Disability Reporting Award

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Hear from the winner of Arizona State University Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication’s national contest for disability reporting, the only such award in the nation. Heather Vogell, a reporter for ProPublica, is the winner of the contest and will talk about disability reporting, along with Katherine Schneider, a retired clinical psychologist from Wisconsin who is blind and funds the award.

TED SIMONS: Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon," an award for disability reporting. And we'll hear about Arizona town hall recommendations to preserve the state's water future. Those stories next on "Arizona Horizon."

VIDEO: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the Friends of Eight, members of your Arizona PBS station, thank you.

TED SIMONS: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. Attorney general Mark Brnovich today filed paperwork with the state Supreme Court asking that Arizona Corporation Commission chairwoman Susan Bitter Smith be removed from office. Brnovich cited Bitter Smith's work as a lobbyist and director of a cable TV trade group with subsidiaries regulated by the commission.

MKCH: Arizona Revised Statute, 40-101 prohibits anyone from being elected or from holding office if the person is employed by or has an interest in or has a financial relationship to any entity in which they are regulating. And this instance, our petition which we filed with the Supreme Court alleges that because of the fact that commissioner Bitter Smith was both a registered lobbyist for COX as well as being a paid lobbyist for SWCCA, that means that she is ineligible to hold elected position at the Corporation Commission. This is an action that we didn't undertake lightly. We know this is serious. We are asking to have an elected official removed. It is very, very serious. We understand that. But this isn't one of those instances where someone did something on accident or there's a clerical or paperwork error. We have a public official here who's receiving a six figure salary from entities the subsidiaries of whom she's regulating. This is something clearly we think the framers of our Constitution didn't want in Arizona when they created the Corporation Commission. This is something the statutes were clearly designed to prevent.

TED SIMONS: Bitter Smith released a statement saying that she is not now nor has ever been employed or paid by a regulated utility and she looks forward to the state's Supreme Court's review. Each year, ASU's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication conducts a national contest for disability reporting, the only such award in the nation. Joining us tonight is this year's winner, Heather Vogell, a reporter for Propublica and we also welcome Katherine Schneider, a retired clinical psychologist from Wisconsin who funds the Katherine Schneider journalism award for excellence in reporting on disability. Good to have you both here, welcome to "Arizona Horizon." Heather we'll start with you. It's your story. Who is Carson Luke? Why is his story important?

HEATHER VOGELL: Carson Luke was the boy who I ended up leading the story with. He had an experience in his public school in Virginia involving restraints and seclusion that ended up really traumatizing him and injuring him physically. He has autism and has had some trouble communicating and often would get frustrated in class and sometimes, those outbursts could end up with him throwing something or hitting or scratching. In this particular instance, he was basically brought down to a seclusion room and when they threw him into the room, tried to push him into the room, he was fighting him, they ended up breaking his hand and foot in the door.

TED SIMONS: How old?


TED SIMONS: Okay. Catherine, when we talk about this kind of an award, this kind of story, how did this story meet the test you're looking for?

KATHERINE SCHNEIDER: We're looking for stories that raise important issues that affect people with disabilities. 19% of Americans have disabilities. So there's lots of stories out there and we're looking for those that both raise issues, talk about solutions, talk about good ways of doing things and less good ways of doing things. So shining a light on an important topic and doing it in a thorough, not a yellow journalism, kind of a way, is what we're looking for.

TED SIMONS: And indeed, heather as far as -- these scream rooms, I'm not familiar with these. How common are those things?

HEATHER VOGELL: Well, they were a lot more common than people think. We basically found through data that this was happening hundreds of thousands of kids across the country either restrained or seclusion, federal data was showing it was being used at least 267,000 times in nationwide in public schools. And we know that that's an undercount and I want to correct Carson was 10, I had a brain blip.

TED SIMONS: I understand. So we're talking like straps, handcuffs, bungee cords?

HEATHER VOGELL: That's with the mechanical restraints. In some of those right.

TED SIMONS: And the nonmechanical ones? Just ostracizing these kids?

HEATHER VOGELL: The restraints are physical holds where a staff member at the school prevents the child from moving any part of their body whether it's arms, legs, torso, head, that's considered a restraint by the federal government. Seclusion rooms are rooms where a child is forced into alone and prevented from leaving.

TED SIMONS: When you first heard about this story, what were your thoughts?

