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Group photo of journalism students from First Flight High School
Steve Hanf
Students from First Flight High School's journalism class standing in front of the school's Career Cafe.

First Flight High School (FFHS) journalism students received the 2023 Robert F. Kennedy Book and Journalism Award in the high school print category during a live streamed ceremony held May 3. 

Eight student reporters were nationally recognized for their contribution to the powerful and thought provoking edition of Nighthawk News Magazine titled “The Drug Crisis.” The 32-page edition was published in March 2022 following the death of First Flight High School student Ryker Clark in January from an accidental overdose.

Before highlighting the national opioid and fentanyl crisis' impact in the community, senior editors-in-chief Kayla Hallac, Maren Ingram and Maggie McNinch, reached out to Carolyn Clark, sensitive to the fact that this coverage would take an emotional toll on Carolyn, Ryker's friends and others in the FFHS community. Not only did Carolyn give her blessing – she welcomed an interview to share her story and Ryker's.

The end result was a powerful package of articles that got the school and greater Outer Banks community talking about the drug crisis. Hallac, Ingram and McNinch interviewed Carolyn to share Ryker's story, her grief, and the work she had begun to combat the local drug problem. The editors met with officials from the Town of Kill Devil Hills and the Dare County Sheriff's Office for a news story on the law enforcement perspective.

Sheriff Doug Doughtie proposed the idea of a pill collection drive at the school one morning, allowing FFHS families to anonymously drop off expired medicines. That led to the striking cover image for the magazine, photographed by current senior photo editor, Taylor Newton.

Nighthawk News Magazine Cover Spring 2022 titled the Drug Crisis

Other Nighthawk News staff members also contributed pieces for the drug edition. Current senior, Olivia Sugg, provided a question-and-answer interview with local addiction specialist, Jenny Thiessen. Current senior, Kira Walters, wrote three vignettes about two students and a local adult who had struggled with addiction in the past. Recent graduate, Joey Krieg, offered an opinion column on the pros and cons of efforts involving drug education in schools, while recent graduate Fiona Finchem penned our staff editorial on ways to improve drug education.

FFHS’ Yearbook and Newspaper Adviser Steve Hanf learned of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Books and Journalism Awards from a former student who currently works for the organization. After sharing the information with fellow journalism teachers in the state and region, Hanf took a closer look at the contest details and submitted “The Drug Crisis” edition just before the deadline in early January.

In March, Hanf received a call from an unknown number in the middle of fourth period – and of course let it go to voicemail. Turns out it was Kerry Kennedy personally calling to congratulate Nighthawk News Magazine on being named the winner of the high school journalism category for the 2023 awards. A streaming ceremony to announce the winners of all the categories was held Wednesday, May 3, at noon, with newspaper students celebrating the accomplishment during a watch party. Nighthawk News Magazine will receive a trophy and $500 for the program.

Hanf thanked Principal Chuck Lansing for helping students celebrate the accomplishment, as well as for his support in allowing newspaper students to address challenging topics such as drug use. Officials from Dare County Schools also were on hand for the watch party.

Nighthawk News Magazine is a student-led publication produced by 24 students in two yearlong newspaper classes. The magazine comes out four times a year in the school and community, with students also informing and entertaining the FFHS and OBX community at NighthawkNews.com and on social media. Adviser Steve Hanf has led the newspaper program since the 2015-16 school year. He worked as a professional sportswriter for 13 years before becoming a teacher in 2010 and still does freelance writing for several local magazines.