Journalists have help in the fight for access to information

By Frank LoMonte
Brechner Center, University of Florida

The first person ever to call the Student Press Law Center’s legal hotline for help was a high-school newspaper editor from Pecos, Texas, whose principal spiked a news story that he considered too controversial. And over its 43 years, tens of thousands of students (and an occasional teacher) have called the SPLC for free legal help when school administrators censor their work – almost always for image-control reasons.

The SPLC was founded to give students like that Texas editor, Stephen Bates, a powerful ally to speak up to authority figures who, acting out of fear and insecurity, silence young voices.

But there is a different type of silencing taking place today in America’s schools and colleges, and the services offered by the SPLC have changed over the years to keep up with the new frustrations journalists face.

Over my nine years leading the SPLC’s legal staff, I developed a name for this new method of squelching unfavorable news: “Censorship by starvation.” Instead of directly ordering students not to cover certain topics – though far too much of that censorship still goes on – authorities simply deny journalists from access to vital information.

Do you want to know how many times students brought guns into the school last year? How many students got concussions playing football? Or might be deported because they’re in the U.S. without paperwork? Well, good luck getting those answers, because in recent years, journalists have been told all of that information – even without any private details about any individual student – is off-limits to the public.

State open-records laws give the public – including minors – the legal right to demand access to just about any record kept by a government agency. That includes a public school (including a charter school) or school district. Getting schools to actually comply with the law can be a challenge.

In most states, when you make a request to see a record and you get rejected, your only recourse is to get a lawyer and go to court. That’s hard enough for professional journalists whose companies have lawyers on staff. It can be especially intimidating for students to find themselves on the other side of a courtroom from the person writing their college recommendation letter.

Still, student journalists are a persistent bunch. To a determined reporter on the trail of a big story, “no” is just another way of saying “try harder.”

Students in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, are enforcing their right to know by suing their school under the Minnesota open-records law for the chance to see a hallway security video that shows a potential assault on a Muslim student. The student reported that a classmate ripped the hijab off her head, but the classmate – a popular athlete – denied the accusation and went unpunished. The video is the public’s only way of knowing whether the school covered up wrongdoing. But the school insists the footage is confidential.

As I write this column, SPLC attorney volunteers are helping two editors in Santa Rosa County, California, go to court to enforce their right to inspect the court files of a lawsuit against their high school. The judge in the case sealed the entire file – even his own order explaining why the file is sealed – so the public has no idea how the lawsuit turned out.

To respond to the growing demand for help getting access to information about schools and colleges, the SPLC launched a service in July to help non-experts take cases to court more easily.

Volunteers from major law firms are working with SPLC attorneys to come up with step-by-step instructions for enforcing state public-records laws. Find them on the SPLC website. The project is only about half done, with 26 states and the District of Columbia covered, but by 2018, guides should be finished for every state.    

I know just how important public records can be for journalists – I was one of them. Before becoming a lawyer, I chased stories about corrupt and incompetent government officials with the help of freedom-of-information laws. Those laws helped me prove that a candidate for governor cheated on his income taxes and paid nothing. They helped me prove that hospitals were misusing money meant to provide free healthcare for poor people, spending it on unnecessary luxury items like bonuses for doctors.

I believe so strongly in the public’s right to information that, starting in August, I agreed to move south and take on a job where I can devote myself full time to improving the laws that allow Americans (especially journalists) to keep watch over government agencies. I’ll be working directly with lawyers, journalists and legislators across the country on making public-access laws actually work better as director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, which is based at the University of Florida.

That doesn’t mean I’m “checking out” of the student-rights movement. I’ll stay on as volunteer co-chair of New Voices USA, a nationwide campaign to pass state laws – 13 so far, with three added in 2017 alone – to guarantee student journalists and their advisers that they can safely bring news and opinions to their communities without fear of being silenced or punished.

And it doesn’t mean students will be left without a full-time advocate protecting their rights. The SPLC has hired an internationally known legal expert and educator Hadar Harris to take over as executive director, and she brings a lifelong commitment to protecting the rights of the less-powerful against abuse.

