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Student Journalists Fight 'Fake News' Accusation From City School Official

By Katie Honan | March 7, 2017 11:07am
 Sumaita Hasan and Mehrose Ahmad, the top editors of Townsend Harris High School's paper, are fighting back against claims they peddle
Sumaita Hasan and Mehrose Ahmad, the top editors of Townsend Harris High School's paper, are fighting back against claims they peddle "fake news" in reporting on their embattled principal.
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DNAinfo/Katie Honan

FLUSHING — A pair of high school journalists who have tirelessly covered the controversy around their interim principal are fighting back against a Department of Education official who recently accused their news reports as being "fake news."

In a letter addressed to Department of Education Chancellor Carmen Farina, Mayor Bill de Blasio and District 26 Superintendent Elaine Lindsey, the top editors of Townsend Harris High School's paper, The Classic, rebutted DOE accusations that their coverage of the controversy over Rosemarie Jahoda since she was appointed the school's interim principal last fall was "fake news."

"We agree that our reporting has been negative about Jahoda, but that doesn’t mean it’s fake," said high school senior and The Classic's Editor-in-Chief, Sumaita Hasan, 17, "We spend so much of our day in school and after school to ensure accuracy in all aspects of the story, but when it’s generalized as 'fake news,' it’s upsetting."

"To label our reporting as 'fake' is to disparage all the hard work we do," Hasan and The Classic's Managing Editor, Mehrose Ahmad, 17, wrote in their Mar. 5 letter to the mayor and schools chancellor. "If we were fabricating our material, we would be able to leave school far earlier than we do."


Among their coverage, the paper has live-streamed a school sit-in against Jahoda, published a secret recording of Jahoda cursing while discussing a meeting with students and reported on accusations that she spends little time observing teachers in the classroom. 

The allegations that the paper was disseminating "fake news" came out during a meeting Friday between the DOE and representatives for State Assemblymembers David Weprin and Nily Rozic, an alum of the school. The elected officials had written a letter on Wednesday calling on Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina to intervene in the school's hiring process and oust Jahoda immediately.

During Friday's meeting, Frances DeSanctis, a representative for Superintendent Elaine Lindsey, said that while some people oppose Jahoda's principalship, the controversy around Jahoda's potential appointment was "the result of "'fake news' being widely circulated," according to a Mar. 3 letter written by Weprin and Rozic obtained by DNAinfo New York.

"While Ms. DeSanctis acknowledged community concern [about Jahoda], she did so while referencing the current environment in which "fake news" is being widely circulated. To insinuate that the community's shared concerns could be equated to 'fake news' further demonstrates the lack of transparency and understanding that has guided the" school's hiring process, Rozic and Weprin wrote.

"Dismissing the concerns of the Townsend Harris community as 'fake news' goes against the call to action we as community representatives, we as public servants must foster in our current political climate," they added.

While DeSanctis didn't single out the Classic, the assemblymembers cited the "students, teachers and parents" at the school who have been willing to speak out publicly about Jahoda's actions, most of which were first reported by the school paper.


Rozic and Weprin Letter to Chancellor Farina Regarding 'Fake News' Allegations at THHS by DNAinfoNewYork on Scribd

The DOE is currently conducting its C-30 hiring process, in which they will select a permanent principal by the summer. Jahoda has been automatically included in the list of applicants — despite a litany of complaints about her from students, parents, faculty and alumni.

This is not the first time the Education Department has tried to sideline the paper.

A DOE spokesman, Will Mantell, complained to The Classic's faculty advisor last year after they attempted to reach Farina for comment on the Jahoda controversy.

Mantell told the advisor that student journalists were "spamming" the chancellor with three emails and four phone calls, they said.

Hasan said it's their obligation to reach out to the subjects of their stories for comment, but that Jahoda has only met with them twice — once in December last year and on Friday — and during both meetings she refused to answer many of their questions.

"We definitely would love to speak with Ms. Jahoda more," Hasan said. "We also wanted to reach out to officials higher than Ms. Jahoda."

In an email to DNAinfo this week, Mantell declined to discuss the "fake news" comments, and said feedback from students is "essential for strong schools."

"We continue to listen to feedback from the Townsend Harris community and will review the letter," he said.

Meanwhile, the staff of the Classic says they'll continue reporting on what's happening in their school — regardless of what anyone says.

"The media is constantly being persecuted, but I think we’re the only ones shedding light on the truth," Hassan said.

"Our goal is just to inform the community as much as possible. That’s what our job is."