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Sophomore wins first place in Hearst Foundation awards

Medill sophomore Rachel Janik (BSJ15) won first place in the Hearst enterprise-reporting category this week and will be one of eight students from across the country to compete in the Hearst Foundation’s national writing championships in June.

Janik’s story about a Minnesota school district’s LGBT policy and how it affected bullying was written as part of the Medill Equal Media Project. Janik profiled the suicide of Justin Aaberg and how his family is working to change the Anoka-Hennepin “no homo promo” school policy that bars teachers from discussing homosexuality. Justin Aaberg’s death was one of a number of suicides the district has faced since the policy was implemented in 2009.

Janik discussed what went into writing the story and what the Hearst Award means to her.

How did you first find out about the Aaberg family and the school district policy?

I read a Rolling Stone article about the situation. It was a really emotional piece, but it left at lot of unanswered questions.

What were the biggest challenges you faced reporting this story?

The Anoka-Hennepin school district [had] already gotten far more media coverage than it was prepared to handle. By the time I got there, many key players were unwilling to speak to me. It took a lot of digging around to really figure out what happened in Anoka-Hennepin. 

How do you think your story adds to the national conversation about bullying?

I think the real issue is a lot less about school bullying and a lot more about how adults can empower students to love themselves and treat others with respect. Much of the “bullying” in this story actually comes from adults who insist that protecting their political interests or cultural sensibilities is more important than keeping vulnerable children safe. Anoka-Hennepin shows us that discrimination in the school system – even if it’s politically popular – hurts students. 

What does winning this award mean to you?

It’s an incredible honor for me, but it’s also an honor for this story that really needs to be told. The argument between the two sides in Anoka-Hennepin echoes a very real question in this country around LGBT rights, but what happened in the school district transcends politics and it deserves discussion. As in Anoka-Hennepin and in countless other schools around the country, lives depend on the answer we come up with as a nation.