Harris has worked in law schools in California and Washington, D.C., for the past 15 years, supervising law students as they provided legal help to people who couldn’t afford to hire their own lawyers. That is a proven track record of caring public service that makes Harris the ideal leader to take the SPLC soaring to new heights.

Professional news organizations are having a difficult time. Their audiences are shrinking, their advertisers have left for Facebook and Google, and public distrust is reaching all-time highs. But student journalism has never been better – and now students have the best human-rights lawyer in the country on their side. I’m honestly a bit envious that Hadar Harris will be the leader of the SPLC as legalized censorship in schools becomes a thing of the past – and no one will cheer louder than me on the day she finally makes it official.

Attorney Frank LoMonte became director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications in August 2017, after nine years as executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

Quill and Scroll will honor past while looking to the future

My name is Jeff Browne, and it is my distinct honor to address you for the first time as the executive director of Quill and Scroll. I come to this role after 27 years spent as a journalism educator and adviser, from Smoky Hill High School to Colorado State University, the University of Kansas and the University of Colorado.

Jeff Browne

I look forward to serving you and building on the legacies of Quill and Scroll’s five previous executive directors: founder George Gallup (1926-1932), Edward Nell (1932-1957), Lester Benz (1957-1972), Dick Johns (1972-2007) and, most recently, Vanessa Shelton (2007-2017).

Judy Hauge

To my delight, Judy Hauge remains as Quill and Scroll’s administrative assistant and office manager. In addition, the University of Iowa continues to graciously host our organization and provide us with able journalism students who work as office assistants and content producers for our communications initiatives.

However, as with any organizational change, re-evaluation and, in some cases, re-booting programs is called for. And while we have chapters in more than 14,000 schools around the world, we love to hear individually from committed members and advisers about how our programs and services can be made even better.

Here’s a quick glance at what we’ve working been on since August:

  1. A cleaner logo, already in use for our publications and on social media, that incorporates the pithy “It’s an Honor” tagline.
  2. Our news aggregation initiative, The Weekly Scroll. In it, we provide Quill and Scroll members and their advisers with news about the journalism profession, scholastic journalism, and Quill and Scroll. It will be released every Thursday evening and ready for you for classes on Friday.
  3. A re-built website, one that has a more modern and useful template, making it easier for advisers and potential members to find our services.
  4. A monthly email newsletter for advisers that serves as an adjunct to — and possibly a replacement for — the printed Quill & Scroll magazine. We will gauge the response to both the magazine and to the newsletter as we move through the 2017-2018 school year to determine how best to communicate with you.
  5. A move to online submission for our contests, beginning with the International Writing, Photo and Multimedia Contest and Blogging Competition in January 2018. Our hope is to move all contests online, including the Yearbook Excellence Contest in September 2018.
  6. A collaboration with the Journalism Education Association, the National Scholastic Press Association, the Student Television Network and state scholastic press associations to provide training for advisers and others who serve as critique judges. Attend one of our joint sessions at the JEA/NSPA convention in Dallas.

Here are some initiatives that will begin in the very near future and that you can be a part of:

  1. A capital campaign to fully fund Quill and Scroll scholarships. The Century Campaign will have a goal to raise $500,000 by the time the organization celebrates its 100th anniversary in April 2026.
  2. Partnerships with associations that promote diversity in the journalism profession.
  3. A retooling of our publications, especially the Quill and Scroll Stylebook.
  4. A celebration of Quill and Scroll alumni and their successes, not just in journalism but in other professions. After all, decades of research have shown us that journalism students do better at everything.
  5. A partnership with a investigative journalism source that would allow students to contribute to a nationwide crowdsourcing project on public school foundations.

Our mission statement reads: “Quill and Scroll seeks to encourage individual initiative in high school journalism . . . and recognize and reward the individual achievements of students engaged in journalistic activity.”

I welcome any and all feedback that helps us better adhere to that mission. And if you’d like to be a part of any of our initiatives — and even to serve on our Board of Directors in the near future — please don’t hesitate to reach me at jeffrey-browne@uiowa.edu or 319-335-3321.

