ARHS newspaper report on prison labor makes national headlines

  • Amherst-Pelham Regional High School senior Spencer Cliche sits in his journalism classroom after school.  STAFF PHOTO/GRETA JOCHEM​​​​​​

  • The Graphic

Staff Writer
Published: 6/28/2019 3:37:58 PM

AMHERST — When Amherst-Pelham Regional High School English teacher Sara Barber-Just woke up at 5:30 a.m. Friday morning, she saw a story about her journalism class’ article on The New York Times website, right below news about the Supreme Court.

“My jaw just dropped,” she said.

The special report on prison labor from Amherst-Pelham Regional High School’s student newspaper The Graphic caught the attention of the national news media this week and made headlines in some big-name publications.

“I think that’s a wonderful recognition for a student newspaper to have The New York Times call you and say they want to talk about your high school journalism,” Barber-Just said.

The students’ story, published online June 3 and in print June 4, revealed that the school district signed a contract with Massachusetts Correctional Industries, a program that provides work training and experience to inmates, to reupholster worn auditorium seats in the high school and middle school. The report raised questions about whether public schools should use prison labor and examined the issue in depth.

A day after it appeared online, Superintendent Michael Morris announced in an email that the district will not use the vendor again. The district had not worked with MassCor over the past three decades that its accounting system has information on, a public records request by the Gazette found.  

After the Gazette published a story on the students’ report, The Marshall Project, a nonprofit national publication that focuses on criminal justice, picked up the story and Teen Vogue re-published it online. On Friday, The New York Times wrote an article about The Graphic detailing how the story materialized. 

Morris commented on the national attention The Graphic is getting in a text message Friday to the Gazette.

“I applaud the student journalist and faculty advisor for their advocacy and the publicity they are getting is well deserved,” he said.

Recently graduated senior Spencer Cliche took the lead in reporting and collaborated with student editors as well as Barber-Just, his journalism teacher. The team also got help from two University of Massachusetts Amherst journalism professors, Kathy Roberts Forde and Razvan Sibii. 

Forde offered some input to a draft of the piece. “I think the response overall from both the community and the administration tells the student journalists that their work matters and that they’ve done something — their journalism changed policy.”

The email announcement from Morris did not mention The Graphic. 

“My daughter attends ARHS, so I received the superintendent’s email informing families the district would no longer use MassCor as a vendor. I was very disappointed that he didn’t acknowledge the students’ reporting and The Graphic in the email,” Forde told the Gazette. 

Sibii also gave the Amherst students tips for the piece and said he advised them to make the article on a complicated issue balanced. He has taught in prisons before and said many inmates find the jobs meaningful. At the same time, he understands the problems with it. “The whole system is thoroughly corrupt and broken at this point,” Sibii said.

The national attention was somewhat surprising to him. 

“First of all, as a journalist, I know that for a story to make it from a local story … to the national stage, it doesn't just have to be good, it has to be lucky,” he said, adding that he’s grateful this story did make it.

Timing also has an impact, he said. “I think this one happened to align very well with the historical moment we’re living in.”

Cliche acknowledged the Gazette’s role. “The Gazette’s coverage started this all,” he said.

The experience of The Graphic’s story being covered by national news outlets has been “surreal,” Cliche said.

Friday, the day The New York Times article was published, was his 18th birthday.

“This is the best birthday anyone could ever wish for. It’s ... I have no words,” he said. “I’m so happy that it is having this much of an impact.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.


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