2019 Pulitzer Prize winning reporter & team find bogus school crime stats after Stoneman Douglas High School shootings

By Natalie Beckerink | reporter, SizingUpTheSouth.com

The biggest story Scott Travis ever covered was one he never wanted to have to do.

Travis, an education writer for the South Florida Sun Sentinel, was a member of the team that won the top Pulitzer for investigating failures that contributed to the Parkland, Florida tragedy in 2018. He was one of the lead writers.

In April, the Sun Sentinel won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its in-depth investigation of the 2018 Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.

Scott Travis

“When we got the call there was an active shooter on the campus of Stoneman Douglas, I was driving out there hoping more than anything that it wasn’t true, that it was a false alarm,” Travis said.

After the shooting, many news organizations covered the March 2018 March for Our Lives rally in Washington D.C. The Sun Sentinel took a different approach that uncovered problems at the school, Travis said.

“One of the things that we decided to focus on was the role that our local governments played and what mistakes were made,” Travis said. “We kept getting stonewalled by a lot of agencies, especially the Broward County School District. They pretty much clammed up and wouldn’t tell us anything, so we ended up having to get a lot of leaked documents and a lot of interviews with people that we knew from educators and people who knew the killer.”

South Florida Sun-Sentinel staff. Permission from South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Throughout the investigation, Travis and the other reporters discovered discrepancies within the school system, including fraudulent reports on crime statistics. The more they kept writing, the more they kept learning, he said.

Broward County Security Officer Scot Peterson was located outside the Stoneman Douglas High School as gunman shoots students inside the school. The Sun Sentinel’s investigation reveals that safety precautions might have not been implemented because the high school reported very little crime. Wiki photo

“Basically for all of 2018, from Feb. 14 on, Stoneman Douglas was my primary job,” Travis said. 

“We also were able to uncover reports from the state that showed that Stoneman Douglas had very little crime,” he said. “We looked at the amount of trespassing and burglaries and fights, and there were zeros next to all of them. One of the things we discovered is that the crime reports were untrue, that there were a lot of things that went unreported.

“The reports made it look like it was a really safe campus, and as a result, they didn’t really take the precautions that they needed to make sure that they followed all the security procedures.”

Scott Travis, education reporter for the South Florida Sun Sentinel
Staff members from the South Florida Sun Sentinel (from left: Randy Roguski, Julie Anderson and Dana Banker) accept the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service from Columbia University President Lee Bollinger. (Eileen Barroso/Columbia University via Pulitzer Prize administration)

Winning the Pulitzer for Public Service was a bitter-sweet occasion, Travis said.

“As a journalist, it’s a dream that we all have to win a Pulitzer, it’s the top award you can get, but none of us wanted to win it for something where it was so awful and tragic like 17 people being brutally murdered,” Travis said.

“I think we found comfort in knowing that what happened happened, but we were able to help the situation by identifying a lot of problems which will lead to safer schools in the future. In that way, it was very gratifying to be honored.”

Scott Travis

Reaching out to sources was one of the main tactics that Travis used during this investigation, he said.

“Start calling everyone to see if anyone will talk to you,” Travis said. “Also, one of the things that really helped me was being active on social media. I wasn’t really that active on Twitter beforehand, but I realized that’s where a lot of people were communicating. I started following all of the people that were related to Stoneman Douglas and some of them followed me back.”

Dana Banker

Travis takes his work and role as a watch-dog agent very seriously, said Dana Banker, managing editor at the Sun Sentinel.

“I think Scott was so critical to our coverage, particularly with a lot of the watchdog angles that we did concerning the school and how they handled the shooter,” Banker said. “That can be consistently seen in his coverage and definitely in the Parkland story.”

Staff of the South Florida Sun Sentinel celebrate their bittersweet honor Monday after winning the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. The newspaper won for its coverage of the Parkland school shooting. Carline Jean / South Florida Sun Sentinel (Carline Jean / Sun Sentinel via permission Sun Sentinel)

Megan O’Matz is an investigative reporter on the Sun Sentinel who worked on the team that covered the Parkland shooting. Travis’s work leading up to the shooting really helped when it came time to cover an event as in-depth as Parkland, said O’Matz.

“He’s persistent, which helped us on the Parkland story,” said O’Matz.

Megan O’Matz

“He’s [Travis] not just writing about elitist curriculum or changes in how they educate kids, he’s really holding people accountable, and you can see that all throughout the Parkland coverage as well.”

Megan O’Matz, investigative reporter at the Sun Sentinel

“He’s gone to a lot of conferences and he’s developed more tools to find these kinds of stories that are shocking and outrageous and holding people accountable,” she said.

Another investigative reporter from the Sun Sentinel, Brittany Wallman, said that Travis’s attention to detail was also very important to the Parkland investigation.

“We all work a lot of hours, but every night when I leave, he’s [Travis] still there.”

Brittany Wallman, investigative reporter for the Sun Sentinel
Brittany Wallman

“He’s very detail oriented, he pays a lot of attention to what’s going on in the district, he finds a lot of sources and whenever we have a question about the schools he inevitably has already delved into that and can tell you exactly how it works,” said Wallman. “Maybe even has records related to it. Just a lot of expertise.”

Travis has been with the Sun Sentinel since 1999. Before that, he worked at four other newspapers.

Discovering how a high school that seemed so safe could have one of the worst mass shootings in history challenged the Sun Sentinel reporters. By persisting through a year of research and interviews, the team shed light on issues that could make schools safer in the future, Travis said.

Natalie Beckerink is the 2019 SPJ Region 3 summer intern and reporter for SizingUpTheSouth.com. She is a junior at Auburn University studying political science and journalism. Beckerink is on the staff of the Auburn University Plainsman student newspaper. nbeckerink.spj@gmail.com

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