break.

After combing through hundreds of comments on an online petition opposed to her appointment, they tracked down teachers and students who had tangled with her at her previous school. That led to a story about a Bronx Science graduate who said Jahoda had prevented her from receiving accommodations for a visual impairment — allegations that other newspapers later reported on and the education department investigated.

Officials never restricted the duo’s reporting, but they sometimes appeared frustrated by it.

Jahoda eventually stopped responding to the newspaper’s requests for comment. In response, the Classic published an open letter signed by 22 editors under the headline, “Ms. Jahoda, it’s time to stop being ‘unavailable.’” They also staked out her office for hours at a time.

Later, an education department official insisted that “fake news” was being circulated about the school. Ahmad and Hasan took the accusation personally, penning a letter to the mayor, schools chancellor, and superintendent in defense of their reporting, which often kept them at school until late in the evening.

“Calling something ‘fake news’ just because it gives a negative portrayal of you — that’s just wrong,” said Ahmad, who now attends Barnard College in Manhattan. “It completely dismisses all the hard work we’ve done.”

This spring, as the city decided whether to appoint Jahoda as the permanent principal or someone new, the Classic covered every twist and turn of the search.

When Ahmad and Hasan learned that 38 people had applied for the plum position, they requested the list of candidates under the state’s Freedom of Information law using a template they found online. (Their request was denied.) Undaunted, they waited until finalists for the job arrived at the school to meet with a hiring committee, then dispatched reporters to conduct flash interviews in the hallway.

In late April, some five months and dozens of stories after that first sit-in, the Classic learned that the city had decided on a permanent principal. Determined to report the news first, Ahmad and Hasan pre-wrote two stories ahead of the announcement: one in which Jahoda was given the job, and another in which she was replaced.

On April 20, members of the school’s leadership team told a large crowd of students, teachers, and parents gathered in the school library that Brian Condon, a principal from the Bronx, had been chosen for the job. The crowd was still digesting the news when the Classic posted its article under the headline: “JAHODA’S OUT.”

Ahmad, who is now an arts editor at her college newspaper, recently reflected on her award-winning partnership with Hasan. She said part of their success stemmed from divvying up reporting duties, but most important was their shared sense of mission.

“We’re never deterred,” she said. “Nothing can really stop us.”

Walk it out

NYC mayor encourages school walkouts in wake of Florida shooting: ‘If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out’

PHOTO: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio

In the wake of a school shooting in Florida that left 17 dead, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said students won’t face serious disciplinary action if they choose to participate in a national school walkout planned for next month to protest gun violence.

“If I was a high school student today, I’d be walking out,” de Blasio said Thursday. “This is too important a moment in history to try to hold back the desire of our young people to see fundamental change and to protect themselves.”

Students across the country are planning to walk out of class at 10 a.m. on March 14 “to protest Congress’ inaction to do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods,” according to a Facebook description of the event.  The protest is scheduled to last 17 minutes, one for each person who died at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

And unlike one Texas school district, which threatened to slap students with suspensions if they walked out, de Blasio said students would not face serious discipline. “There’s no negative, lasting impact if they do this,” the mayor said.

De Blasio’s tacit endorsement of the walkout comes just days after he announced that schools across the city would deploy more “rapid-response lesson plans” about current events. On Friday, de Blasio told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer that the protests are a “teachable moment.”

We are going to do lesson plans around this issue leading up to that day,” de Blasio said. “We are going to make sure that there’s a real educational impact.”

The city also announced this week that every New York City school will hold a lockdown drill by March 15, and every middle and high school will be subject to at least one random screening with metal detectors this year.

Here’s more on what de Blasio told Lehrer this morning:

For high school students – we are going to be very clear, we want parents to weigh in, to let us know if they are comfortable with a young person walking out. It is supposed to be for 17 minutes. We expect the school day before and after to proceed. For younger folks – middle school, elementary school — the model I’m interested in, we are still working on this, is to have it be within the context of the building, you know to gather in the building for the memorial to the 17 young people lost, 17 people lost I should say. And again that may be silent, that may be with young people speaking, that’s all being worked through.

Speaking Out

Students at Denver’s George Washington High say their voices were unheard in principal selection

PHOTO: Denver Post file

When Shahad Mohieldin learned that students, parents, and teachers at George Washington High School in Denver would have a say in who was named the next principal, the high school senior spent days recruiting representatives from all three groups to participate.

Mohieldin, a member of the school’s advisory board, said she and others worked hard to ensure the group vetting the principal candidates would be diverse. It was important to include students of color and white students, parents who speak English and those who don’t, and teachers of both International Baccalaureate and traditional classes, she said, especially since the high school has been working to heal years-long racial and academic divides.

The students particularly liked one candidate who they said seemed to understand the school’s struggles. He would have also been a leader of color at a school where 70 percent are students of color. Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg ultimately chose a different candidate, a more experienced principal with whom he’d worked closely before.

It was a whirlwind process that took just seven weeks from when the current principal announced his retirement. In the end, Mohieldin and other students said they were left feeling like their voices were ignored.

