Sterling High School journalists receive award for courage

When the Sterling High School journalism program’s future was thrust into uncertainty by the elimination of long-time journalism adviser Todd Vogts, the Sterling Student Publications staff sprang into action and covered the story.

For this work, freshman Madison Lackey; sophomores Ashlyn Spangenberg, Riley Richter and Megan Roelfs; junior Courtney Ball; and senior Abby Riffel received the second annual Courage in Journalism Award from the Kansas Scholastic Press Association.

“I was very shocked when I found out that we had won but also extremely proud of our team for all of the effort they had put in,” Riffel said. 

The award, founded in 2019 on the 50th anniversary of the Tinker v. Des Moines decision in the Supreme Court, recognizes student journalists “who showed determination, despite difficulty or resistance, in lawfully exercising First Amendment press rights.”

Normally the winners, who will receive a plaque commemorating the recognition, would be announced at the KSPA State Opening Ceremony, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event has been canceled this year. Instead, KSPA Executive Director Eric Thomas joined the winners on a Zoom video meeting to announce the news.

“It’s an incredible honor,” Vogts said. “I’m blown away by the work the students have done and continue to do to finish the yearbook and provide news coverage on our website, even under these historic circumstances that prevent us from being together physically at this time.”

The students won the award based upon their coverage of staffing cuts happening at Sterling High School, resulting in the loss of two teachers within the school, one of which was Vogts.

In a press release, KSPA said the articles written by the students were “shining examples of how high school journalists can stand up to authority, while objectively covering the problem at stake. KSPA applauds the editors of the Cub for doing good journalism during an unsteady time for their school and uncertain future for their own journalism program.”

The team wrote a news story about the staff cuts on the front page of the February issue of their Cub Reporter newspaper, and then they took a stance on the situation in their March staff editorial, in which they urged the administration of Principal Phil Bressler and Superintendent Jim Goracke to maintain the journalism program and adviser. The coverage can be read at the bottom of this story.

“Writing this article was fairly hard just because there were so many emotions involved with it. I was a little scared as to how some teachers, like Mr. Bressler, would take this because this was their executive decision, and it can’t be changed,” Roelfs said. “We voiced our concerns in the meetings that he’s had with us, but, in my opinion, he didn’t really take them into full consideration because he still thought that print is dead.”

Knowing there could be backlash, especially for the editorial, created concerns for the students.

“It did feel courageous to publish this article,” Riffel said. “We knew that what we were about to publish was not going to be popular among the administration of the school.”

The students said they felt like they weren’t being heard and that many in the school did not know what was happening, so they felt they had to cover it, regardless of any fears they might have had.

“What we covered was extremely important for the community,” Riffel said. “We had all of these changes coming towards us, and it felt like nobody stopped to ask the kids what they really wanted and felt. Writing the editorial was a way to write about how we felt without pressure from people within the school deterring us.”

Roelfs agreed and said it was a team effort.

“I think the editorial piece really stood out because that was where we were able to voice our opinions and concerns,” she said. “Writing the editorial was fairly easy because there were multiple people who felt the same way, and we all wrote our thoughts. Because the six of us felt the same way, we were all able to reiterate our concerns and why this decision is so impactful to all of us.”

Once everything was published, people in the school and the community took notice.

“The feedback we got back was better than I expected,” Riffel said. “We had a lot of teachers come up to us and express their support. It was nice to know that we weren’t the only ones in the school who felt this way. It was also nice because many students outside of the journalism department didn’t know what we were dealing with. With the editorial being published, students started speaking more on the matter, which gained us even more support.”

Roelfs also heard words of support.

“There were people who told me that they agreed with us and teachers who told us that our stories and coverage was nicely written and that we were standing up for what we believed in, which they thought was amazing,” she said. “They also said that they were sad to see this program and Mr. Vogts go because he’s taught us as students how to use our voice and stand up for what we believe in.”

Such support prompted the students to apply for the KSPA Courage in Journalism award.

“We decided to apply because it was our last hope. We knew that even though things wouldn’t change, we could at least win this award to show that what we do is important,” Riffel said. 

Roelfs agreed.

“When Mr. Bressler suggested that print is dead, that was when I really knew that we were doing the right thing by applying for this award because KSPA is all about keeping print alive,” she said.

To apply, students had to write a letter of application, provide digital copies of the reporting they had done and gather letters of support from teachers and community members. The letter of application can be read at the bottom of this story.

Based upon the application materials, the selection committee commended the students for standing up for their rights and their program.

“When journalism is under attack, journalists must defend themselves. The students of Sterling High School clearly understand this. This package of application materials showcases their willingness to report on and then advocate against the effective shuttering of their school’s journalism program through the elimination of their adviser’s position,” the committee said. “The Courage in Journalism award is intended to showcase student journalism that stands up to authority and uses the Kansas Student Publication Act to do so. With that in mind, the team from Sterling High School is the perfect group of journalists to receive the award for 2020. They gave voice to opposing views in their front-page reporting before taking a strong leadership voice on the editorial page. Supporting letters from teachers and community members make it clear that their writing had impact. Those letters describe student journalists as ‘under attack’ and ‘under attack.’ In this climate, the student journalists continued to write and publish about the choices made by administrators.”

