IOWA CITY — In Iowa City High’s first ethnic studies class, student journalist Nina Lavezzo-Stecopoulos heard some disturbing facts: In 2014, the state ranked third in the nation for locking up a disproportionate share of black Iowans, and nationwide school disciplinary policies contribute to a pipeline to juvenile and criminal-justice systems.
As a conversation with friends in the library turned to talk of suspensions in the Iowa City Community School District, a seed was planted; Lavezzo-Stecopoulos decided to investigate.
After three weeks of researching district statistics and interviewing classmates and administrators, Lavezzo-Stecopoulos produced a roughly 2,500-word story that found black students districtwide were nearly twice as likely to be suspended from school as their white peers.
This month, the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization, based in Washington, D.C., awarded Lavezzo-Stecopoulos its top high school journalism award at a virtual ceremony. The award, presented by television journalist Katie Couric, came with a $500 check and a bust of Kennedy. The organization awards “outstanding champions of moral courage who stand up to oppression.”
The New York Times profiled the now-graduated co-editor of the Little Hawk, City High’s student newspaper.
“It was kind of mind-blowing,” Lavezzo-Stecopoulos said. “Just the past couple months with my graduating in a pandemic, a revolution happening, Black Lives Matter — my life feels very weird right now. On top of that, being interviewed for the New York Times is a little hard to process. But it felt satisfying to be recognized by such a well-known organization for my work.”
City High Principal John Bacon said he’s proud of Lavezzo-Stecopoulos for shedding light on districtwide disparities, a gap he said City High is working to close.
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City High changed its suspension policies in recent years to be more objective, he said. Students can be suspended only for physical violence or for having a weapon or possessing controlled substances. The school also began a two-year implicit bias training program for faculty.
“She absolutely deserves the award,” he said. “We know we have more work to do. Her story is a call for continued action until that problem is truly solved.”
In the process of publishing the article and afterward, Lavezzo-Stecopoulos said she underwent tense conversations with administrators, whom Bacon said wanted to clarify the school’s policy that athletic team discipline and school suspension would be done only with direct factual evidence rather than speculation.
She interviewed the principal, assistant principal and the dean of students.
Despite heart-wrenching interviews with black students about their experiences being disciplined and pushback from administrators, she knew the story’s importance was worth traversing a complicated and emotional topic.
After the story went to print, LaTasha DeLoach, a former Iowa City school board member, vice chair of the state’s Disproportionate Minority Contact Committee and a source in the story, asked for Lavezzo-Stecopoulos’ autograph on the printed edition.
The Little Hawk’s adviser, Jonathan Rogers, said he was impressed with the leadership of Lavezzo-Stecopoulos and co-editor Mira Kumar. The 50-person Little Hawk staff puts out six issues a year and won the 2019 All Iowa News Team of the Year. He said he couldn’t be prouder of Lavezzo-Stecopoulos’ award, adding that he hopes positive change will come of it.
“My advice is always seek truth and report it,” he said.
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