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The Midwest Newsroom is a partnership between NPR and member stations to provide investigative journalism and in-depth reporting with a focus on Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska.

St. Louis-area school district aggressively audits student housing, citing ‘educational larceny’

A cyanotype illustration with an investigator rumages through clothes as a family watches.
Hokyoung Kim
/
Special to NPR Midwest Newsroom
Since the 2018-19 school year, the Hazelwood School District has sharply increased its rate of investigating student residency eightfold, deploying a team of employees who can use intrusive tactics.

In March, a frustrated parent wrote an email to the Hazelwood School District. Her daughter had been kicked out of Jamestown Elementary School after the district conducted an investigation into where the family lived.

In the email, the mother complained that her daughter had been wrongly removed and could not return to school.

“How is it considering a student's well being, to be pulled out of school less than three months before the end of the year,” she wrote.

The mother’s email is one of more than 100 communications between families and the Hazelwood School District appealing decisions that children could not attend its schools. The Midwest Newsroom and St. Louis Public Radio obtained the trove of emails through a public records request.

The mother, whose name is redacted in the records, wrote that even after her child was removed from school, district officials could not answer her questions about the investigation — nor why the school district even conducted the investigation.

“Hazelwood took it upon themselves to hire an investigator and follow me and my child, causing anxiety and fearing [sic] for my life not knowing who is watching us,” the mother wrote. “I feel like my daughter has been targeted and singled out for no apparent reason and with no explanation.”

Missouri students attending public school must enroll where their guardians pay property taxes — with some exceptions. Many districts use investigations to confirm where students live. The communications between parents and guardians and the Hazelwood School District — amounting to more than a thousand pages — paint the picture of an inflexible and inscrutable residency investigation system.

Other records obtained for this article show that the Hazelwood School District has ramped up the rate of its investigations in the past five school years and appears to be conducting significantly more than other local school districts.

The Hazelwood Central High School on Sunday, Oct. 29, 2023, in Florissant, Mo.
Tristen Rouse
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St. Louis Public Radio
The Hazelwood Central High School on Oct. 29 in Florissant. Communications between parents and guardians and the Hazelwood School District — amounting to more than a thousand pages obtained through the Missouri's Sunshine Law — paint the picture of an inflexible and inscrutable residency investigation system in the north St. Louis County school district. (Tristen Rouse / St. Louis Public Radio) | (Lead image: Hokyoung Kim / Special to NPR Midwest Newsroom)

'Educational larceny'

Hopey Fink remembers when the residency investigation practices in the Hazelwood School District first caught her attention. In 2021, a parent told her about an encounter with the district's investigation team.

Fink, an attorney with the nonprofit Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, said it was an unusual story. The parent said employees of the school district had visited the family’s home and rifled through clothing.

Fink said the investigators believed the student’s family was lying about living in the school district — and the team could prove it if her clothes weren’t at the address provided during enrollment. The school district declined to comment on this or any specific investigations.

That was just one of 300 home visits the school district executed over the past five years and one of roughly 4,500 residency investigations it conducted in that period.

About half of the residency investigations occurred in the last school year alone. Home visits take place when investigators believe they need more information to determine if students live where they claim.

Hopey Fink, a staff attorney with Legal Services of Eastern Missouri specializing in the group's education justice program, on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023, at the firm's offices in downtown St. Louis.
Tristen Rouse
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St. Louis Public Radio
Hopey Fink, a staff attorney with Legal Services of Eastern Missouri specializing in the group's education justice program, on Wednesday at the firm's offices in downtown St. Louis. (Tristen Rouse / St. Louis Public Radio)

Residency investigations in themselves are not unusual. School districts around the country use them to ensure families actually live within their boundaries and can rightfully attend school and access resources there.

The family seeking help from Legal Services of Eastern Missouri was able to show they lived in the school district, and with the help of the nonprofit, the student remained enrolled in school. But Fink and her colleagues took note of the practice and would go on to represent several more families in similar situations.

“We know that not just from those client instances, but also from [public records] that those are practices that the district seems to be employing fairly regularly for these investigations,” Fink added.

NPR Midwest Newsroom's Kavahn Mansouri and STLPR's Kate Grumke discuss this report on 'St. Louis on the Air'

The Midwest Newsroom and STLPR asked several parents to share their experiences on the record, but they declined, citing privacy concerns, or did not communicate after initial contact. The identities of the parents, guardians and students in the records we obtained were obscured to protect their privacy.

Residency investigations have increased sharply in the Hazelwood School District over the past five years, along with the number of home visits the school’s residency investigation team makes — a practice Fink and colleagues said is intrusive and violates privacy.

What’s more, the Midwest Newsroom and STLPR obtained data showing that most of those investigations did not find students committing what one district official called “educational larceny.”

Officials at the district said the investigations are required by school board policy and Missouri law, but records from school districts of similar size around the St. Louis area show the Hazelwood School District investigates its students at a level that stands out.

