ProPublica reporter Heather Vogell shared how she exposed the shocking ways children with intellectual disabilities are physically disciplined in schools as she accepted top honors at Arizona State University Monday in the nation’s only journalism contest dedicated to disability coverage.
Vogell received first place in the Katherine Schneider Journalism Award for Excellence in Reporting on Disability contest administered by the National Center on Disability and Journalism at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
She accepted the award and a $5,000 cash prize on behalf of ProPublica at the Cronkite School, where she discussed her winning story “Violent and Legal: The Shocking Ways School Kids are Being Pinned Down, Isolated Against Their Will.”
Vogell’s story 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.” Her in-depth reporting and data analysis uncovered that children across the country faced similar harm at least 267,000 times in 2012.
“Every story from every family is just heartbreaking,” said Vogell, who discussed her story with Tim McGuire, the Frank Russell Chair for the Business of Journalism at the Cronkite School. “I’m a parent with two kids, and some of these parents didn’t even know these things were happening.”
“Violent and Legal” underscored the common practice of educators secluding and physically restraining uncooperative school children, sometimes with straps, handcuffs, bungee cords and even duct tape, documenting hundreds of thousands of cases a year. The piece was one of more than a dozen stories produced by Vogell and Annie Waldman that examined seclusion and restraint practices in schools.
The Schneider Award contest also had second place and honorable mention winners. Josh Kovner, a reporter at the Hartford Courant in Connecticut, took second for “Saving Evan: A Mother and Son Navigate the Challenges of Treating Autism.” Radio producer Eric Mennel received an honorable mention for a North Carolina Public Radio story, “Why Some NC Sterilization Victims Won’t Get Share of $10 Million Fund.”
The annual journalism contest was created 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 is the (award contest’s) third year and all of the stories have been exceptional,” said Schneider, who presented Vogell with her first-place award.
Past winners have included Dan Barry of The New York Times and Ryan Gabrielson of California Watch, part of the Center for Investigative Reporting. In the past three years, the contest has received more than 200 entries from leading journalism organizations across the country, said Kristin Gilger, Cronkite associate dean and director of the NCDJ.
“Too often disability coverage can be superficial,” Gilger said. “Too often it can be inaccurate or offensive. The Schneider Award seeks to change all of that by recognizing the reporters who get it right and call attention to their work.”
The NCDJ has been located at the Cronkite School on ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus since 2009. It is led by an advisory board consisting of award-winning media professionals and disability experts. The organization works to provide support and guidance to journalists as they cover people with disabilities.