When three Casa Grande High School journalism students attended an investigative reporting workshop at the National High School Journalism Convention in San Francisco, they didn't guess that when they returned home, they'd be thrust into a real-life Freedom of Information Act battle with local school officials.
But for Keeley Chism, 16, Mara Paley, 15, and Maggie Pearce, 16, — all features editors at the award-winning Casa Grande newspaper, the Gaucho Gazette — that's exactly what happened when they began working on a story about Kenilworth Junior High School's recent handling of an issue with its dress code policy.
Their story centered on perceived misstatements made by Kenilworth Vice Principal Kathy Olmsted when she held an assembly with the female students in April. Olmsted attempted to remind the girls that wearing leggings without a long shirt, dress or skirt covering their upper legs was against the school's dress code. But the assembly spiraled past Olmsted's control and ended with her making what many described as inappropriate comments to the students. Olmsted issued a formal apology the next day.
After several parents complained about the incident to the local media, news outlets across the nation picked up the story. Kenilworth Principal Emily Dunnagan released statements admitting that Olmsted's comments went farther than they should have, but never specified exactly what had been said.
Pearce's younger sister had attended the assembly and told her that Olmsted had made "derogatory" comments to the female students, and that she had, in fact, banned leggings and skinny jeans — something that school administrators denied.
Pearce, Paley and Chism decided to investigate the matter and "set the record straight" by writing an article for the May 7 issue of the Gaucho Gazette.
The girls met with Dunnagan on April 18 and were initially satisfied when the principal told them that leggings and skinny jeans had never been banned, but that Olmsted had allowed the conversation to go in a direction that was inappropriate. Even so, they remained skeptical about a particular comment Dunnagan had made during the meeting.
"She said there had been email correspondence from parents on the issues, and she said there were four letters of complaints and 12 letters of support," said Pearce. "As we thought about it more, we realized that looking at those emails would better inform our story and our readers."
At this point, the investigative training the girls had received just days earlier kicked in, setting these budding writers on the same path that countless journalists have traveled before them. Remembering the workshops they had just attended and the advice they had received from seasoned journalists, the girls dove head-first into the painstaking process of trying to access hard-to-get information that they believed was in the public interest.
"We just wanted to get to the core of the leggings situation," said Chism. "But when we asked her for copies of the emails from the parents, Ms. Dunnagan said she didn't feel comfortable giving them to us — even though we are legally entitled to them."
After consulting with national Student Press Law Center's Executive Director Frank LoMonte, Chism determined that under the Freedom of Information Act, email correspondence about a school policy that does not involve a student's educational or disciplinary transcripts was public record.