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ProPublica Wins Disability Reporting Award

Heather Vogell
ProPublica reporter Heather Vogell is the recipient of the 2015 Katherine Schneider Journalism Award for Excellence in Reporting on Disability.

A ProPublica story that uncovered the shocking ways children with intellectual disabilities are physically disciplined in schools across the country has won top honors in the 2015 Katherine Schneider Journalism Award for Excellence in Reporting on Disability.

The contest, the only one devoted exclusively to disability reporting, is administered by the National Center on Disability and Journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. It was created in 2013 under a grant from Schneider, a retired clinical psychologist who has been blind since birth and who also supports the national Schneider Family Book Awards.

This year’s second-place award went to the Hartford Courant for a story that profiled a mother and her son, who has autism. Judges awarded third place to North Carolina Public Radio, WUNC-FM, for a multimedia piece examining the fallout of a state-sponsored eugenics program.

ProPublica reporter Heather Vogell’s first-place story, “Violent and Legal: The Shocking Ways School Kids are Being Pinned Down, Isolated Against Their Will,” profiled Carson Luke, a young boy with autism, who sustained broken bones after educators grabbed him and tried to force him into a “scream room.” The story underscored the common practice of educators secluding and physically restraining uncooperative school children, sometimes with straps, handcuffs, bungee cords or even duct tape, documenting hundreds of thousands of cases a year.

“Heather Vogell’s story met my ultimate test: I never had read before that students face dangerous restraints 267,000 times a year,” said Schneider Award judge Jerry Ceppos, dean of Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication. “No one else ever has assembled the massive dataset required to determine that number. For that alone, this was distinguished reporting. But Heather’s story didn’t rely just on data. She blended vignettes with the data so that the story read like a drama.”

“Violent and Legal” was one of more than a dozen stories produced by Vogell and Annie Waldman that examined seclusion and restraint practices in schools.

Vogell will accept the award and a $5,000 cash prize on behalf of ProPublica Nov. 30 at the Cronkite School, where she will deliver a talk on her work to students, faculty and the public. The discussion, part of the school’s “Must See Mondays” lecture series, will be held at 7 p.m. in the school’s First Amendment forum. It is free of charge and open to the public.

“We are deeply honored to receive the Katherine Schneider Journalism Award for Excellence in Reporting on Disability and want to thank the judges for recognizing our work,” Vogell said. “I am glad media coverage including ours has helped push conversations about restraints out of the dark place where they have long been hidden and into the open.”

Contest judges awarded second place to Josh Kovner, a reporter at the Hartford Courant in Connecticut, for “Saving Evan: A Mother and Son Navigate the Challenges of Treating Autism.” The in-depth story profiled Carol Marcantonio’s journey to help her 11-year-old autistic son become independent when he reaches adulthood. Kovner won a $1,500 prize for the story.

“The boy, Evan, could break your heart, and the mom’s journey resonated with many parents,” Kovner said. “People were saying, ‘That’s what happened to me.’”

Radio producer Eric Mennel took third place for a North Carolina Public Radio story, “Why Some NC Sterilization Victims Won’t Get Share of $10 Million Fund.” Mennel won a $500 prize for a story profiling Debra Blackmon, an intellectually disabled woman who was sterilized at age 14 in 1972 as part of a state-sponsored eugenics program in North Carolina.

This year’s judges included Ceppos as well as Leon Dash, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and journalism professor at the University of Illinois; Jennifer LaFleur, a senior editor at the Center for Investigative Reporting; and Jennifer Longdon, a disability rights advocate and former chair of the Phoenix Mayor’s Commission on Disability Issues.

In 2013, the inaugural Schneider award went to Ryan Gabrielson of California Watch, part of the Center for Investigative Reporting, for a series exposing the routine failure on the part of police to protect the developmentally disabled at California care institutions. Last year, Dan Barry of The New York Times won the award along with colleagues Kassie Bracken and Nicole Bengiveno for an in-depth story examining the lives of disabled men who worked in vile conditions for decades in an Iowa turkey plant.

According to NCDJ Director Kristin Gilger, who is the associate dean of the Cronkite School, the Schneider Awards aim to set a new standard for reporting on disability issues.

“The Schneider Awards have become an important nationally recognized honor in a remarkably short period of time,” Gilger said. “I’m convinced by shining a light on this outstanding journalism, this outstanding contest is promoting more and better coverage of the disabled and disability issues.”