Cassie Conklin used to stuff crumpled copies of the student newspaper, left for the trash, into her shoes.
"The bottom line was so lacking that my partner and I would take whole piles of them to dry our boots."
But Conklin doesn't want to belittle former reporters at the Frostburg State University independent student hotline.
"I just don't think there was much involvement with the paper. It's not like people came to the paper with tips."
But that was before she joined.
Over the past two years, Conklin & # 39; s proliferation of new research reports has led to It comes down to – on topics such as police brutality and race controversial layoffs deficiencies in the state audit, and the campus COVID-19 protocol – sparked renewed interest in the newspaper and brought about real change in the disadvantaged Appalachian Mountain county where Conklin grew up. It is one of the poorest counties in Maryland.
But Conklin & # 39; s watchdog-like reporting appears to have made her a target for Frostburg executives facing dueling pressure to keep the university's brand: they are one of the largest employers in a region with record high unemployment. , while also dealing with numerous controversies amid massive decline in enrollment.
Does Frostburg think The Bottom Line is bad for business?
It certainly seems so.
Just days after Conklin & # 39; s critical reporting about the way the university handled the COVID-19 pandemic cited in the Baltimore Sun in November, Frostburg raised her allegations of intimidation – said it discovered video footage of her slip a threatening note under an employee's door during a sit-in protest.
The footage, which the university had in possession of for a month but only following the Sun report, shows a piece of paper with a sticky note on it falling off a door and settling down in the middle of an empty campus corridor.
Some time later, Conklin comes by and notices. After talking to someone nearby, she walks back to the note, reads the papers, sticks the note back to the door, and puts the other paper near the doorframe.
Despite the video evidence showing that she's just a nice person, not engaging in any harassing behavior at all, and in fact showing other students engaging in even more blatant notes (and assuming, arguendo, that such behavior could rise to the level of viable misconduct), Frostburg responded only to Conklin. Frostburg & # 39; s President, Ronald Nowaczyk, also contacted The Bottom Line to demand that the independent newspaper conduct its own investigation into Conklin & # 39; s actions.
Does Frostburg think The Bottom Line is bad for business? It certainly seems so.
FIRE and the Student Press Law Center wrote a joint letter to Frostburg with objections to Conklin's retaliation and questioning the state of Frostburg's free press. The next day, administrators insured FIRE they dropped the investigation.
But Conklin is not celebrating.
Her experience is an example of this troubling spikes across the country in press censorship as colleges and universities try to save controversies caused by COVID-19, intense political divisions, racial tensions and more – by concealing them.
In her final semester, and at a time when Frostburg's future is at a crossroads, Cassie Conklin says her research has already had a chilling effect on the university's student press – one that threatens to unravel the progress of her tenure at the newspaper.
Daughter of Appalachia
In 2018, Conklin returned to Frostburg State University after a 10-year hiatus. She had a marriage, a daughter, a divorce and had a successful career in the restaurant business. One day it dawned on her: she had to go back.
"I signed up. I signed up. I was prepared for classes before I even told my partner and my daughter. It was just one of those decisions. I thought, 'I'm going to do it." & # 39; & # 39;
Armed with ten years more life experience than her peers and a lifetime of dedication to her close-knit community – where she'd made a name for herself over the years in her battle against outsiders like fracking and Starbucks – Conklin dived deep into campus life . She set her sights on a major in geography, particularly human geography: the study of how the relationships and divisions of a society contribute to such things as inequalities.
The area around Frostburg State is full of those.
Allegany County, encompassing the town of Frostburg where Conklin was born and nearby Cumberland where she now lives, is the center of three counties in the remote Western Maryland panhandle. On a map, it is the strip of Appalachian Mountain, sandwiched between most of West Virginia and Pennsylvania's southern border. You may have to close your eyes to see it. Just two hours from international hubs such as Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, Allegany County is worlds away in most other respects.
An outpost of extreme poverty in a state that is called routine the countries richest, food insecurity, lack of access to education, drug abuse, and some of the highest rates of preventable disease in the country are plentiful. Life expectancy in Allegany County is among the lowest in Maryland. And at Frostburg State, the area's only four-year institution that draws students from more diverse nearby cities, Conklin says racial inequality is a unique concern.
“Our campus is located in a very small, close-knit community of about 5,000 people. The city is mostly white, almost exclusively, in a very rural, Trump-loving, conservative province, ”said Conklin. “But then the campus population will double the population of the city for nearly nine months. And our student group consists of 48 percent minorities, 30 percent of which are black students. "
The police there are mostly white, Conklin says, along with almost the entire Frostburg government.
"So there has been a conflict there." Conklin says, "Black college students tell their friends in D.C. and Baltimore," Don't go to Frostburg. These people are racist there. And there is nothing to do. & # 39; & # 39;
"There is a lot of work to be done to serve the population they currently serve and to increase desirability."
And Conklin, a self-proclaimed "daughter of Appalachia, ”Take the problems in her little piece of the world personally.
& # 39; I think about those things. Day and night. What can we do to make Frostburg State University the best place it can be? "
The social geographer
When she returned to campus two years ago, Conklin thought of life as a geography professor. She found success almost immediately, as part of a team that won the American Association of Geographers' national quiz bowl. But then she began to apply her growing human geography skills to observations closer to home.
