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Shawnee Mission North, Blue Valley Northwest students win Courage in Journalism Awards

The Kansas Scholastic Press Association congratulates Grace Altenhofen of Shawnee Mission North and Anna Cowden of Blue Valley Northwest for their outstanding courage in journalism. They have earned the first Courage in Journalism Award from KSPA, an award founded on the 50th anniversary of the monumental Tinker v. Des Moines decision in the Supreme Court.

Their stories below are shining examples of how high school journalists can use their power as writers, editors and journalists to uncover vital community news and advocate for free student expression.

Below, please read our judge’s summary of how each student earned the award.

Grace Altenhofen, editor of The Mission

  • School: Shawnee Mission North High School
Grace exhibits courage in journalism by standing up for the rights of her fellow student journalists and by holding those in power accountable. She is a co-plaintiff in a lawsuit against her school district that accuses the district of violating a student journalist’s rights to photograph an unsanctioned student walkout.
She conducted detailed research of the incident, and publicly raised questions about the administration’s actions by making a presentation about it to the district’s board of education. On an ongoing basis, Grace regularly covers board of education meetings, and her column is one of the key sources of what happens at these meetings.

Submitted work:

Opinion: The fight for student journalists’ rights

Speech before the Board of Education

From her application essay:

“It would have been easy to feel defeated, but a few days later I was contacted by the ACLU asking if they could add my name as a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the school district. They shared my belief that the Kansas Student Publications Act was violated, as well as the First Amendment. I agreed to join the lawsuit.”

“Though litigation is still pending, I believe this case has already had a positive impact on the rights of all student journalists in the state of Kansas, and I’m proud I was able to defend the First Amendment and Student Publications Act.”

Excerpts of recommendation letters:

From Jay Senter, Editor and Publisher at the Shawnee Mission Post:

“As the editor and publisher of the Shawnee Mission Post, I’ve been impressed with Grace’s reporting abilities, writing abilities, and understanding of the importance of journalists’ duty to document important events and issues in their communities.”

“Her courage to stand up and speak out has led the district to thoroughly review the incident and its policies… Grace Altenhofen has demonstrated precisely the kind of courage this award seeks to recognize.”

 

From Becky Tate, Shawnee Mission North journalism adviser:

“But it’s not just First Amendment issues and strong understanding of news that shows Grace’s passion for journalism, it is the fact she understands so many areas of what “journalism” encompasses.”

“She’s also a leader in the true meaning. She does not ask for more than she does herself, never raises her voice to others who miss a deadline or do not complete a page on time and uses praise liberally to motivate others. My favorite thing about Grace is that she doesn’t care if the writer is working for her publication or the yearbook. I have seen many yearbook writers go to her to have her coach and edit their work. These writers are beginning writers and many editors would ignore them or help a time or two and never look back. Grace does not — she cares about quality writing.”

“At the first of the semester, Grace rallied the newspaper staff and wrote a proposal to the principal for the staff to help the school celebrate Scholastic Journalism Week. In 30 years of teaching valedictorians, state journalists of the year and future White House correspondents, Grace is the first to say we need to celebrate this week as it is important for students to see what we do and understand its importance.”

Anna Cowden, editor-in-chief of The Express and BVNWnews.com

  • School: Blue Valley Northwest High School 
Anna exhibits courage in journalism by pursuing sensitive yet important stories. In 2018, she researched and reported on the circumstances of the fatal police shooting of one of her classmates. In the process, she interviewed the Overland Park chief of police and Johnson County district attorney.
The mother of the victim wrote in a nomination letter that “Anna exercised tremendous courage when interviewing friends, classmates and me for the initial piece. She did not shy away from the intensity of the feelings and told an absolutely beautiful human centered story.”
This spring, Anna covered a racial discrimination lawsuit filed by a former student against the school district and others, including Anna’s principal. She again had to ask many uncomfortable questions and published a story that, according to her adviser, provided “more balanced coverage than all the international media which has been covering the suit.”

Submitted work:

Former student John Albers’ family settles wrongful death lawsuit against City of Overland Park and former police officer Clayton Jenison

2018 graduate Camille Sturdivant files civil lawsuit against district, others

From her application essay:

“It took immense inner strength and courage to write these stories, but I know my reporting was essential for the BVNW community in understanding his story. My coverage was later used by The Washington Post and The Kansas City Star.””Before joining the Blue Valley Northwest newspaper staff, I had never read a lawsuit, submitted a FOIAor possibly imagined interviewing a chief of police. It takes guts to cover two national lawsuits as a teenager, but nothing makes me more proud in saying I overcame emotional and legal barriers to better inform my community on uncomfortable issues.”

Excerpts of recommendation letters:

From Jim McCrossen, Blue Valley Northwest journalism adviser:

“One of the strengths of her leadership is that she understands the newspaper is a thing and that thing’s success is dependent upon people who aren’t afraid of discovering and sharing the truth about controversial subjects. Anna takes care of her staff and because of that, the students want to work hard to please her. She can get the staff to laugh when that is needed, and she can kick some butt when that is what is needed, and she can differentiate between the two very well.”

“I have had several journalism teachers across the country tell me they have used Anna’s story in a side by side comparison with professional coverage of the story to teach students how to tell a fair story. Anna’s work is so much more fair than anyone else’s I’ve read. She works hard to tell important stories fairly and accurately.”

 

From Sheila Birrane Albers, mother of John Albers:

“Anna and John were classmates at BVNW and Anna is also one of my former students. Her personal ties to this story run deep. She was able to funnel those emotions into several very meaningful pieces that honored John as a person and shed light on difficult legal and mental health issues surrounding John’s death. Her ability to set aside her personal emotions to tell his story speaks volumes about her talent as a journalist.”

“As a mother, a principal, and an informed active citizen, this is by far the most important letter of recommendation I have ever been asked to write. The survival of our democracy rests heavily upon journalists who are willing to tell the stories that need to be told. Anna Cowden is one of those journalists and I truly cannot imagine a better recipient of the KSPA Courage in Journalism Award.”

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