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Berkeley High Jacket Wins Columbia Scholastic Award

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday April 15, 2010 - 02:58:00 PM
Berkeley High School Jacket reporters interview State Schools Chief Jack O'Connell at a meeting on campus last year for their newspaper's online video segment.
Riya Bhattacharjee/File Photo
Berkeley High School Jacket reporters interview State Schools Chief Jack O'Connell at a meeting on campus last year for their newspaper's online video segment.

Berkeley High School’s The Jacket Online is among 10 high school newspaper websites to win the 2010 Columbia Scholastic Press Association’s Gold Crown Award.  

Regarded as the CSPA’s highest honor in high school journalism 

(, the Gold Crowns have been awarded to middle and high school newspapers, magazines and yearbooks since 1982.  

The Columbia Scholastic Press Association (CSPA) is affiliated with Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, which “administers many professional awards in order to uphold standards of excellence in the media,” including the prestigious Pulitzer Prize which was announced Monday. 

This year’s competition drew applications from more than 1,558 publications and entries were evaluated at Columbia University in February by a panel of judges. 

Berkeley High School Communication Arts and Science teacher Dharini Rasiah guided the revamping of the Jacket website after taking over as the paper’s faculty adviser at the start of the school year in 2009. 

The new website is easier to navigate, gets updated regularly and features video segments by the paper’s first multimedia editors Danielle Escobar and Alec Mutter, who are responsible for assigning and creating video content. 

“Congratulations goes to the entire editorial board, with special kudos to the web editors Evan Cohen and Connor Nielson,” Rasiah said Tuesday. “I really want to stress that we got the award because of our video and multimedia segments. My job is making sure they are online—it’s really the kids who do all the work, I just provide support. 

Nielson said that while rebuilding the site from scratch, the web editors wanted to design something "more progressive and user friendly." 

The current Jacket website has Flash elements and uses the Drupal content management system.  

It has the same categories as the print version—news, opinion, features, sports and entertainment—but what sets it apart from other school newspaper websites is the multimedia content. 

“That’s the big thing,” Rasiah said. “It’s really useful to go to that segment to see Berkeley High School in live action.” 

Students get class credit for working at the Jacket, spending the same number of hours as they would in any other course. 

“Of course the editors are constantly working,” Rasiah said laughing. “The staff provide the writing, but the editors do all the editing.” 

Jacket editor-in-chief Charlotte Wayne said she heard about the award from her friend, the editor-in-chief of the Piedmont High School newspaper, and decided to apply. 

"It was very exciting to win because it is the first year we did a real website and the first year we did multimedia," Wayne said. "I think we were mainly judged on content and the tools we used." 

Wayne, who will be going to Stanford University in the fall, and hopes to write for The Stanford Daily, is currently in the process of training a new editorial board for next year, 

Currently there are 132 students on the Jacket staff, the biggest in the paper’s history. 

“I raised the cap several times to allow many more students to join,” Rasiah said. “We have bigger ideas for the website—we want to have writers for website-only articles in the future. We are going to use the website more.” 

The Jacket is not new to awards. In 2000, the Jacket staff received the Journalist of the Year award from the Northern California Society of Professional Journalists, making it the first non-professional winner in that category. 

The paper created headlines in the fall of 1999, when with Rasiah’s help, student reporters Megan Greenwell and Iliana Montauk broke a story about how local businessman Lakireddy Bali Reddy was bringing young women from India and exploiting them as sex slaves. 

Rasiah, who joined Berkeley High as a video teacher in 1997, had just completed her graduate thesis at UC Berkeley on indentured servitude in South Asian communities, researching how people became subject to unfair labor practices when they were flown in from foreign countries to work by their employers. 

“In my own research I was investigating the story myself,” she said. “Around here it was well known that Lakireddy was bringing women from India to sell them into the sex trade. I had sources who gave me first hand information. And I gave the reporters the information.” 

Rasiah also ran a South Asian Girls Club at Berkeley High and persuaded some of its members who were connected to the Lakireddy family to give anonymous interviews to the reporters. 

“It was [former Berkeley High teacher] Rick Ayers who tipped the reporters off about the story,” Rasiah said. “A girl of high school age died across the street from Berkeley High School and Ayers asked the students to question why she wasn’t in school. That was the question that got Lakireddy into so much trouble.” 

Ayers then sent the student reporters to Rasiah, who helped them with the research.  

Although most of the mainstream media had already reported on the death of the young woman from carbon monoxide poisoning in a Berkeley apartment complex, it was Rasiah’s research which helped to connect the dots about how Reddy and his family were importing young women from India to work as sex slaves.  

Reddy was prosecuted for his crimes. 

The Jacket, which is produced twice a month and is about 16 pages long in print, continues to report on important local stories, including city government and politics. 

In 2008, the Jacket reported that it was struggling financially, which led to a flurry of donations, including a big chunk of money— $6,000—from proceeds raised during the performance of the play Yellowjackets at the Berkeley Rep. 

Rasiah said the paper was doing fine at the moment.