The Hazelwood School District school busses and district vehicles are photographed on Sunday, Oct. 29, 2023, in Florissant, Mo.
Tristen Rouse
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St. Louis Public Radio
Hazelwood School District school buses and district vehicles are photographed on Oct. 29 in Florissant. (Tristen Rouse / St. Louis Public Radio)

A jump in investigations

Families found to be knowingly living out of the school district their students are enrolled in can be charged with a crime, according to Missouri state law. Records obtained from the Hazelwood School District show some families found to be living outside the district were issued a “billback,” or charged for the time their child spent at a Hazelwood school.

The Hazelwood School District enrolls roughly 17,000 students in its 20 elementary schools, six middle schools and three high schools.

According to an annual report by the district’s public safety team, during the 2022-23 school year, the district performed 2,051 residency investigations. That could represent at least 12% of the student population.

Just five years ago, during the 2018-19 academic year, the school district performed only 148 investigations.

Public records obtained by the Midwest Newsroom and STLPR show the stark difference in investigations by other school districts.

The nearby Ferguson-Florissant School District, where roughly 9,300 students are enrolled, conducted only 67 residency investigations during the 2022-23 school year.

The same year, the Wentzville School District, similar in size to the Hazelwood School District, performed 128 residency investigations from an enrollment of roughly 17,700, affecting less than 1% of the students in the district. The Francis Howell School District, which enrolls 16,000 students, performed a total of 12 investigations, involving less than half of 1% of the students in that district.

Barbara Duffield, executive director of Schoolhouse Connection, a national advocacy group that works with education providers to aid homeless students, said the number of investigations and the high rate at which they’ve increased in Hazelwood stands out and strikes her as “shortsighted.”

“It certainly indicates a watchfulness and a distrust and a perception that people are trying to go to this school that don’t have a right to go there,” Duffield said. “If the first thought is ‘Are you my kid, are you somebody else's kid, do I have to serve you?’ — that doesn't lend itself to building trust with families, making families feel safe and making them feel like they have resources to help them help their children get an education.”

1,285% increase
Change in residency investigations in the Hazelwood School District in the past five years

As investigations increased in the Hazelwood School District, so did home visits. In 2018, the school district visited 17 households to determine a student’s residence. But that number has ballooned over the past five years. During the 2022-23 academic year, the school district conducted 147 home visits.

During that same period, the number of students found to be living outside the school district only increased slightly. In 2017, less than half of the 216 investigations found that a student lived outside the boundaries.

And in the 2022-23 school year, 2,051 investigations found only 15% of the students checked were living outside the district.

While the rate at which Hazelwood is investigating its students is alarming to Fink and her colleagues, she said the fallout that her team’s clients have experienced is just as concerning.

“At the most basic level, kids have been out of school and missing school because of these practices,” Fink said.

Whether a student is found to be in compliance or out, the period in investigation limbo can be devastating, she said.

“When Hazelwood disenrolled them, they had literally nowhere to go to school,” Fink said. “There's just a loss of education. But I think also psychologically it's been difficult. The families we've spoken with feel not wanted; they feel discriminated against and targeted and surveilled — it is really intrusive.”

The Hazelwood School District Learning Center administration building on Sunday, Oct. 29, 2023, in Florissant, Mo.
Tristen Rouse
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St. Louis Public Radio
The Hazelwood School District Learning Center administration building on Oct. 29 in Florissant. (Tristen Rouse / St. Louis Public Radio)

Following the rules

Assistant Superintendent Chauncey Granger oversees residency issues and the residency investigation team for the Hazelwood School District. He said investigations are a tool to protect the school district, its students and taxpayers. The Hazelwood School District is one of three that serve students who live in the city of Hazelwood. The other two are Ferguson-Florissant and Pattonville.

“We're bound by our policies and by our state statutes, and so we have to make sure that students are properly showing proof of residency,” Granger said.

Granger told the Midwest Newsroom and STLPR that many reports come from members of the community through a tip line set up to report residency issues. When a student is disenrolled from the school district, a letter is sent to the address on file, notifying the family of the disenrollment and referring them to the school board’s residency policy. A disenrollment date is provided along with an email address for appeals.

For this article, neither Granger nor fellow Assistant Superintendent Lynette Jackson could answer a reporter’s questions about why there has been a 1,285% jump in residency investigations in the past five years.

Hazelwood School District Assistant Superintendents Chauncey Granger, left, and Lynette Jackson.
Hazelwood School District
Hazelwood School District Assistant Superintendents Chauncey Granger, left, and Lynette Jackson

Instead, Jackson pointed to several cases of “falsified documents” submitted during the enrollment process.

“That's educational larceny,” Jackson said. “We're really trying to protect both students, families and ourselves to ensure that we have the correct number of correctly identified students in our district.”

District officials could not provide the number of instances in which a family provided falsified documents for enrollment but said it’s a growing issue. Granger said the number of rental properties in the Hazelwood area also plays a part, due to families moving in and out of the district regularly.