The Weekly Scroll for Friday, Sept. 8, 2017

News, tips and advice from the Quill and Scroll International Honor Society.
Compiled and written by Marni Wax, Allison Wunder and Emily LaGrange.

The Lede:

#GirlBoss
In this day and age, nothing is more important than freedom of expression, especially in the opinionated generation many of us belong to. Someone who emcompasses this is Hadar Harris, a human rights attorney and non-profit leader with a passion for working with and on behalf of students. She became the new executive director of the Student Press Law Center, on Sept. 6.

For further exploration…
Here’s a podcast of Hadar speaking with former SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte about her future plans for the organization, showing just how she will enrich the learning of the general public.

It’s an honor:

Wildfires, Hurricanes, and Floods…OH MY!
Environmental journalist Michael Kodas sits down with Quill and Scroll to talk about his new book and what student journalists can do to cover the environment in their schools and in their communities. Click here to see how to cover the wildfires that are ravaging the American West, and the hurricanes that are pounding the South.

What’s it like to be a part of something bigger than yourself?
Go to our Facebook page to learn how to share your testimony about what it means to be a member of Quill and Scroll.

What’s Viral:

Journalist gone humanitarian
When Hurricane Harvey started dumping inconceivable amounts of water on his hometown, Shea Serrano, a Houston-based staff writer for Bill Simmons’ sports and pop culture website The Ringer, knew he should do something. And what’s the easiest way to reach a large amount of people? Well…he tapped into his network and turned to Twitter. Look at the remarkable amounts of money he raised overnight.

When something gets tough, work harder
Journalists covering the racial violence in Charlottesville faced challenges as they chose the appropriate words, images and sounds to express the emotions surrounding the attacks. This is not a time to shy away from the dangerous reality of hate, and it is not a time to glorify hate groups either. As the story unfolds about Charlottesville and the hard-working journalists on the ground covering it, the Poynter Institute offers this advice.

Just a Thought:

It’s just “fake news”!
The fake news phenomenon led to obsessive fact-checking in 2016. Now academia, with its slower publication process, is catching up. In the past few weeks, several studies with interesting findings for fact-checkers were published. Here are five of those studies that were deemed to be most important by Poynter.

It’s journalistic “Tool Time”
So, do it yourself references are culturally relevant at this point in time. And when it comes to digital tools…they are right at the front of the line. Let’s just get right to it and see how.

Put me in, Coach
An editor can be seen as a coach for a story. In writing, coaching means engaging the writer in an ongoing conversation about the story. This can be anywhere from the conception of the idea down to the final edit. The longer and more detailed the conversation, the less work you will have once the story is in the final stages. In this, you can learn from Poynter’s Vicki Krueger how to sharpen the idea and create an undoubtedly strong premise for a story.

The Q&S Q&A: Journalist Michael Kodas talks wildfires, environmental journalism

Wildfires are ravaging the American West, hurricanes are pounding the South, so there’s never been a more appropriate time for all journalists to produce useful stories about the environment — but those stories don’t all need to be treatises on the impact of climate change. There are good environmental stories out there for high school journalists to share with their communities.

Michael Kodas, author of “Megafire”

Michael Kodas is the deputy director of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he also teaches journalism classes. His book “Megafire: The Race to Extinguish an Epidemic of Flame” was released in August 2017. He is also the author of “High Crimes: The Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed.”

Quill and Scroll:  Tell us about “Megafire.” What is the goal of the book? What can student journalists learn?

Michael Kodas:  My goal is to get the general public to recognize their role and their relationship to wildfire and how we’ve contributed to the problem. We kind of have a vision of a huge fire or a really hot fire or a really fast fire, but a very small fire can also be very mega. The Yarnell Hill disaster in Arizona, which killed 19 hotshots, was actually a pretty small fire. So I end up measuring “mega” more by impact than by size or speed or heat generated. Student journalists can think in those terms as well — who is affected and how they’re affected.

Q&S: One of the things you did in preparing to report and write about wildfires was to train as a firefighter. Why did you do that?