“We were often told that, ‘Hey, your voice really matters in this. Please, we want your input,’” Mohieldin said. “It really hurts. Now we don’t trust the district as much, which is really sad.”

District leaders said the process was quick but thorough. Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova said that while it was clear the students preferred one candidate, the input collected from parents, teachers, and community members was more mixed. The slate of three finalists was unusually strong, she said, and it was not an easy decision.

Kristin Waters, the candidate who was hired, is a former district administrator with years of experience leading a comprehensive Denver high school similar in size to George Washington. The students’ top choice was an assistant principal at East High School named Jason Maclin.

Cordova said she wants to assure students that although district leaders didn’t choose students’ favored candidate, they did consider their opinions.

“It is important to use your voice,” Cordova said. “Sometimes your voice isn’t the only piece of information we look at, but in no way does that mean to stop speaking out.”

Not listening to community feedback is a perennial criticism of Denver Public Schools, and one district leaders are continually trying to address. Recently, several major decisions have been based on recommendations from committees of parents and community members. While the process hasn’t always gone smoothly, the district has followed the community’s advice.

In the case of the George Washington principal selection, the process worked like this: Current principal Scott Lessard announced in mid-December that he’d be retiring at the end of the school year. Lessard has helmed the school for two years, and students and teachers credit him with fostering a sense of unity and a culture of openness to new ideas.

But he said the daily challenges of being a school principal led to his decision.

“I was going to retire at some point,” he said. “It may not have been at the end of this year, but it was going to be soon. The school in such a good place, I thought it was a unique opportunity now to find somebody who would be a good principal.”

The district has a pool of pre-screened principal candidates who are invited to apply for openings as they come up, Cordova said. With every vacancy, the district convenes a committee of parents, teachers, and community members to interview the candidates. In the case of high school principal jobs, the district also asks students to participate.

For George Washington, the district assembled the committee and three separate focus groups, which Mohieldin helped organize: one of parents, one of teachers, and one of students. The groups and the committee interviewed five candidates selected by the district, and based partly on their feedback, district leaders whittled the field to three finalists, Cordova said.

The three finalists then participated in a community forum. Forum attendees were asked to submit written comments on candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, and Cordova said she personally read every single one. She said district leaders also read emails students sent afterward urging the district to pick Maclin. Students said they never received responses to those emails – one reason they felt unheard.

A week after the forum, on Feb. 6, the district announced its decision to hire Waters.

Cordova said she has every confidence that Waters will be “an amazing school leader.” Waters has been principal of three Denver schools: Morey Middle School; Bruce Randolph School, which serves grades six through 12; and South High School, whose demographics are similar to George Washington. More than 300 of the 1,239 students at George Washington are black and more than 400 are Hispanic.

“She has a strong track record working in similar communities,” Cordova said.

Students had some concerns about Waters’ approachability and her seemingly close ties with district leadership; Boasberg was listed as the first reference on her resumé. They said they liked Maclin’s presence, and that he seemed knowledgeable about the school’s past struggles and had concrete ideas for its future. Maclin submitted a proposed plan for his first 100 days as principal that included conducting a listening tour of the school community.

But students said their main complaint is not the outcome but the way the process unfolded.

“The district goes through this whole act of putting on these focus groups and interviews at the school and it’s like, ‘What really came out of that?’” said sophomore Andrew Schwartz. “At this point, it seems like the answer to that question is very little. I think that’s upsetting.”

Schwartz was part of the student focus group that interviewed all five candidates. So was junior Henry Waldstreicher, who noted that students missed an entire day of school to participate.

Waldstreicher said he was also left feeling disillusioned. “Why should we even try to talk to the district if they’re not going to listen to what we’re going to say?” he said.

The perception that the selection process was top-down wasn’t just among the students. Some teachers and community members said they felt the same way.

“We were given the opportunity to give our feedback and then it went into a black box and a decision was made,” said Vincent Bowen, a community member who participates in a student mentoring program at George Washington and was on the selection committee.

Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver teachers union, shared those concerns, adding that what happened at George Washington has happened at other schools, too: Candidates, she said, “go through this process, this rigamarole, but the district already knows who they’re going to pick.”

Parent Elizabeth Sopher said she feels district leaders weren’t as transparent as they could have been about what they wanted in a new principal, which she suspects contributed to the disconnect between the students’ top pick and the district’s ultimate decision.

“When you say to a group, ‘You tell us what the most important thing about this new principal is to you,’” she said, but then don’t make a decision based on that, “that’s a mistake.”

For her part, Waters said she’s excited to step into her new role at George Washington. She’s slated to start March 1 and finish out the school year alongside Lessard, a transition plan Cordova said was important to the district and the school community.

Waters said she wants to build a strong relationship with students. To that end, she has already met with a group of them to talk about their concerns.

“Once I get on board, they will see me out and about and hopefully feel comfortable coming up to me and letting me know what they’re thinking,” Waters said. “I want their input.”

Junior Cora Galpern said rebuilding that trust will be crucial. In the future, Galpern said the district should give students and others more of a say in principal selection by seeking a consensus on a candidate rather than simply soliciting feedback.

“Because at the end of the day,” she said, “our next principal has a huge effect on our day-to-day lives.”