‘The Quiet Rooms’ by Chicago Tribune, ProPublica Illinois awarded 2019 Watchdog Award

The Chicago Headline Club’s Watchdog Award honors Chicago-area news reporting that calls attention to situations in which the public is being  harmed or poorly served. 

This year’s winner is “The Quiet Rooms,” a collaboration by Jennifer Smith Richards of the Chicago Tribune, and Jodi S. Cohen and Lakeidra Chavis of ProPublica Illinois.

This investigation exposed the harmful overuse and misuse of seclusion and physical restraints in public schools across Illinois.

Judges said: “This report made extraordinary use of personal stories, exhaustive public records searches and gripping multimedia displays in revealing a disturbing practice of untrained school officials isolating children, including those suffering from mental illness, in haphazard, damaging and illegal ways.”

“In an incredible year for watchdog entries, ProPublica and the Tribune led the way with this deeply-reported and meticulously documented expose of the systematic misuse of seclusion and restraints on students in public schools. The research that went into the reporting was unparalleled – hundreds of interviews along with 300 public records requests that fed into a database of 35,000 incidents – and the story made both immediate and long-term impacts in public schools. This was outstanding work on behalf of many vulnerable kids and their families.”

These were the runners-up for this year’s award:

[Un]Warranted” from WBBM-TV by Dave Savini, Samah Assad, Rebecca McCann and Michele Youngerman.

This story exposed a pattern of police officers raiding the wrong homes, traumatizing and pointing guns at innocent children, causing significant and unnecessary destruction, and violating citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights.

Judges said: “Brilliantly captured the anguish of innocent families and young children deeply traumatized by Chicago Police Department raids on the wrong homes because of sloppy preparations including incorrect addresses on search warrants.”

You’re Destroying Families” from ProPublica Illinois, by Melissa Sanchez and Duaa Eldeib.

This story revealed four decades of failures by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services to serve Spanish-speaking families that led state workers to miss key information in investigations of abuse and neglect.

Judges said: “This investigation deployed creative public records searches and boots on the ground reporting to reveal how Illinois’ new gambling law failed spectacularly to live up to its promises of generating state revenue and instead, led to windfalls for the politically connected and worsened gambling addiction for those who can least afford to gamble.”

About the Award

The Chicago Headline Club appointed a panel of judges to solicit and review nominations and select a slate of finalists.

Judges consider reporting enterprise, barriers to obtaining the information, accuracy, clarity of analysis, writing style. Judges may consider civic impact and evaluate the circumstances prompting the coverage and results achieved.

The Watchdog Award is funded by a grant from The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation and is administered by the Chicago Headline Club and the Chicago Headline Club Foundation.