MK: Working for the Forest Service gave me access and insights into that job that I wouldn’t have gotten had I just been a journalist showing up. I bonded with this crew, who then taught me how to use the tools and the proper terminology and the various challenges. It helped me tell a different story.

Q&S: What are the dangers inherent in participatory journalism?

MK: You must make sure that your loyalty remains with your reader. Our obligation is to the truth, and our loyalty is to our readers. At the end of my time as a forest firefighter, I got a tip and discovered that we were fighting a wildfire in an area where Dick Cheney had a fishing trip. The commander was saying, “Yeah, the only reason we’re on this fire is that the Vice President has a fishing trip planned in this area.”

I had a number of firefighters corner me very angrily saying, “You can’t report that because they’ll know you are part of our crew and we may not get as good a job the next time.” And you know, obviously I’m concerned. I don’t want to hurt their ability to have a livelihood and make a living fighting wildfires. On the other hand, what was going on was putting other firefighters at risk. So in that case my obligation to tell the truth to my readers and to inform them about how the system works won out.

Q&S:  You noted that our first duty is always to our readers, but what else do students need to keep in mind as they’re reporting on communities they’re a part of?

MK: We’re not doing journalism because we want people to like us. And in an academic or high school environment, you’re reporting on people that you might consider your friends or acquaintances. You can’t hold back just because you got that information about somebody you might be friendly with. And that’s a real challenge. So, you know, to kind of be able to step back and say, “Hey, I know you’re my buddy,” but you’re working as a reporter now, so you know you have an obligation to share what you would about people you know just like you would about people you don’t know.

Q&S: What environmental stories can students report?

Kodas: Wildfire is a great example. If you study the scientific literature, one of the areas that’s anticipated to have a huge increase in unwanted fires is actually the Great Plains states, where we don’t really think about wildfire. But we’ve seen a big increase in wildfires in Texas and in Oklahoma and in Kansas. So, just because it’s not happening in the big mountain forest and doesn’t produce those gigantic plains doesn’t mean that it’s not going to be a story for high school students.  

Half of the time fires are more beneficial to the landscape than they are detrimental to it. And so you know when we talk about fire on the landscape it doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative story. We can talk about how important fire is to agricultural communities because of its ability to nourish the soil or to help cattle gain more weight because the grass is so much more nutritious after a fire, which is the case in Kansas.

In the bigger picture, the first thing that I think students should do is consider who their audience is. Is it students at your high school? Is it young people about your age but not necessarily just at your high school? Is it the public at large? Is it administrators at your high school with the parents? And think about who you’re writing for and then you can use that to kind of narrow your scope as to issues that you might look at.

For instance, if you’re a high school student and you’re writing for your high school paper, are there environmental hazards in your high school that you might want to look into. Does the football team play on artificial turf, and are there issues with the type of turf that’s used there?

Is there asbestos in your school? Those are all pretty basic environmental stories.

One thing that was incredibly under-reported until the last two years, and now suddenly everybody is doing stories on it, is lead in water supplies. The Flint, Michigan, situation was proved to be not only an environmental toxin story but a very significant environmental justice story. Stories like that are right for high school journalists to look into. If you really want to do something fun and exciting, get a sample of your water and have it tested and see what — lead, arsenic and other elements — are in it and then you can, go to the administration and ask, “Hey why is our water not as good as it could be?”

You can also think in terms of environmental justice stories. Are there students at your high school who are more impacted by environmental situations, say, a chemical plant or a landfill in the neighborhood? Other students may be involved in activist activities to try to change something in their community.

Q&S: Where do students find credible sources to tell environmental stories?

MK: Well, you know finding some experts to interview can be really helpful if you find the right experts who can really explain it to you in simple terminology. I’ve read, you know, by my last count well over 400 scientific papers on wildfire. I don’t necessarily recommend that to anybody, but some of the people who wrote those papers are actually really great communicators. And I realized after having read their paper and then calling them that boy, if I had just called you right off the bat, you would’ve explained it to me with a couple of really great quotes, and I wouldn’t have had to spend so much time in the weeds of all of this scientific jargon.