& # 39; I was just paying attention. Watching what was going on on campus, ”she says. “There are small communities with all these different motivations, different people, different funding sources. There is so much to think about in the campus environment and ecosystem. One of those things was the newspaper. "
& # 39; They talked about what the music department was doing, or what the theater department was doing. They had done that well, but nothing really investigative. And just, sometimes pretty badly written. "
Conklin realized the paper was underused. And that she could do something about it.
“I had this whole revelation where I was like, 'I'm a student and if I want this paper to get better, I can improve it. I can go and I can write. And at least I would feel comfortable if something would be worth reading. & # 39; & # 39;
& # 39; So I joined. I started writing. "
Conklin's first big story turned into full-blown police brutality research – and let people read.
Ordinary college reporters may have vomited the police blotting paper, about how the authorities split up and ended a large student gathering with pepper spray. But Conklin persistently sought testimony from students who were there and interviewed the chief of police. When the reports were incorrect, she searched the bodycam footage of the responding agents to see what was happening to herself.
Conklin's instinct that there was more to the story was just right.
“There was a lot in police conduct for which the chief eventually had to apologize,” said Conklin. "Her agents scolded students and sprayed them at close range."
That The Bottom Line actually searched the things that mattered, says Conklin, "got people excited about the paper again." Then they started sending her scoops.
"Someone sent me an anonymous tip about our interim vice president of student affairs and a very dark past he had."
That administrator, Jeff Graham, vied for the permanent placement in his interim role at Frostburg. Acting on the tip she got, Conklin & # 39; s November 2019 report detailed Graham's involvement in child abuse in camps he led for the Ministry of Juvenile Justice. There were also allegations that he was being investigated for fraudulent billing practices on another turn as a social worker. What's more, Frostburg administrators – including president Nowaczyk – knew about Graham's past when they hired him.
"He eventually withdrew his candidacy," said Conklin. That was the story that made her realize the impact of good news coverage.
"And that's what I did from there. I haven't written a geography paper in a year."
It was the Monday before Thanksgiving 2020, with her final finals in sight, that Conklin realized she was in trouble.
“I started packing my things for the semester, mentally and emotionally. And we had a good semester, there were a lot of great articles from The Bottom Line. We had gotten a quick scream The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post, which was a big deal. "
“And I get a very strange text message from our editor-in-chief and the consultant. Looking for contacts for the Student Press Law Center ”, Conklin recalls. "They're like," Yeah, it's just private personnel issues we're getting focused on. "
Then she got her own cryptic email from the vice president of student affairs, saying that Conklin had been seen in video footage shoving notes under the door of a staff member.
“You're kidding,” Conklin recalls thinking.
Then she called the editor.
And I thought, 'This is bullshit. Don't go with them this way, you'll regret it. They arm you strong. Don't do it. They don't have the right to even call you in that room. "
"So anyway, the next day I go to the meeting with the vice president of student affairs and immediately defend myself as if I were in court," said Conklin. "I didn't even see the video. I don't even need it. I just know, I didn't do it. It doesn't sound like me. Why would I do that? I didn't."
Conklin soon realized that Frostburg State wasn't even sure what they were accusing her of.
"They changed their story so often that I kind of realized," I have the upper hand here. " Conklin had spoken from afar about recent controversies about free speech in school and knew her rights as a First Amendment.
Several days before she was examined herself, Conklin covered up Frostburg's harassment of resident assistants who commented on the university's response to the corona virus. FIRE, informed by Conklin & # 39; s reporting, formally registered Frostburg that it threatens to give RA & # 39; s an "attitude" adjustment for speaking about these issues, as students violate the First Amendment.
Reporting on the situation as a journalist, Conklin felt powerless to do more than just report on what was happening. But now, embroiled in a controversy of her own over free speech, Conklin knew she could take action.
"I felt like I can do something here and now, because this can't stand. It's happening to me, so I can plead for myself. I'm unapologetically in my own corner and I'm not going to flinch."
However, Conklin fears what other student journalists might have done in her position. And what they will do when she graduates this semester.
“I'm very concerned about the way the university just feels completely free to intimidate writers and editors,” says Conklin. "I'm concerned about the future of the newspaper under this university leadership."
And she wonders if the people in those leadership positions – who would accuse the student paper of causing trouble – of 'the enemy' – have the same real commitment as them.
"When I think about those people, I don't think they are invested."
Instead, Conklin wonders if she sees a modern holdover from the practices that have kept her community in a circle of poverty for decades. Is Frostburg State University just another lucrative Appalachian resource – such as coal and wood – being exploited?
“It's strange that the entire Frostburg administration is people who didn't grow up here,” says Conklin. & # 39; The president of the university earns $ 375,000. The median income in this county is $ 43,000. There's something about inequalities like that that frustrates me because it feels extractive. "
In that sense, Cassie Conklin is the enemy.
“The newspaper is the enemy of anyone in power. We are not supposed to protect the governors. We must protect the governed. "
Transparency and a better future for the people in her community means everything to Conklin.
& # 39; Frostburg has DNA. There have always been people who built this city. Who really cares. Who work tirelessly throughout their lives to keep it running, to make it better. "
& # 39; This is what I care about. And everyone who knows me knows that. "
Friday is Freedom of the press day for students, and FIRE is celebrating all week.
Sign up for our today virtual panel discussion about the state of student journalism.
Student Press Freedom Day 2021: Journalism Against the Odds
Friday, February 26, 2021 1:30 pm EST – 2:30 pm EST
In honor of Student Press Freedom Day, join the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) President and CEO Greg Lukianoff and student journalist Cassie Conklin for a keynote address and panel discussion on campus press censorship.