The Tampa Bay Times won two Pulitzer Prizes on Monday for investigations that exposed rampant indifference and inequity in five predominantly African-American Pinellas County schools and neglect in Florida's state-run mental health system.
Reporters Cara Fitzpatrick, 35, Lisa Gartner, 28, and Michael LaForgia, 32, won the Pulitzer award for local reporting. Combining data and powerful narrative accounts, the reporters detailed how the Pinellas County School Board's 2007 decision to abandon integration followed by years of neglect turned five once-average St. Petersburg schools into some of the worst in the state of Florida.
Times reporters Leonora LaPeter Anton, 51, and Anthony Cormier, 37, won the award for investigative reporting after a year-long examination of Florida's six primary mental health hospitals. The reporting, as part of a joint project with Sarasota Herald-Tribune reporter Michael Braga, uncovered a pattern of neglect and $100 million in budget cuts that created warehouses of violence where deaths and physical attacks spiked.
The awards, the highest prize in American journalism, are the 11th and 12th in the Times' history. Six have come since 2009.
"It's hard, really hard, to win a Pulitzer Prize. Unbelievable to win two," Times editor Neil Brown said. "This is a great honor and recognition of the Times' commitment to its community."
Reporters, editors and their families gathered in the St. Petersburg newsroom to watch a live video stream of the 3 p.m. Monday announcement. They were joined by Grey's Anatomy actor Jesse Williams, who was interviewing Fitzpatrick, Gartner, LaForgia and Times photographer Dirk Shadd for an upcoming documentary on inequality in education.
The stories surrounding the Pinellas County school system uncovered violence, high teacher turnover and academic failure at five south St. Petersburg elementary schools.
The stories, collectively titled "Failure Factories," showed how 95 percent of black students tested at the schools failed reading or math, the greatest concentration of academic failure in all of Florida.
Funding for the schools was erratic and unfocused while teacher turnover became a chronic problem. In some cases, children cycled through a dozen instructors in a single year. In 2014, more than half of the teachers in these schools asked for a transfer out.
That same year, there were more violent incidents documented at the five elementary schools than in all of the county's 17 high schools.
At one of the schools, a second-grader threatened to kill and rape two girls while brandishing a kitchen knife he carried to school in his backpack. At another, a 9-year-old hit a pair of kindergartners in the head with a souvenir baseball bat.
The reports stoked a community discussion on education and race, helped propel a federal civil rights investigation and forced action from government leaders in Tallahassee and Washington.
Florida lawmakers earmarked nearly $400,000 for a new reading assistance pilot program this year. Pinellas County, meanwhile, has proposed a series of reforms including offering raises of up to $25,000 for teachers at the schools and extending the school day by one hour.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Education opened a civil rights investigation into whether the school district systematically discriminates against black children.
"We are still the voice that challenges," LaForgia told Times journalists. "We have to come into work and be that voice."
LaForgia also was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2014 for stories that exposed a government agency's inhumane treatment of Hillsborough County's homeless population. He and Fitzpatrick are married.
"I used to tell my wife it's like working with Clark Kent and Superman," said Chris Davis, 43, Times deputy managing editor for investigations and data. Davis edited both Pulitzer Prize-winning entries.
Gartner, at 28, is the youngest journalist to win the Pulitzer Prize in the history of the newspaper.
Finalists for the award included work from the New York Times, Miami Herald and the Star Tribune of Minneapolis. "Failure Factories" also won the 2015 George Polk Award for education reporting and the 2015 Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism, among other honors.
Unearthing a crisis
The Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting was awarded to a unique partnership between the Times and the Herald-Tribune.
The stories by LaPeter Anton, Cormier and Braga chronicled how state budget cuts left mental hospitals unable to provide even the most basic of services to the 5,000 people who each year pass through one of Florida's six primary mental hospitals.
Staffing shortages became so acute that violent patients wandered the halls unsupervised and employees were left alone to oversee 15 or more mentally ill men, the reporting showed. At least three people died because hospital workers took too long to call 911, and violent and other dangerous incidents increased 45 percent since 2008. In one case, a patient needed nothing more than a wad of paper to break out of his locked room and stab his neighbor 10 times, the reporting showed.
The series, titled "Insane. Invisible. In Danger," also won the National Press Foundation's Carolyn C. Mattingly Award for Mental Health Reporting.
Its reporting, which appeared in both newspapers, became a roadmap for change. Pulitzer administrator Mike Pride called the work a "stellar example of collaborative reporting" in his announcement Monday.
Other finalists included two investigations by the New York Times.
Florida lawmakers this year added $16 million to the mental hospitals' budget and directed an additional $42 million to improve community programs geared toward mental health.
Gov. Rick Scott also signed legislation requiring health professionals, police, courts, jails and local charities to work together to develop a local plan for mental health and substance abuse treatment.
"I found six other stories in my notebook that are still sitting there and need to be done," said LaPeter Anton, who has been at the newspaper for 16 years, adding that she hopes to continue writing on the subject.
The projects were assisted by a number of Times journalists, including Shadd, the photographer, news designer Jennifer Wright, director of data Adam Playford, data reporter Nathaniel Lash, computer-assisted reporting specialist Connie Humburg, news researchers Caryn Baird and Natalie Watson, digital designer Martin Frobisher, staff photographer John Pendygraft and former Times digital designer Alexis N. Sanchez.
Aaron Sharockman can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2273.