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.

"But when we cited our FOIA rights, Ms. Dunnagan still said she was uncomfortable turning over the emails," said Chism.

Chism, Paley and Pearce submitted a formal records request to both Dunnagan and the Petaluma City School District's Superintendent Steve Bolman. Their faculty advisor Athena Kautsch said it was a proud moment.

"It was inspiring to hear what the kids wanted to do," said Kautsch. "It is so exciting to see students affected like that — able to use new knowledge so quickly after acquiring it."

Petaluma City School District officials said Tuesday that they will be complying with the Gaucho Gazette's public records request. Dave Rose, the district's director of student services, said that this particular incident has left the district with mixed feelings.

"We're happy that they're using this journalism class to not only practice their writing and journalism skills, but also to learn the nuts and bolts of the industry and the laws surrounding it," said Rose. "On the other side, in the district's mind, this story is over. Everything that needs to be said has been said. We want the Kenilworth students and parents to focus on finishing the school year and preparing them for next year."

Rose said that the administrators are in the process of redacting the names of students and parents contained in the emails to Dunnagan, and that the correspondence in question will be turned over to the girls by May 30, the deadline set out in the records request.

Dunnagan didn't respond to several requests for comment made Tuesday.

In the meantime, the three reporters say that while they won't be able to use the emails in their student newspaper this year, they felt it was necessary to keep trying to get access to the information.

Chism acknowledged that the process has been difficult — the girls said many of their emails were ignored and that they were treated rudely when they went to Kenilworth in person —— but said she has not been dissuaded from future reporting.

"It has been a really tough road and I had no idea that it would be like this," said Chism, who is going to become the editor-in-chief of the Gaucho Gazette next year. "I may be tired, but I really want to take the paper in a more hard news, investigative direction next year. I just want to let people know about things they are entitled to know."

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)