Young reporters show journalism’s obituary is premature

It must have been embarrassing for the school system in Pittsburg, Kansas when a group of young journalists did the job the adults who run the system should’ve done.

The Kansas City Star reports the student newspaper conducted an investigation of the background of the principal at Pittsburg High School and found out she was a fraud.

“She was going to be the head of our school, and we wanted be assured that she was qualified and had the proper credentials,” said Trina Paul, editor of the Booster Redux, said. “We stumbled on some things that most might not consider legitimate credentials.”

Students journalists published a story Friday questioning the legitimacy of the private college — Corllins University — where Robertson got her master’s and doctorate degrees years ago. U.S. Department of Education officials, contacted by The Star, confirmed student reports; the federal agency could not find evidence of Corllins in operation. The school wasn’t included among the agency’s list of schools closed since 1986. Robertson earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Tulsa.

Students found and The Star confirmed the existence of several articles referring to Corllins as a diploma mill — where people can buy a degree, diploma or certificates. And searches on the school’s website go nowhere. No one from the university responded to emails sent by The Star this week.

The story is everything you want in the next generation: The questioning of what they’re told, the willingness to research it, the courage to speak truth to power.

If students could uncover all of this, I want to know why the adults couldn’t find this..” Maddie Baden, a junior, told the Star.

She’s the one who wrote the original story on the new principal, which was to be a “get to know her” article. But things she was told didn’t up and the student journalists started doing their homework.

Just like the old days.

(h/t: Kari Knudson)

  • MrE85

    The paper is called “The Booster Redux.” The unsung hero in this story is Emily Smith, a journalism teacher at the school and adviser for the student newspaper. Here’s a great interview with her.

    The only credit she got in that Kansas City Star story is the photo credit. Can you imagine many teachers allowing a story embarrassing to school officials to be published? I can’t.

    If you read the Q & A I linked to, you’ll see that Smith has got the backbone to cover controversial topics.

    • I knew one.

      She let me run the story of coach Crutchfield taking hair clippers to Robert Sicard’s head against his will in high school.

      • Jeremy

        I didn’t know one. I took journalism in high school, and a friend once wrote an article that included something unbecoming of the principal at the time. I can’t remember what it was, but our teacher told us we had to remove it.

        My friend was extremely upset at this, and I agreed that it was wrong to be squelched. Being the person who did the computer layouts and delivery of files to the printer, I put it the banned info back in the final draft, and it went to press.

        We got a severe talking-to from the teacher, who was sobbing about the ordeal. We never had to print a retraction or correction, so it wasn’t a matter of the info being incorrect.

        We were taught the wrong lesson, so it’s nice to see the right thing done here and in your case, Bob!

      • Barton

        I didn’t do journalism in HS, but I well remember being interviewed after the parents of players got in a scuffle about playing time for our volleyball team. The paper asked me what happened and what my thoughts were. I gave the unvarnished truth of the situation as I saw it. The faculty adviser went to my coach who confronted me about the interview. She wanted me to retract it. I said it was the truth and I wouldn’t (btw, I didn’t “name names” but we all knew who was involved). The entire article was whitewashed with even my responses changed. My “here are the problems” was changed to “there are no problems.” I wrote a complaint letter to the editor, and as you’d expect, it was never published.

  • John

    Hmmm . . .

    It would seem the follow-up investigation should maybe be what the (inevitable) background search company actually did for their money when they were hired to do the background search on the would-be principal.

    Good job kids!

    • MikeB

      Hoping their next steps are to interview the Superintendent and the school board to see how they hired someone with false credentials, and relied on a faulty background screening process.

      They can already start writing in “No Comment. And that’s off the record”

  • Anna

    What amazes me is the woman got away with her diploma mill degree for all those years and no one ever called her on it except an overseas educational organization.

    Just about every job I have made an application to as a registered nurse, required my college transcripts as well as verification of my current license as well as any licenses I’ve held in the past in other states.

    This has similarities to the current for-profit college investigation going on in Minnesota.

    Due diligence was definitely lacking in the background check.

    Let’s hope these budding journalists do not get discouraged by the current fight about “real news” and “fake news.”

    • Kassie

      When I went from one State Agency to another, they made me provide proof of my education, even though there was no education requirement for the job. I asked what they needed and was told a photocopy of my diploma would be fine. I could of photo-shopped that in half an hour and I think most people could.

      • Anna

        I’ll add that the copies of my transcripts had to be officially sealed and mailed directly from the office of the registrar of the university. I could not submit a student copy.

        With the rise of the digital age and the ability to photo-shop just about any document, you raise a very interesting point.

        You want to be able to take a prospective employee at his word but that doesn’t have much meaning in today’s instant everything world.

        I think it is a rather sad commentary on the state of society and personal ethics today.

  • Kassie

    “And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids.”

    • Gary F

      I still wonder why those kids were afraid of ghosts. Every week, the scary ghost was revealed as an actual person and a big fake. You think they would have caught on after a couple of them.

      • Riley Rosell

        Hey, just because it’s not a ghost doesn’t mean it can’t be bad news. I mean, Robot T rex is about as painful to be stepped on by as a Zombie T rex

  • Neil

    A Minneapolis school recently fired a principal for misuse of funds. She was subsequently hired by a school in California until a parent did some searching (she was using a different last name). Blah, blah, blah, background checks aren’t that expensive. Good on these kids.

    • John

      Nor do they seem to be particularly effective at finding things.

      • 212944

        I have a copy of the last background check my (now) employer had purchased in the course of my interview/offer/hiring process.

        Reading over it, it is clear that the firm hired took shortcuts. Still, there were able to produce several pages of “background” (some of it mine, some of it must have been for someone else because it was based on phone calls with people and departments I never worked with or in (and they weren’t in a position to confirm or comment about my employment at two different jobs … but they did)).

        • jon

          Last background check I saw on myself, was basically blank.
          No criminal history, confirmation that I attended the college I said I did, and worked the places said I did, and not much more. (some salary info was redacted, and I think there was some GPA information on there too).

          It sounds like all the places the principal worked, and attended school exist, but were failures, or sham organizations themselves.

          Background check organizations may trust that institutions are inherently trustworthy, and don’t investigate those unless they have reasons to.

          Oh, and the last one I saw they did a criminal check on me only in all the places I lived, had I committed a crime in a place I never mentioned to them that I lived, it would not have shown up…

  • Mike Worcester

    This story is especially uplifting when you consider how often the anvil is dropped on student papers and/or their advisors. The case from West Fargo in 2009 – 2012 is a cautionary example. And to echo others, bully for them!!

  • rosswilliams

    “If students could uncover all of this, I want to know why the adults couldn’t find this..”

    So what is the answer to this obvious question? Journalism isn’t dead because its still alive as a high school activity?

  • Justine Parenteau Wettschreck

    I find it amazing that a high school newspaper or journalism class still exists. Most of them were killed by budget cuts years ago. I fondly remember the time I put in on the Forest Lake Ranger so very long ago. My journalism teacher still critiques me (very nicely) via Facebook.

  • Lobd

    The Corllins University website is a joke! What a sham!

  • ec99

    These kids can be real journalists because they don’t have to protect advertisers, sacred cows, and a political ideology.