Times’ assistant editor wins national investigative reporting award

Darien Times’ Assistant Editor David DesRoches has earned the top prize for investigative reporting from the Education Writers Association for his coverage of the special education crisis at Darien Public Schools.

The EWA announced Monday that it had named DesRoches its first place winner for small newsroom investigative reporting.

Judges for the EWA, based in Washington, praised DesRoches for his work, including a “strong use of interviews [and] public records laws to document a serious problem with special education programs at Darien schools.

“It’s often a tough slog to get reliable data – and all the more so when the gatekeepers won’t comment, families fear reprisals, and records are slow to be produced, if at all,” continued the judges’ remarks. “David DesRoches was not put off by the rigorous research necessary for a good data-driven investigative package, and he called out every official that would not take questions or provide reliable information… An important series.”

• Top 10 of 2013: No. 1 — Special education

• Freedom of Information stories

DesRoches said he appreciates being recognized at the national level, but it’s not why he became a journalist.

“This is certainly a tremendous honor,” DesRoches said. “For better or for worse, peer-recognition is often the most meaningful form of compensation in the journalism industry. While I certainly did not get into this field for the accolades, it is nice to know my work is appreciated.”

“I did not follow this story for an award — I followed it because it was the right thing to do,” he continued. “I got into this business because I want people to be as informed as possible about the things that matter to them. And this story mattered.”

DesRoches also commended the parents who came forward to talk with him about their concerns with special education in Darien.

“They believed that their children deserved better, and they took considerable risk in making this story public,” he said. “The newspaper’s role was to hold those in power accountable and to ensure laws are followed.”

“At times, journalists are required to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, as the adage goes,” DesRoches said.

He also asserted that this award was a team effort.

“Without the guidance of Susan Shultz, and the support of Hersam Acorn’s owners, this award would not exist,” he said. “Their commitment to this story equaled and at times surpassed my own.”

DesRoches was one of 72 EWA honorees hailing from an array of media outlets of various sizes. The EWA winners will be honored in person at an EWA conference May 18 to 20 at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. As a first place winner, DesRoches is also up for the Fred M. Hechinger Grand Prize for Distinguished Education Reporting, where he will compete against journalists from the nation’s best newspapers and media outlets for the association’s top prize.

“When David first heard of irregularities in Darien school’s special education program he didn’t hesitate to find out what it was all about,” said Thomas Nash, Hersam Acorn Newspapers’ group publisher. “He worked tirelessly — got little thanks and plenty of complaint — to produce a series of stories that literally ‘made a difference.’”

“From the start, David has approached this story with unmatched tirelessness and integrity and I am so proud that the Education Writers Association has chosen to acknowledge his efforts with this well-deserved honor,” Shultz said.

“For David, this was never about any award or accolade. It was about the reporting the truth,” she said.

DesRoches added that “hopefully, now that most of the errors have been uncovered, the town can move to a place where all children have equitable access to an excellent education.”

“Every town, especially one with Darien’s potential, deserves nothing less,” he said.

This is the second major award for DesRoches for his work covering Darien Schools. He was named the 2013 Reporter of the Year by the New England Newspaper and Press Association in February. He also received six additional reporting awards from the press association, in the categories of general news, right-to-know, education, crime and courts, personality profile and investigative reporting.

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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