One thing to recognize in reporting on environmental stories is that you’re going to have a range of sources who are more neutral than others. So you know you may have a scientific expert from a federal laboratory or a university. They can talk to you about asbestos in schools or wildfire or lead in water. And you also have people working for organizations like Greenpeace or the World Wildlife Fund or the Nature Conservancy. People from those organizations aren’t necessarily bad sources but they’re often not what we would call honest brokers. And that’s not to say that they’re liars. It’s to say that they’ve got a dog in the fight and they have a particular point of view that they are promoting.

Q&S: How can students report on climate change in their own school districts, in their own communities?

MK: There are a variety of approaches that  would be the same for high school students as they would be for anybody covering another community. For instance, what is the school doing to deal with climate change? Are they promoting carpooling? Are they installing solar panels on their roofs so that they have less of a carbon footprint, maybe re-insulating the school, or doing other things to conserve energy which is definitely a positive thing to do?

Then you can start looking at your student population. What is the sense among the student population? Are there students there who are really active as far as say climate change or another environmental issues? Is there a debate within the school communities that is worth looking into? Do the students’ attitudes match the attitudes at large in the school district, the county, the state?

Another way of looking at it kind of gets back to what I talked to you about before, looking for impacts on the student body. So, do you have students in your school who come from an agricultural family who were being impacted by drought? Do you have students in your school who come from agricultural families who don’t think it’s affecting them?

Q&S: Is there anything else you want to say to several thousand high school journalists and their advisors?

MK: We’ve seen young reporters working at high schools and universities break some really significant stories from the last few years. And with high school journalists they might think, well, environmental reporting, it’s science based and there’s numbers and there’s all this stuff that, you know, I’m just not educated enough yet to understand. I would encourage them not to think that way. You can always find an expert to guide you through the topic with a phone call to a university or to a researcher or to a laboratory. The policymakers and corporate interests who are dealing with environmental issues owe a high school student an answer as much as they owe a reporter from the New York Times an answer. And very often they’re more willing to talk to high school students than a big-time reporter because they may underestimate you, and being underestimated as a reporter is very often to your advantage.

The Weekly Scroll for Friday, Sept. 1

News, tips and advice from the Quill and Scroll International Honor Society.
Compiled and written by Marni Wax, Allison Wunder and Emily LaGrange.

The Lede:

The water is coming, the water is coming!
For all of our teacher or adviser readers…first day of school jitters this year? Just think about how jittery these teachers were, when they didn’t know if their students were safe from the water in Houston. “I’m lucky to be safe and dry, but I worry for the thousands of others who are not as fortunate — particularly many of my students. One of my students was being evacuated when I called to check up on her.” Click here to educate yourself on the schools that have been closed in Texas because of Hurricane Harvey.

You can help Texas’ high school journalists
Feeling inspired from the article above that you just read? We’re sure you are. So do you wanna help journalism students in Texas? Here’s how.

Think you can cover the unthinkable? Think again
Unfortunately, advisers and student journalists too often have to weigh the decision to write about student suicide in their schools. Here, from the Student Press Law Center, is an article on best practices when confronted with covering suicide.

It’s an honor:

Like it? Write it. Quill & Scroll Q&A with the founder of Global Student Square
Journalists, have you ever discovered a newsworthy story on accident? Students, have you ever told a teacher a story that shaped your relationship? Put these two in action together and you have the nonprofit Global Student Square. Click here to see how the students have told their stories and how founder, Beatrice Motamedi, planted the seed for the non profit.

A word from one of our own
Here’s a story from Long Island Herald (N.Y.) written by Mikelly Baptiste, a student at Elmont High School. Elmont High School is a Q&S charter school. Baptiste, a Haitian-American, vividly describes what she sees when she looks at the audience at the annual New York State School Music Association competition, where she plays the flute. “I’ve always gotten looks,” she said. “People look at me differently, whether it’s regarding dance, music or my academics. They just don’t think of me as the same.”