Roelfs said she felt the letters from teachers and community members were key.

“The letters really proved that this is a serious thing and that they had our backs,” she said. “I’ve only been in this program for two years, but it’s been so good to me and seeing it be let go the way it is isn’t good.”

All of the work was done by the students, which Riffel said she thought probably caught the attention of the selection committee.

“I think what stood out to the judges was the fact that it was really the students who did it all themselves,” she said. “We were speaking out on a manner that involved our adviser, so he couldn’t get involved with the story too much. It was the students who really had to make sure that what they were going to say got the point across.”

The students also said they applied for the award to honor their adviser.

“I wanted to do this for Mr. Vogts because this is what he’s passionate about and for us as students, because program has taught all of us so much,” Roelfs said. “I wanted to end this year successfully.”

Riffel agreed.

“We wanted to win this award for our adviser, Todd Vogts. I also wanted to win to show that our journalism department isn’t just some random club in the school. We work hard and are successful,” she said. “Our publication deserved to win because of all of the battles we had to face this year. We have been trying all year to offer solutions to the problem, but when it became clear that nothing would change, we applied for this as one last victory for the department. There’s a feeling of pride that comes with knowing that we are giving our adviser one of the most successful years we could. “

Vogts said he was touched by the students’ desire to receive the award in his honor.

“What can you say? These students are special. They do incredible work, and it has been an honor to be their adviser and the Sterling journalism adviser for the past eight years,” he said. “I certainly am not wanting to step away, but, since I am being forced to, it is nice to see their efforts pay off and be recognized with awards. It’s as good of a way to end as we can have under the circumstances.”

Vogts said he wants this award to catch people’s attention.

“I just hope they realize the value of student journalism programs and support them however they can. I just hope the program doesn’t disappear completely because it would have such a negative impact on the students who are passionate about journalism,” he said. “The benefits are so wide ranging. Ripping that type of opportunity away from students would be a shame, and that’s the point. This isn’t about me. It is about the students. They deserve to have the opportunities student journalism provides to them, and they deserve to have their rights respected and supported.”

Losing a vibrant journalism program impacts more than just the student journalists, though.

“It affects the student body because they will be without a monthly newspaper and won’t be able to keep up with the coverage of things that are happening in the school as much as they have been in the past years,” Roelfs said.

This leads to worries for the coming year.

“I am concerned for how the publications are going to look next year,” Roelfs said. “Because we don’t have a certified journalism teacher, what is produced won’t be the same. There will be no monthly publications like there have been in the past, and the yearbook might look completely different. I’m hoping it won’t be terrible, but I know that it won’t be the same quality as what Mr. Vogts has demanded from students. And that quality really shows with all of the stuff that he and his students have produced.”

Riffel wishes for the staff to keep working and be inspired by winning the award.

“I hope that the confidence the journalism staff gained by winning this award will encourage them to keep it up,” she said. “As a senior, I won’t be able to come back next year to help. I hope that the staff will feel ready to tackle other subjects that may be controversial and not shy away because people may not like it.”

Personally, though, Riffel said winning made her feel recognized and opened her eyes to what journalism can be.

“Receiving this award made me feel acknowledged for the work we had put in. It reassured us that the fight we were fighting was a good one with a worthy cause,” she said. “Receiving this award also taught me that as a journalist it is okay to publish things not everyone is going to be happy with.”

For Roelfs, the award is empowering.

“This kind of recognition lets us know that we can actually write something as impactful as this and still know that people are commending us for writing it,” she said. “It was difficult, but the end results were good. We were happy with how things ended. It might not change anything, but it lets people in the community know how we feel and how upset we are by this decision. This shows that we could cover harder things and still be successful and have people understand us.”

The award’s selection committee said receiving this recognition ideally will renew focus on the program.

“Our hope for these award-winning students — and their adviser — is that this award helps to spotlight for the school district and community how ill-fated this decision is to eliminate Vogts’s position,” the committee said. “We hope that the powerful words of the students will convince those they are addressing: the people in power.”

The students said they are going to continue to advocate for themselves and the journalism program no matter what.

“I know that our department is not ready to give up,” Riffel said. “They want to continue producing quality content and learning about journalism. I think they are ready to keep fighting for what they love.”

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About toddvogts 771 Articles
My name is Todd Vogts. I am an assistant professor of media. I like the color green, riding my motorcycle, and being with my family and friends. A good book is a perfect companion for me any time, and I'm a published author and journalist. Visit my website at www.toddvogts.com and follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/toddvogts.