The Education Writers Association announced this week that ProPublica reporter Hannah Dreier won the Fred M. Hechinger Grand Prize for Distinguished Education Reporting, the top prize in their National Awards for Education Reporting. Dreier was honored for two articles in the “Trapped in Gangland” series, which told the stories of students caught up in Long Island’s effort to crack down on MS-13.
Published jointly with New York magazine and the New York Times Magazine, the stories also won a National Award for Education Reporting in the features category.
Dreier reported on the cases of two asylum-seekers from Central America, Henry and Alex. Both were flourishing in Long Island high schools and getting good grades. In the fall of 2016, Henry wrote an essay in English class about how he belonged to the gang MS-13 but was desperate to escape from its violence. Six months later, bored in algebra class, Alex drew a doodle of a horned devil — which was his school mascot, but also happened to be an MS-13 symbol.
In a pair of compelling narratives based on a year and a half of reporting, Dreier revealed what happened next to the two boys. Henry’s essay and Alex’s doodle were both relayed from the supposed sanctuary of the classroom to federal authorities. Agents used Henry as an informant and then betrayed him, marking him for deportation. Falsely accused of gang membership, Alex was suspended, arrested and deported back to Honduras, one of the world’s most dangerous countries.
As Dreier meticulously documented, the downfalls of these teenagers reflected a threat to student privacy and academic freedom nationwide. Circumventing Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act protections, school-based police officers had passed on the teenagers’ writings to the FBI and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In response to the stories, the Department of Homeland Security opened a civil rights investigation, ICE changed a practice that jeopardizes informants and several Long Island school districts sought a formal agreement with the police limiting officers’ roles in schools.
“This remarkable ‘life and death’ story exposes the complicated relationship not just between schools and law enforcement but educators and troubled students,” one contest judge said. “The reporter’s relentless work to document the harrowing experiences of two teenagers trapped in the violent world of MS-13 is eye-opening and tragic.”