These high school journalists uncovered a principal's resume lie

Gina Mathew, Kali Poenitske, Maddie Baden, Trina Paul, Connor Balthazor and Patrick Sullivan at Pittsburg High School in Pittsburg, Kan.
Emily Smith | Pittsburg High School

It was a big win for "meddling kids" everywhere.

On March 29th, the student reporters at Pittsburgh High School in Kansas published an article in the school's paper, The Booster Redux, scrutinizing the resume of new principal Amy Robertson. It later led to the administrator's resignation.

Robertson, who had been approved for the role by the local board of education, claimed to have earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Tulsa, a master's degree and a doctorate degree from Corllins University, and a teaching degree from the University of Cambridge.

But Pittsburg High junior Gina Mathew told CNBC that students were surprised by how little they were told about their incoming principal and decided to investigate further.

"There really was no information being provided on this new administrator coming in," says Mathew, "so we felt it was our duty to make sure that the community was informed."

As student reporters looked deeper into Robertson's credentials, her story began to unravel.

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Connor Bathazor, a 17-year-old junior at Pittsburgh High, told The Washington Post, "There were some things that just didn't quite add up." Maddie Baden told The Kansas City Star that when they researched Corllins University, "We found a website that didn't work."

Robertson claimed to have received her M.A. in 1994 and her Ph.D. in 2010. But the U.S. Department of Education confirmed that Corllins University had been closed since 1986, and Robertson was also unable to provide evidence confirming her degree from the University of Tulsa. On April 4th, Robertson resigned.

While the students say they never intended to undermine the new principal, they felt a responsibility to report their findings.

"She was going to be the head of our school," says Trina Paul, Pittsburg High senior and editor of the newspaper, "and we wanted to be assured that she was qualified and had the proper credentials."

The students' reporting has earned them praise from across the U.S. — and a day off from school.

Emily Smith, the faculty advisor for the newspaper, told The Star that she is "very proud" of her students and explained, "They were not out to get anyone to resign or to get anyone fired. They worked very hard to uncover the truth."

Smith sees their work as an act of perseverance. "Everybody kept telling them, 'Stop poking your nose where it doesn't belong.'"

The work of student journalists is often underestimated, but the availability of social media and other reporting tools has created opportunities for non-professionals to share deeply-reported work widely. Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, told the The New York Times, "There's a sense that significant journalistic investigations can come from anywhere now."

The ordeal does raise questions as to how Robertson's resume fib could have slipped past the adult members of the school board, whose job it was to thoroughly vet principal candidates.

It isn't the first time in recent memory that slopped adult work has been exposed by cub reporters. A year ago, then 9-year-old multi-media journalist Hilde Kate Lysiak was the first reporter to break the news of a murder in her hometown of Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania.

"Because of my work, I was able to inform the people that there's a terrible murder, hours before my competition even got to the scene," Lysiak told The Washington Post. "In fact, some of the adult-run newspapers were reporting the wrong news or no news at all."

"I think people often overlook the power of student journalism," said student Gina Mathew. "It is often dismissed as unimportant because it is a school publication. "

"This experience showed us that we need to hold certain people in power accountable for telling the truth, and that even though we are students and teenagers, journalism matters," says Trina. "We simply report the facts, and that can be very powerful."

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