Student journalists force resignation of headteacher after uncovering fraudulent job application

Professional journalists from The Washington Post and the Boston Globe’s Spotlights team applauded the students for ‘asking tough questions and prompting change in their administration’

Samantha Schmidt
Wednesday 05 April 2017 17:23 BST
Gina Mathew, Kali Poenitske, Maddie Baden, Trina Paul, Connor Balthazor and Patrick Sullivan prepare to Skype with their then school principal, Amy Robertson, who was at the centre of their investigation
Gina Mathew, Kali Poenitske, Maddie Baden, Trina Paul, Connor Balthazor and Patrick Sullivan prepare to Skype with their then school principal, Amy Robertson, who was at the centre of their investigation (Emily Smith)

Connor Balthazor, 17, was in the middle of study hall when he was called into a meeting with his high school newspaper adviser.

A group of reporters and editors from the student newspaper, the Booster Redux at Pittsburg High School in southeastern Kansas, had gathered to talk about Amy Robertson, who was hired as the high school’s head principal on 6 March.

The student journalists had begun researching Robertson, and quickly found some discrepancies in her education credentials. For one, when they researched Corllins University, the private university where Robertson said she got her master's and doctorate degrees years ago, the website didn’t work. They found no evidence that it was an accredited university.

“There were some things that just didn't quite add up,” Balthazor told The Washington Post.

The students began digging into a weeks-long investigation that would result in an article published Friday questioning the legitimacy of the principal’s degrees and of her work as an education consultant.

On Tuesday night, Robertson resigned.

“In light of the issues that arose, Dr Robertson felt it was in the best interest of the district to resign her position,” Pittsburg Community Schools announced in a statement. “The Board has agreed to accept her resignation.”

The resignation thrust the student newspaper staff into local, state and national news, with professional journalists nationwide applauding the students for asking tough questions and prompting change in their administration.

“Everybody kept telling them, ‘stop poking your nose where it doesn't belong,’” newspaper adviser Emily Smith told The Post. But with the encouragement of the superintendent, the students persisted.

“They were at a loss that something that was so easy for them to see was waiting to be noticed by adults,” Smith said.

In the Booster Redux article, a team of six students – five juniors and one senior – revealed that Corllins had been portrayed in a number of articles as a diploma mill, a place where people can buy a degree, diploma or certificates. Corllins is not accredited by the US Department of Education, the students reported. The Better Business Bureau’s website says Corllins’s physical address is unknown and the school isn’t a BBB-accredited institution.

“All of this was completely overlooked,” Balthazor said. “All of the shining reviews did not have these crucial pieces of information ... you would expect your authority figures to find this.”

Robertson had been living in Dubai for more than 20 years before she was hired for the position. She said she most recently worked as the CEO of an education consulting firm known as Atticus IS Consultants there.

In a conference call with the student journalists, Robertson “presented incomplete answers, conflicting dates and inconsistencies in her responses,” the students reported. She said she attended Corllins before it lost accreditation, the Booster Redux reported.

When contacted by the Kansas City Star after the publication of the students’ article, Robertson said all three of her degrees “have been authenticated by the US government”. She declined to comment directly on students' questions about her credentials, “because their concerns are not based on facts,” she said.

In an emergency faculty meeting Tuesday, the superintendent said Robertson was unable to produce a transcript confirming her undergraduate degree from the University of Tulsa, Smith said.

During the course of their reporting, the students spent weeks reaching out to educational institutions and accreditation agencies to corroborate Robertson’s background, even working through spring break. Their adviser, Smith, had to recuse herself from the story because she was on the committee that hired Robertson. So the students sought the help of Eric Thomas, executive director of the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, and other local and national journalists and experts.

Under Kansas state law, high school journalists are protected from administrative censorship. “The kids are treated as professionals,” Smith said. But with that freedom came a major responsibility to get the story right, Smith said. It also meant overcoming a natural hesitancy many students have to question authority.

“At the very beginning it was a little bit exciting,” Balthazor said. “It was like in the movie, a big city journalist chasing down a lead.”

But as the students began delving deeper into the story, keeping notes on a whiteboard, “it really started hitting me that this is a much bigger deal,” Balthazor said.

The students were among those packed into a school boardroom Tuesday night when the school board president announced Robertson’s resignation. After the announcement, a parent in the audience stood up and asked school officials if they would be recognising the student journalists for uncovering crucial details about Robertson’s background. The superintendent said he would be meeting with the students Wednesday to personally thank them.

“We’d broken out of our comfort zones so much,” Balthazor said. “To know that the administration saw that and respected that, it was a really great moment for us.”

After local news broke that Robertson had resigned, numerous national journalists – including The Post’s David Fahrenthold tweeted the students’ story, congratulating them for their work.

“Holy crap,” Balthazor thought, “why are these people paying attention to this little journalism story from southeast Kansas?”

While the high school junior was leaving track practice Tuesday night, he learned in a group message with his newspaper staff that Todd Wallack, a reporter for the Boston Globe's Spotlight team, had tweeted the students’ story, saying: “Great investigative work by high school journalists.” Balthazor sat in his car in the parking lot and immediately called his mom to tell her the news.

“I honestly thought they were joking at first,” Balthazor said. The Booster Redux staff had watched the film Spotlight in class last year, Balthazor said. “It was awesome to know that such respected members of the journalism community had our backs.”

After graduation, Balthazor said, he hopes to pursue a degree in creative writing or filmmaking. Even though he doesn’t necessarily plan to stick with journalism, Balthazor said the past few weeks had been “surreal”.

“Most high schoolers would never get even close to an opportunity to get to experience something like this,” he said.

© The Washington Post

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