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8th-Grade Journalist Spotlights Violence in School, Hopes Obama Will Notice

September 28, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
How does violence affect students' ability to learn? That's what eighth-grader De'Qonton Davis and his classmates set out to investigate as part of the NewsHour's Student Reporting Labs project in partnership with PBS station WEDU in Tampa. The students produced a unique video report that they hope President Obama will see.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to our series on the dropout problem in America.

Personal experiences outside of pure academics often contribute to whether a student may leave school. Tonight, we visit Saint Petersburg, Florida, where one eighth-grader’s enthusiasm for journalism has helped shine a light on problems in his school, while at the same time brightening his future.

Ray Suarez reports for our American Graduate project.

RAY SUAREZ: This is how 14-year-old De’Qonton Davis starts every school day in Saint Petersburg, Fla. He wakes up early and walks his 12-year-old sister, Terrijana, six blocks to the bus stop.

To the casual eye, his family’s neighborhood seems pleasant and sunny. But on closer look, the scars of poverty and a lingering recession become apparent, high unemployment, foreclosures and some of the highest crime rates in the city.

Last month, De’Qonton says he began making it a point to walk with his sister, after a man she didn’t know repeatedly tried to get her into his car. Terrijana refused and got away unharmed.

DE’QONTON DAVIS, student, John Hopkins Middle School: I always was raised in the hood, never in a quiet place. We always had violence, trouble, something always going wrong, because you got loud music, loud people, drinking, smoking, drugs. Everything in that one little neighborhood, it turns the whole neighborhood into a bad zone.

RAY SUAREZ: The family lives in an area of Saint Petersburg known as Midtown, a predominately African-American section of the city that was at one time largely segregated.

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De’Qonton believes Midtown’s problems have had a profound effect on many students growing up in the neighborhood. And two years ago, he noticed a trend of violence starting on social media websites and spreading to his classrooms here at John Hopkins middle school.

DE’QONTON DAVIS: My sixth grade year, we had 100-and-something arrests. And most of the time, they’re fights with some gangs and stuff that happened at home from Facebook and Twitter and all that stuff from home. And they came into the school. And we had police every day at the school. And I really didn’t like that.

RAY SUAREZ: What the violence did was spark an idea for De’Qonton. He hoped to shine a light on the roots of the fighting and why it was happening at John Hopkins.

De’Qonton led a team of his classmates in producing a video for the PBS NewsHour Reporting Labs, which showcases student journalism across the nation.

DE’QONTON DAVIS: They put us in groups. I got the people who got good grades and good stuff that they do journalism. And they was talking about gangs, drugs and fights, and that’s — how that’s making a bad influence on our school.

I said the gangs, everybody, don’t be the drugs and the gangs and the bullying and stuff. It might happen at home. Something that happened at home, from their anger and frustration, they bring it in school and the only way to take it out is to fight or to yell at the teachers or do something bad.

RAY SUAREZ: The students questioned other students.

STUDENT: I honestly didn’t really care. I just wanted to keep fighting, because it’s in my blood.

RAY SUAREZ: Teachers.

CLAIRE LYNCH, teacher: Asian gangs, neighborhood gangs, I have been here through all of it. When you have a disagreement in the neighborhood, the easiest place to find the person is at school, because you all go to school together.

RAY SUAREZ: And even administrators and the campus police in search of answers as to what was causing the dramatic number of arrests and assaults at John Hopkins.

The end result was a striking six-and-half-minute report titled “Fighting Chance,” a deeply honest look at the problems inside the school.

DE’QONTON DAVIS: In 2010, a police officer was shot and killed in the neighborhood. While police searched for the suspect, John Hopkins was closed for the day, and students had to go to another school. After a day of searching, 16 year-old Nicholas Lindsey was caught and charged with the officer’s murder. Lindsey is a former student at John Hopkins Middle School.

RAY SUAREZ: The video was produced as part of a communications magnet program in the Pinellas County School District known as Journeys in Journalism. The program places professional journalists in three Saint Petersburg Title I schools, including De’Qonton’s.

