Nina Lavezzo-Stecopoulos and the co-editor of their high school newspaper, The Little Hawk, were talking to students in November about what they disliked about Iowa City High School when she sensed something was off.
“That day I had a lot of good conversations about wrongful suspensions and racism” by the staff members who monitor the halls, Ms. Lavezzo-Stecopoulos said.
She had also been learning about the justice system in her ethnic studies class, and, “seeing that this was an issue within my own school,” she said, “I decided to write about it.”
Ms. Lavezzo-Stecopoulos got to work.
She dug into state and school district statistics. She interviewed students about their rates of suspensions and experiences.
The result: an article in December titled “Black students nearly two times as likely to be suspended as white peers in the ICCSD,” a reference to the Iowa City Community School District, which is about 120 miles east of Des Moines.
The Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization honored Ms. Lavezzo-Stecopoulos, 18, with its High School Journalism award for her work at its book and journalism awards ceremony on Thursday.
“I was extremely surprised,” said Ms. Lavezzo-Stecopoulos, who was awarded a copper bust of Kennedy and a $500 check.
The awards, founded by reporters who covered Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign, honor “outstanding reporting on issues” that reflect his concern “for human rights, social justice and the power of individual action” in the United States and abroad.
“Writing this article was an emotional roller coaster,” said Ms. Lavezzo-Stecopoulos, who in her senior year was the executive editor and features editor of the 50-person school newspaper, which is published six times per school year.
She spent three weeks working on the 2,500-word article, squeezing in interviews during lunch and after school.
“I left some of the interviews crying,” she said. “It was also extremely difficult to be calm and collected during my meetings with my school administrators, but it was all worth it to tell my peers’ stories.”
Black students in the district of 14,000 account for 20 percent of its population but 60 percent of in- and out-of-school suspensions, she reported. In contrast, white students account for 56.6 percent of the student population but 32.3 percent of all suspensions.
Among the infractions that could prompt a suspension: fighting or bullying or the use or possession of alcohol, drugs or tobacco.
The article highlighted the differences in how black and white students were treated for infractions on and off campus.
One white student told Ms. Lavezzo-Stecopoulos that she had received a warning by a police officer after being caught smoking marijuana off campus with friends.But when a black student was accused by a classmate of being high, school officials searched her backpack and “there wasn’t anything in there,” the student recounted to Ms. Lavezzo-Stecopoulos. She was suspended for four days.
The article also highlighted how many students of color at the high school “feel like they are watched more than other students in school and in the community,” Ms. Lavezzo-Stecopoulos wrote.
School officials could not be immediately reached for comment on Sunday, but administrators told the newspaper that “the good conduct policy is consistently enforced” and that the administration “has followed student code of conduct for all students they have caught violating the code for drugs or fighting.”
Ms. Lavezzo-Stecopoulos said that after the article was published, she received a lot of support from teachers in her district and one teacher from another state. Some white students, she said, were critical of “the way my article made our school look.”
Ms. Lavezzo-Stecopoulos, who graduated last month, plans to double major in human rights and education at Barnard College in New York. She also wants to continue practicing journalism.
By winning the award, she hopes her article will be read by a wider audience.
“I hope people realize how much systemic racism impacts every black student in the American school system,” she said. “As one of my sources said, it starts in kindergarten with getting sent to the principal’s office. These kids are taught that they are troublemakers from Day 1 because of their teacher’s implicit or explicit biases.”
Susan Walker, a journalism professor at Boston University, applauded Ms. Lavezzo-Stecopoulos’s work.
“This is just what journalism should be — evidence-based reporting, compelling human examples and speaking truth to power by getting reactions from authorities about racial disparities in school suspensions,” she said.
“Our message is to look for the stories in your own communities, your backyards, your schools, your activities,” she added. “This article is a great example of reporting, the younger the better.”