El Paso Times sees impact from investigation of school cheating

Headline: Education commissioner removes EPISD school board
Outlet: El Paso Times
Journalist: Zahira Torres and Hayley Kappes

One of the most important measures of investigative journalism is impact. Well, how’s this for impact? Reporting by Zahira Torres and Hayley Kappes of the El Paso Times on cheating in the El Paso School District led to the state education commissioner ordering the removal of the school board.

Torres was honored last week for the yearlong project with the Hovey-Harkness Award for public service reporting from Governing magazine. The DFMies are proud to pile on (and suspect we won’t be the last).

Editor Bob Moore‘s nomination explained about the project and the December stories:

A yearlong investigation by the Times has shown that the city’s largest school district has been engaged in one of the worst cheating scandals in the nation’s history. Several stories in December capped off the Times’ efforts for the year. Torres detailed how the state education agency had been told of the cheating two years earlier, but took no action. Her reporting led the education commissioner to order an outside investigation of how the agency missed the cheating.

Kappes showed that a former school board president was aware of an internal audit that pointed to cheating, despite insistence by board members that they had never seen the audit until the Times discovered it earlier this year.

As a result of the Times’ yearlong investigation, the state education commissioner in December ordered the removal of the school board, making the El Paso district the largest in Texas to ever face this sanction.

DFMie judges were enthusiastic in their praise. One judge’s comment:

I was impressed with how the reporters followed up on tips and their initial suspicions with requests for documents and thorough reporting. They exposed corruption and negligence in the school district and didn’t let readers forget what was at stake — the education of teenagers already on the verge of failing out of the system.

Another judge’s comment:

Great work getting key interviews and documents to show that the state’s education oversight agency may have turned a blind eye to cheating problems at a local school. This is typically a very tough connection to make, but even more crucial for the public to know about than cheating at just one school. It opens a much broader discussion about whether the state agency is doing its job properly and whether it has ignored allegations of cheating in other Texas schools. 

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