February 26, 2019

In the fall of 2017, an attorney in Southern California filed a lawsuit against the Redlands Unified School District alleging that teachers and staff there had at least a decade-long history of preying on students.

Joseph Nelson, an investigative reporter with the San Bernardino Sun, called the attorney and asked if he had any documentation to back the lawsuit up. The attorney sent him nearly 2,000 pages of documents.

“That was kind of a windfall from there,” Nelson said.

For 15 months, he worked with Orange County Register investigative reporter Scott Schwebke to piece together the information in those documents. The result, “Bad Apple,” published last year and led the state to launch an investigation.

“School administrators, teachers and staff in California are required by law to alert authorities to suspicions about sexual abuse of underage students,” the project begins. “But in school districts across Southern California, some educators are shirking that duty, choosing to keep things quiet rather than ‘ruin lives’ of co-workers and suffer the taint of bad publicity. As a result, from Los Angeles to Redlands and Riverside to Torrance, victims of sexual abuse are settling lawsuits with school districts that failed their students, costing taxpayers more than $313 million in the past seven years.”

The two veteran journalists did the work while their newsrooms, owned by Digital First Media, continued laying off local journalists. And they did it by working with other DFM newsrooms across Southern California.

“We’re not physically in one place,” Schwebke said. “We’re not like the Spotlight team huddled in a tiny office somewhere. That’s good and bad.”

Screenshot, SCNG

Nelson started working at the Sun in 1999. Schwebke’s been at the Register for the past five years. The two live and work 60 miles apart.

Southern California News Group is made up of 11 newspapers, including the Sun, the Register and the tiny Redlands Daily Facts. That paper currently has two reporters, according to its web site.

In early 2018, SCNG newsrooms went through layoffs. Around that time, executive editor Frank Pine created an investigations team that would pull people from different newsrooms to work together.

When we were reorganizing our newsrooms last year, watchdog journalism was at the top of our list,” he said in an email. “This is the kind of reporting that readers expect and deserve from professional news organizations and it is fundamental to our role in society as well as to democracy. It also happens to be the kind of journalism that engages readers on our sites and keeps them coming back.”

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Soon, Schwebke joined Nelson and the two started working together to find out what was happening with the Redlands Unified School District. They had nearly 2,000 pages of documents and 100 hours of video.

And they needed them all.

As they reported, five lawsuits were filed. The superintendent refused to talk or meet with them. Teachers were barred from commenting. The district attorney is the former president of the school board. And Redlands is a small community where everyone knows each other, Schwebke said.

“They almost closed ranks when we started this investigation,” he said.

The key to seeing the trail of abuse and coverup was piecing together what they found in the videos and documents and finding places where people gave testimony that they later contradicted elsewhere.

Most people wouldn’t talk to the two reporters, but they’d already talked, and the reporters had it.

Among their findings: Textbook examples of grooming behavior, years-old warnings, and attempted cover-ups by the district. They also pulled back and look at the bigger picture of sex abuse and the culture of coverups.

In October, SCNG’s investigation led the state of California to investigate district administrators. In December, the school district sent out a letter to parents with a new boundaries policy and a list of reforms it implemented in response to the scandal.

Schwebke said he would have liked to see real action from the district quicker, “but it’s rewarding to see they’re finally taking action.”

Screenshot, SCNG

SCNG’s watchdog team is made up of five journalists in all who are spread out over 60 or 70 miles, from Orange County to Redlands to Monrovia to Torrance.

So far, Pine said, it’s worked well across newsrooms.

Collectively, we’re able to do reporting that our papers might not be able to do if they were not part of the larger network of publications,” he said. “That’s good for us, and it’s good for our readers.”

Nelson and Schwebke probably met in person less than six times while they worked on the series, Nelson said, but they collaborated using emails, texts, messaging and Skype. They planned and shared documents, decided who would do what, and worked with their editor, who is based in Torrance.

The key was getting the documents.

“We got our editors on board early, too,” Schwebke said, “which really helps out.”

They both worked on other stories but carved out time for the investigation a few hours at a time. They stayed with it and stayed focused.

Our business model may face unprecedented challenges, but the public needs and wants good journalism perhaps more now than ever before,” Pine said. “It’s up to us to provide that and to build new business models around it.”

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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