Jeff Jardine

Ripon, Stockton factor into Kansas kids’ investigation that leads to principal’s ouster

In the mid-1970s, every budding journalist wanted to be the next Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein.

The Washington Post tandem investigated the Watergate break-in and scandal during the 1972 presidential campaign, reporting on the subsequent lies and coverup that led to President Richard M. Nixon’s resignation two years later. Their book, “All The President’s Men,” became a bestseller and then a movie in which they were portrayed on the big screen by Robert Redford (Woodward) and Dustin Hoffman (Bernstein). How cool, right?

Their work spawned a generation of muckrakers, each in search of that career-defining investigative legacy. So, who are journalism’s latest heroes?

Try a bunch of kids on a high school newspaper staff in Kansas, thanks to their story that includes links to Ripon and Stockton. They exposed the school’s newly hired principal by checking out her résumé and found that her college alma mater – purportedly with a Stockton campus – exists in website only.

They defied the adults who told them not to stick their noses in where they didn’t belong, and they refused to take “no” for an answer. They vetted her more thoroughly than the school district’s superintendent and board. They got to the truth despite the pushback and compelled her to resign.

The principal, Amy Robertson, claimed on her résumé a doctorate from Corllins U. and, per NBC, “told the students that she had taken most of her courses online, but occasionally traveled to its campus in Stockton.”

Never underestimate the ability of teens – digital natives, as they are known – to navigate the Internet or anything computer related. They searched online and made numerous calls to people in Stockton, unable to find anyone who had ever heard of Corllins University, let alone driven past it.

University of the Pacific, founded in 1851 and in Stockton since 1924? Check. San Joaquin Delta College? Check. Stanislaus State’s Stockton campus? Check. Humphreys University and some private for-profit colleges? Check. But no Corllins U.

And if you call two different numbers for Corllins University posted online, you’ll get an AT&T/DirecTV sales pitch and the chance to receive a $100 gift card for $1.95 (which, if you do the math, makes it a $98.05 gift card).

Of course, the story blew up on social media, prompting Robertson’s resignation. In the process, it got the attention of Michael Fitzgerald, my columnist counterpart at the Stockton Record. Chances are, if Corllins University existed in Mudville, he would know of it. He didn’t. How could he? It doesn’t exist, in Stockton at least or anywhere else in California, per goverment agencies that would know because they license them.

Robertson listed a home along Main Street in Ripon as her permanent address, so Fitzgerald called phone numbers associated with the address and left messages. Perhaps surprisingly, Robertson returned his call. When they talked, she lawyered up.

“I’ve spoken to my counsel,” Robertson warned. “I have a defamation lawyer as well as a lawyer in Kansas. At this time, I’m not making any comments.”

She’d already said too much, though, and that is why the stars in this are the high school journalists in Kansas.

They found their Watergate, and they are just getting started.