KATHERINE SCHNEIDER: My thoughts were this is an important topic because sometimes kids whether they have disabilities or not are out of control. And something needs to be done to keep them safe, to keep others around them safe. So I like the fact that the story didn't say no, never, get rid of every seclusion room in every school at all times, it was a much more nuanced approach that said these are being overused and here are situations where it's not being well done.

TED SIMONS: And indeed, you mentioned earlier that you weren't looking for yellow journalism. You're looking for a comprehensive report and it sounds like you got it here.


TED SIMONS: And Heather, as far as -- the response, what have you heard from schools? What have you heard from educators? I know a lot of them say we're doing the best we can, this is the only way to handle some of these kids.

HEATHER VOGELL: Yes. It's a very emotional issue for people on all sides I think. Obviously, heard from a lot of families who had very difficult experiences with this. I also heard from some educators who felt like I don't know what else to do. You know, and it's very difficult. I tried in the story to highlight, Katherine was suggesting, I tried to highlight at least one school district that has been able to eliminate restraints through a very comprehensive process for improving school climate called positive behavioral supports, it seems kind of jargony and a mouthful, but there's people who have had success in helping de-escalate kids without putting their hands on them.

TED SIMONS: Katherine, are you looking for stories where there is a black-and-white or a certain answer or here's the recommendation or is it again as you mentioned nuanced?

KATHERINE SCHNEIDER: I think it's more nuanced because I've lived long enough that I realize there usually aren't black-and-white "do this, don't do that ever, ever." And with disabilities, I think Heather's right to point out yeah, there are better solutions but that doesn't mean no never restrain somebody from causing themselves harm. Do it -- de-escalate it before you have to do it at all possible.

TED SIMONS: Second place story mention story was forced sterilization. Did you feel that these kinds of stories just simply weren't being done or weren't being done well enough?

KATHERINE SCHNEIDER: I think both. Sometimes, people think a disability story is a Special Olympics champion kind of a feel good happy story. And yeah, those are important but living regular life with disability included like the story about the mother and child with autism, they're living a regular mom-child life. But autism is added into the mix and how does that change things? Now, the eugenics story, that's more of the ugh, I can't believe that 25 years after the A.D.A., we're still not where we need to be and as you look further back in history, this was talking about sterilizations in North Carolina back in the '70s and you look back and say okay that's the bad old days but we haven't necessarily made everything okay for the people with disabilities. It's a work in progress as our society embraces and as journalism embraces more different kinds of stories. It's great.

TED SIMONS: And Heather, as far as your story is concerned, was there ever a thought that without these kinds of scream rooms, without these kinds of restraints, without these kinds of actions against kids in the classroom that are so difficult to control that they would not be in any classroom and wind up being institutionalized?

HEATHER VOGELL: That is the argument that the American association of school administrators, which is basically a group of superintendents makes. But there are some districts that have found a middle ground between that, that are keeping kids in their neighborhood schools, the one I highlighted was Montgomery county, Virginia. Another Virginia school district.

TED SIMONS: And indeed again, we're looking at stories that deal with legal issues, with policies, with practices, the whole nine yards. And I would imagine it was quite the effort on your part to get all those factors in there.

HEATHER VOGELL: Yeah, you know, and it was such a regulatory soup looking at how wide the variation was from school district to school district and we tried to boil it down by creating a map that looked at six factors basically for each state and whether their laws prevented certain types of restraints are not, whether they followed best practices issued by the federal government. The only way you could look at it was to visualize it and we're all over the map as a country still.

TED SIMONS: And Katherine last question to you. Where do we go from here as far as disability reporting? Keep on going on here?

KATHERINE SCHNEIDER: More, more and more. It's a good thing. And in regular stories as well if you're doing a story on Halloween costumes, maybe one of the people you profile is a wheelchair user and it doesn't have to be a special disability story because we're everywhere.

TED SIMONS: Well, we're glad to have you here as well and Heather good to have you, too. Congratulations on the award and Katherine keep up the good work. Good to have you here.

VIDEO: Expand your horizon with the "Arizona Horizon" website. To get there, go to azpbs.org, click on the "Arizona Horizon" tab at the top of the screen. Once there, you can access many features, watch interviews by clicking on the video button, you can also find out what's on "Arizona Horizon" for the coming week. If you would like an RSS feed, a podcast or want to buy a video, that's all on the website, too. Want to learn about specific topics line immigration or the legislature, you can visit our special web sections. Show your support for "Arizona Horizon" at azpbs.org/horizon.

Heather Vogell: winner of Arizona State University Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication's national contest for disability reporting, Katherine Schneider:A retired clinical psychologist from Wisconsin

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