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

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.”

Chalkbeat  is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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