What’s Viral:

What should we do here?
ESPN football analyst Ed Cunningham, a former college and professional football player, announced his retirement from broadcasting this week, citing the number of head injuries in the sport as his reason for quitting. “I think people are starting to think, What should we do here?” How do your high school and the state’s athletic governing body feel about head injuries, not just in football but in all sports? What measures are being taken to reduce them? Are those measures effective?

Amid the floodwaters, journalists persist
School starting always causes distractions and commotion in itself. If you’re like us at Quill and Scroll, regardless of  those distractions and where your head may be, your heart is in Texas this victims dealing with the disaster of Hurricane Harvey. So, we’re pausing here to spend a few moments with Texas journalists, and how they have covered stories about the rising waters in Houston.

Just a Thought:

Attention, avid texters.
Is your tone fun? Is it sarcastic? Is it professional? Click here to see the trends in learning to develop a personality or style through the use of acronyms as you further your writing career.

Say what?
“Keep using that word, hon. It doesn’t mean what you think it does.” Someone ever say that to you? Have you ever thought that when listening to someone speak? Well guess what…browse over here and see the decoding done by The Skimm of some of those phrases.

The Weekly Scroll for Friday, Aug. 25, 2017

News, tips and advice from the Quill and Scroll International Honor Society.
Compiled and written by Allison Wunder, Marni Wax and Emily LaGrange.

The Lede:

More fake news and how to fight it

The investigative reporting of six students at Pittsburg (Kansas) High School’s newspaper led to the resignation of a newly hired principal, Amy Robertson, who faked her college credentials. Now, the students are calling for Pittsburg Superintendent Destry Brown to take responsibility for his support of Robertson and failing to follow through on her questionable accreditations. When students brought their concerns to Brown in multiple meetings, they say they were brushed off. They are now seeing real changes being made in the Board of Education and its hiring procedures. Click here to read more.

This is not the blank space T. Swift was talking about

Two openly gay seniors at Kearney (Missouri) High School used their senior yearbook quotes to celebrate their sexual orientation, but the students found blank spaces by their pictures instead of their words. The quotes were removed without warning by administrators, who were concerned they would “potentially offend” other students, whom they addressed in a statement to parents and local media. The two students brought their story to a Kansas City television station. Click here to read more.

Sick beats for journalists

Places to visit and people to talk to when covering the beats of city hall and local government, police and public safety, and courts. Click here to read more.

It’s an Honor:

Winner, winner; (five) chicken dinners

Quill and Scroll announced the names of five scholarship winners for 2017. This article covers this year’s winners, their future plans, and how to apply for the scholarships yourself. Click here to read more.

Girl Power doesn’t come with a cost

In this article by Erinn Aulfinger, one of the two 2017 winners of the George and Ophelia Gallup Scholarship awarded by Quill and Scroll, discusses the value of applying the skills you learn. Aulfinger published and distributed a free book for young girls to combat the issues that arise from low self-esteem. With this book, she hopes to make a real difference in a global problem. Click here to read more.

What’s Viral: 

Zoinks, Scoob, I think we got the wrong guy

Shortly after a group of white nationalists led a march through the University of Virginia, social media sleuths went on a mission to identify people who participated in the protest and make their identities known to employers, family members, and the general public. While this worked in some cases, it did not for one Kyle Quinn, an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas and a falsely accused participant. Quinn woke up to demands that he lose his job, vulgar messages on his social media, accusations of racism, and posts of his home address, causing him and his wife to take safety measures for the weekend. While the actual man that Quinn bore resemblance to has not been identified, his case shows the danger and consequences of the “reckless spread of misinformation in breaking news” because of a lack of research and fact-checking that is necessary for good journalism. Click here to read more.

The Village Voice finds a bullhorn

After 62 years, the weekly New York City newspaper known as the Village Voice is ending its print publication. The paper will shift its focus to media platforms as well as producing more content throughout the week. Since their move, the Village Voice has already seen an increase in audience, and the beloved home of opinion and New York flare is safe in the arms of the internet. Click here to read more.

