Inquirer wins Pulitzer Prize for school violence series

Inquirer staff celebrate their Pulitzer Prize for public service. Clockwise from front: reporters Susan Snyder, John Sullivan, Jeff Gammage, Dylan Purcell; photographers David Swanson, Ron Tarver; senior projects editor Rose Ciotta; reporter Kristen A Graham.
Inquirer staff celebrate their Pulitzer Prize for public service. Clockwise from front: reporters Susan Snyder, John Sullivan, Jeff Gammage, Dylan Purcell; photographers David Swanson, Ron Tarver; senior projects editor Rose Ciotta; reporter Kristen A Graham. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 17, 2012

The Inquirer's investigation of the climate of pervasive violence in Philadelphia's public schools on Monday won the Pulitzer Prize for public service, the profession's most prestigious honor.

The award is the 19th Pulitzer Prize for the 183-year-old newspaper and its first since 1997.

The seven-part series, "Assault on Learning," revealed that violence in city schools was widespread and underreported, with 30,000 serious incidents over the last five school years. Those findings were later corroborated by a Philadelphia School District panel on safety, spurred an overhaul of incident reporting in the district, and prompted hiring of a state-funded safe-schools advocate.

Shortly after 3 p.m., journalists in the newsroom erupted into applause, hugs, and whoops when the announcement came that The Inquirer had won.

In its announcement, the Pulitzer committee said the series used "powerful print narratives and videos to illuminate crimes committed by children against children and to stir reforms to improve safety for teachers and students."

The idea for the series, which was published March 27-April 3, 2011, emerged after racial violence erupted among students at South Philadelphia High School in December 2009.

"The future of any great American city depends on providing a safe environment in which young people can learn," Inquirer editor Stan Wischnowski said. "Our series exposed in graphic and painstaking detail the ways in which we are failing this generation."

In a statement, the leadership of the School District of Philadelphia congratulated the newspaper on the award: "We are diligently working on new programs to increase safety in District schools, ensuring that every school in the district is a safe, high-performing school. Your unwavering commitment has made a difference in our schools."

The Pulitzer Prize for public service, a gold medal that The Inquirer has now won three times, is always awarded to a newspaper, rather than an individual. "Assault on Learning" was the culmination of at least a year of effort by a team of Inquirer reporters, editors, photographers, designers, and multimedia presentation specialists.

Reporters John Sullivan (who has since left the staff), Susan Snyder, Kristen A. Graham, Dylan Purcell, and Jeff Gammage spent a year examining violence in Philadelphia public schools, conducting more than 300 interviews with teachers, administrators, students and their families, district officials, police officers, court officials, and school-violence experts.

The Inquirer created a database to analyze more than 30,000 serious incidents - from assaults to robberies to rapes - that occurred over the last five years. That information was supplemented by district and state data on suspensions, intervention and 911 calls. Reporters also examined police reports, court records, transcripts, and school security video.

For the series, photographers David Swanson, Ron Tarver and Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel and photo editor Michael Mercanti captured the faces of the victims of violence, both students and teachers.

The stories were edited by investigations editor Mike Leary, senior projects editor Rose Ciotta, and deputy managing editor Avery Rome, and copy edited by Thom Guarnieri. In print, the series was laid out by designer Sterling Chen with graphics by artist Michael Placentra.

Concurrent with its publication in the newspaper's pages, "Assault on Learning" presented a searchable database of Philadelphia public schools, listing the number and type of violent incidents, and video narratives. Multimedia editor Frank Wiese led the online team for the series.

The entire project can be found at www.philly.com/assaultonlearning.

"Only a staff like this can do a project like this," Leary said. "This is not something that you aggregate online. It's not a story you crowdsource. It's not a story you Google. This was a story that was old-fashioned, sweat-and-blood journalism. It was reported in the face of tremendous opposition."

Snyder, who cried on hearing the announcement, told the journalists gathered around her desk in the second-floor newsroom: "Dreams do come true."

Other finalists for the public-service award were the Miami Herald, for exposing abuses of residents in assisted-living facilities in Florida, and the New York Times, for uncovering unexplained deaths, beatings, and other violence in New York state group homes over the last decade.

For The Inquirer, the award comes after a particularly tumultuous six months for the newspaper and its related media properties, the Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com.

Major changes included two rounds of job cuts in the three newsrooms, the sale and planned move of its offices from North Broad Street, and the April 2 sale of parent company Philadelphia Media Network Inc. to a group of local investors for $55 million by the hedge funds that won control of the company during its recent bankruptcy reorganization.

The reporting for "Assault on Learning" was launched during the tenure of editor William K. Marimow, who was removed from the job in October 2010 by The Inquirer's previous owners, and was published under the direction of Wischnowski, who succeeded him.

Marimow was recently rehired by the paper's new owners to serve once again as Inquirer editor, effective May 1, with Wischnowski agreeing to remain as one of the newspaper's top deputy editors.

The last time The Inquirer won a Pulitzer Prize was 1997, when staff writer Michael Vitez and photographers April Saul and Ron Cortes were cited in the explanatory-journalism category for a series that chronicled how critically ill patients and their families confronted death.

The Inquirer has been a finalist many times in the intervening years. In 2009, it had Pulitzer finalists in two categories: Tom Avril, John Shiffman and John Sullivan were cited for their reporting on the environment, and Inga Saffron was named a finalist in criticism for her architecture reviews.

Until the arrival of editor Gene Roberts in the early 1970s, The Inquirer had never won a Pulitzer Prize. Between 1975 and 1990, when Roberts retired, the newspaper won 17. The Inquirer had last won in the public-service category in 1990, for Gilbert M. Gaul's reporting on how the American blood industry operates with little government regulation or supervision.

In 1978, The Inquirer won its first public-service Pulitzer for a series of articles by then-reporter Marimow and Jonathan Neumann that showed the abuses of power by the police in the city.

"To me, a public-service Pulitzer also is a sign of sustained excellence over the ages," Marimow said. "There are only two other newspapers in America - the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times - that have had three Pulitzer Prizes for public service in the last 35 years. So we're up there where the air is rare."


Contact Mike Armstrong

at 215-854-2980 or marmstrong@phillynews.com, or @PhillyInc on Twitter.

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