CYNDA MORT, program coordinator, Journeys in Journalism: There was never a doubt in De’Qonton’s mind that he wanted to do this story.

RAY SUAREZ: Journeys in Journalism coordinator Cynda Mort says De’Qonton and his classmates took on a complex and sensitive issue that adults have been trying to deal with for years.

DE’QONTON DAVIS: According to John Hopkins staff, middle school is an important time in a student’s development to identify causes of violence and begin prevention strategies.

RAY SUAREZ: Mort says the video is exactly the type of work she hoped would be created when the program was launched 10 years ago. Her goal was to teach students as young as kindergartners. . .

STUDENT: I am a reporter for the Manatee Messenger. May I please ask you a question.

RAY SUAREZ: . . . all the way through high school, the fundamentals of newsgathering.

CYNDA MORT: There wasn’t any journalism program that was trying to reach students in K-5 anywhere across the country. So we decided that it was curiosity, observation, accuracy and fairness. And if we could remain to those four core concepts and try the figure out how to connect those concepts on a level that even a kindergartner would begin to understand.

RAY SUAREZ: De’Qonton joined the program following elementary school and his teachers said he showed an immediate knack for photography.

De’Qonton’s mother, La’Qonya Stewart, says that journalism has been a blessing for the family and that it has helped her son become more outgoing. But she says she wasn’t expecting him to produce such a well-thought-out video on the violence at school.

LA’QONYA STEWART, mother of De’Qonton Davis: That was kind of a shocker, because that’s not a conversation that most teenagers as boys talk about or say that, wait, this is not the problem. It starts before then.

RAY SUAREZ: And the surprise didn’t stop there. When the video was being made, John Hopkins principal Barry Brown was one of the first subjects interviewed. He says his middle schoolers have been so professional, he first thought adults were doing most of the work.

BARRY BROWN, principal, John Hopkins Middle School: I think my first take, I made them stop. My first interview, I had some kids come in and they — I mean I had to pull data. I had to — “Guys, you got to — who wrote these questions?”

And they were looking at each other like — and one of the kids was like, “I did.”

RAY SUAREZ: In fact, that was eighth-grader and lead reporter Alexus Barnhart grilling principal Brown.

ALEXUS BARNHART, student, John Hopkins Middle School: We need to come up with hardcore questions that get us the answers that we need for the project. You have to show them that you are actually serious, and then they can actually hold a conversation with you.

RAY SUAREZ: While Brown admits being nervous about how the video would reflect on his school, he says the journalism program has been great for both students and faculty at John Hopkins, where violence and fighting have declined in the last two years.

BARRY BROWN: How often does a middle school kid get a chance to come in with his own list of questions that they developed themselves and question a principal, and that principal is going to have to give them some answer?

I have seen kids that are in the hallway ripping, running and being our typical middle school kid and come in here and, “Yes, sir, no, sir,” setting up shop. “Thank you for your time,” taking notes.

So I think it definitely establishes some professionalism for the kids.

RAY SUAREZ: For De’Qonton, who wants be a firefighter and a photographer when he grows up, journalism has given him a reason to stay in school.

DE’QONTON DAVIS: If I didn’t have a camera, I would probably be led up with the wrong people and doing the wrong stuff. And I wouldn’t probably make it to college.

RAY SUAREZ: And as for his video, which drew attention from local media outlets and is now gaining national exposure, De’Qonton says there is one person in particular he’s hoping will watch it.

DE’QONTON DAVIS: I want the president to see what I could do and see what — what young kids can do, young black American kids. And I want them to know that somebody out there is trying to learn and trying to get their education right and be a good adult dad in a community when he grows up.

RAY SUAREZ: De’Qonton and his fellow journalists in Saint Petersburg are now working on a video examining the lack of male influence in the lives of some of their classmates.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We have more online from our series, including a look at a day in the life of a first-grade journalist.

American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.