Just a Thought:

Dismantling the Copy Desk

The copy desk to some is an antiquated feature of news, where copy editors are best moved into roles of reporting or production to save money and resources. More than 20 years ago, when many papers started making this change, more mistakes sneaked into print, and thus the copy desk was saved, its purpose reaffirmed. Now, the New York Times is preparing to reinvent its copy editing staff, keeping only a few of its 100 members to become “strong editors” that will cover all the copy editing duties. While times are very different from the original experiment in the 90’s, is it still a bad idea to dismantle the copy desk? Click here to read more.

Quill and Scroll International Honor Society for High School Journalists was founded in 1926 at the University of Iowa by George Gallup. Check out our website to read more useful articles and to learn out how to become a charter school and/or a member.

Skills are best applied to solve real-world problems

By Erinn Aulfinger
Lakota East (Ohio) HS, Class of 2017

(Editor’s Note: Erinn Aulfinger is one of two 2017 winners of the George and Ophelia Gallup Scholarship awarded by Quill and Scroll. She is a freshman at Ohio State University in Columbus.)

I’ve had great leadership opportunities in organized activities and clubs in high school, including as Chief Editor of Lakota East’s award-winning newsmagazine, The Spark, this past year.  But I believe the true proof of the skills we learn is how we apply them.  

The true proof of our personal values is whether we put them to the test. For me, leadership goes beyond serving in a structured capacity. Service goes beyond school-mandated volunteer hours. Both come down to a choice: Step out of the safety of organized activities and make your own mark on the world, or let others be the pioneers to set the vision and brave the unchartered path as you follow safely behind.  

That philosophy was put to the test these past two years when I uncovered an issue in my southwestern Ohio community.

There’s a sickness running rampant through the hallways of our schools, infiltrating households, and raging, unchecked, throughout public places across America.  It’s plaguing our children, yet there’s no outcry of outrage or fear.  No hot debates on national TV citing numbers of people won or lost.  No white-coated CDC experts highlighting the problem.   

Industry reports say girls see a significant drop in self-esteem around age 9 that’s both deeper and longer-lasting than that of boys. This drop is driven in part by body image issues, bullying, and societal gender bias. Girls with low self-esteem are more likely to suffer from depression, self-harm, and premature sexual activity, yet only a few organizations are offering solutions. Words have unmistakable power, and the halls of middle or high school have the uncanny ability to bring out the worst of them.

Walking the school halls since I turned 9 years old, I’ve seen friends succumb to the pitfalls of low self-esteem, including cutting, eating disorders, and drug usage. I’ve watched the rise of “mean girls” bullying others, and of adults treating girls differently than boys, both worsening the problem. I wondered how I could harness the power of words in a more positive light, curing the disease of poor self-esteem by stopping the spread before girls were infected. Perhaps by giving younger girls a “vaccine” to prevent the development of negative thoughts, I could prevent the spread of a weakening sense of “girl power.”

My solution was to create, fund, and publish a book designed for sixth-grade girls about to face new pressures from peers, teachers, parents, and puberty. My book, “Rewriting Your Story,” includes inspirational stories from older girls and women who’ve overcome self-esteem issues, along with exercises and tips to give girls tools to help avoid that self-esteem drop.  

I developed a detailed year-long action plan, contacted more than 1,000 organizations for research, raised $5,000 in printing costs, persuaded women to share their stories, and taught myself design software to do my own layout. With permission from 10 elementary school principals, I distributed a free book to the 700 sixth-grade girls in my school district this past fall, and posted a free online copy for girls globally.

The book is achieving my goal of changing lives and helping girls learn to treat themselves and each other better.  

“I realized I was treating another girl … in a way I wouldn’t want to be treated, so I changed,” one girl said.

“I decided that if all those women could see themselves as pretty, so could I,” said another.  

A parent told me “I have an older daughter who’s struggled with much of the subject matter… so thanks for changing the world one page at a time!”

This project taught me new skills like project management and fundraising, introduced me to strong female leaders globally, and raised my own confidence as I tackled a project others initially told me “couldn’t be done”.  

Words can cause a sickness in heart and spirit. I hope my book can be one small part of the cure.

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