‘Don’t overlook the student journalists’: HHS students plan to bring award-winning approach to Rocktown H.S.

HHS media’s home page shows the breadth and depth of coverage.

When Harrisonburg High School junior Jumana Alsaadoon found out her student newspaper was nationally recognized, she said she was “shocked.”

But then it began to sink in: This national award from the Journalism Education Association was the result of several years of hard work.

“This year, and the last three years, we’ve done so much for this publication … to reach the level of this award,” said Alsaadoon, who’s serving as HHS Media’s online editor-in-chief this year. “It was shocking, but like, ‘Yes, oh good.’ We’re being recognized for the work we’re doing, which is vital for any student journalist.”

Harrisonburg High School was one of just 28 high schools to receive the JEA’s First Amendment Press Freedom Award, furthering the school’s legacy of independent media fashioned over the years — one that student journalists plan to bring to Rocktown High School when it opens this fall. 

The award celebrates schools that “actively support and honor the First Amendment” through student media, including student newspapers, broadcasts and yearbooks. The award is based on questionnaires filled out by student editors and school administrators.

HHS student media is no stranger to national attention for its journalism. It’s won this press freedom award three times before — in 2016, 2017 and 2021 — alongside myriad others, like Pacemaker nominations from the National Scholastic Press Association and statewide awards. Last year, the high school also produced the Virginia Student Journalist of the Year, Kasey Thompson, who went on to place in the national competition and now works at The Breeze, JMU’s award-winning student publication.

Alsaadoon said that in the past few years, HHS Media has produced a number of tough stories that require and encourage a strong press-freedom culture at the school, covering topics like book bans, gun violence, mental health, protests, drug use and a lawsuit against the school district.

“Especially as a student journalist, every story I’m writing is about a topic that’s sensitive,” Alsaaduun said. “Every story I’m pursuing is about a topic that can be seen as a little bit hard.”

Valerie Kibler, HHS Media’s adviser, said the students are thoughtful in their editorial decisions, especially when it comes to tough topics.

“They always ask themselves in their editorial board meetings, ‘Is our coverage of this going to make a difference in a way [that] at the end we’ll be glad that we did it and we will not hurt people when in the process of doing that,” Kibler said. “Kids are more often critical of themselves, and they end up being more responsible about their coverage.”

Kibler said she takes her job title as an adviser literally — she doesn’t make any editorial decisions. HHS Media is entirely student-run, and the students have complete editorial independence from the high school.

Students spoke highly of HHS administration, saying they haven’t encountered any attempts at censorship and that administrators are typically open and willing to answer questions. 

Clare Kirwan, a graduating senior and HHS Media’s editor-in-chief, said she and her staff have intentionally built strong relationships with the school over the past few years. She has standing meetings with the principal, and students interview the superintendent and other HCPS officials regularly.

As a preemptive measure, Kirwan also trains staff on the First Amendment, including a session on their legal rights, during their summer leadership camp.

“If we were ever to face censorship, we do know our rights very well,” Kirwan said.

As she prepares to pass the torch, Kirwan said she’s proud to leave behind a legacy and culture of press freedom. After graduation, she’ll study journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

Those who aren’t graduating will face a new challenge: Some of them will head to Rocktown High School, which is set to open this fall. Alsaadoon said she already has plans to start a student media organization at the new high school. And she said she hopes people will follow student journalism not just for news on the high schools, but for the Harrisonburg community as well. 

“Don’t overlook following those student publications,” Alsaadoon said. “We’re not writing just for our school. We go out of our way to make sure that we’re covering topics that the whole community cares about and finds value in, so don’t overlook the student journalists. We’re really working hard for you.”

Editor’s Note: Charlotte Matherly is a former editor-in-chief of The Breeze but graduated before Kasey Thompson started at JMU.

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