Notably, Hazelwood and the other two districts that serve Hazelwood students are fully accredited by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Two nearby districts, Riverview Gardens and Normandy, have provisional accreditation.

Jackson said roughly 20% to 25% of the student body of Hazelwood School District is on “specialized enrollment,” or residency affidavits or waivers that allow a student to attend the district after gaining notarized proof of residency.

In other words, about a quarter of the district’s students and their families had to take extra measures and gain notarized documentation to prove they lived in the district.

“Any family that feels that we are or don't have all the facts has a right to appeal,” Jackson noted. “But we do believe that students benefit from attending the [correct] school.”

In a statement, Mallory McGowin, the DESE's chief communication officer, told the Midwest Newsroom and STLPR that the department is not involved in the process of investigating student residency and does not track school districts’ investigations.

“DESE simply asks that school districts do their due diligence to ensure enrolled students are, in fact, within their boundary lines,” McGowin said.

“Any family that feels that we ... don't have all the facts has a right to appeal."
Hazelwood School District Assistant Superintendent Lynette Jackson on the district's thousands of student residency investigations.

Abrupt removals

Email records obtained by the Midwest Newsroom and STLPR show more than 100 parents and guardians filed appeals with the Hazelwood School District in the past school year. Many complained about students being out of school for weeks at a time as they appealed their child’s residency status. Some argued they had no idea an investigation had taken place and received little notice when their child was removed from school.

One appeal details a student living with his grandparents full time, a theme in many of the cases. The author of the email sent photos to the district of the child’s room at the grandparents’ home, arguing that he very much lived at the address. The photos show his bed, toys, pet guinea pig and oversize stuffed monkey.

“As the attached pictures show, [address redacted] is very much the home of a six-year-old boy with grandparents who love him and want him to feel safe, warm and valued as he grows up,” they wrote.

According to the appeal, the child was not at the residence at the time investigators visited. He was at the movie “Minions” with family members.

“He was planning on telling the inspector that he has always lived with his grandpa and grandma,” they wrote. “They wake him up in the morning and put him to sleep at night, and do all the other things parents do when raising a child.”

A side by side redacted photo of a young student holding a guinea pig and a bedroom.
Hazelwood School District
One family appealed the Hazelwood School District’s investigation into their residency status. A family advocate alleges the district visited the family's home when they were out but provided images of the student’s guinea pig that was found in the home as well as the student's bedroom, with their name redacted above their bed. “As the attached pictures show, [the address] is very much the home of a six-year-old boy with grandparents who love him and want him to feel safe, warm and valued as he grows up," the family advocate wrote in an email that was part of more than 1,000 pages of records obtained for this report. "The placement of his name in big white letters above his bed, the oversized monkey laying next to the bed, and the curtains reflecting the typical interests of a young boy all attest to his permanent presence at [the address]."

In late April, another student’s grandmother emailed the school district complaining that her grandchild had been out of school for a month and a half.

Two weeks after filling out forms the school district requested to begin the appeal process, she had yet to receive an answer and asked for the “common courtesy” of a reply from the district.

“No one seems to care that she is out of school, everyone was so quick to put her out of school with seven weeks of school remaining but no one is in a hurry to get her back in school,” she wrote. “This is supposed to be an educational institution, but you haven't shown any concern about education.”

The emails obtained for this article do not show whether the appeals were approved or denied. The school district’s Residency Appeal Committee makes that decision.

In some cases, children weren’t removed from the school district but taken to other schools based on their addresses.

In October, a mother emailed an appeal on behalf of her son, who she said was abruptly told during the school day at Barrington Elementary that he no longer was enrolled there and instead would be enrolled at Brown Elementary School, which is seven minutes away.

“My 9 yr [sic] old child came home from school and told me his teacher told him he was going to a different school and took his computer,” she wrote. “There has been no change in residency, nor truancy. I am very curious as to why a residency investigation was opened.”

Brown Elementary School, part of the Hazelwood School District, is photographed on Sunday, Oct. 29, 2023, in Florissant, Mo.
Tristen Rouse
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St. Louis Public Radio
Brown Elementary School, part of the Hazelwood School District, on Oct. 29 in Florissant. (Tristen Rouse / St. Louis Public Radio)

“He is very upset that he abruptly has to move to a new school and leave behind his normal routine, friends and school,” she added.

Responses from the Hazelwood School District residency investigation team reviewed for this article were often short, asking for “supporting documents” with no explanation of what the documents entailed. Many parents wrote back in frustration, confused by the process.

In more than a dozen emails, parents complained of little or sometimes no response from the district as their children remained without schooling.

“We should not be forced to jump through hoops just to enroll my children in school,” a parent wrote.

In another email, an attorney for a family whose name has been redacted took the school district to task, arguing the investigations did not provide even “the most minimal elements of due process.”

The attorney said the school district held a 10-minute appeal hearing on Zoom without notifying the child’s guardian grandparents or the attorney who filed the appeal on the family’s behalf.

“A child's education and well-being is at stake here and that certainly demands something more serious and thorough than what you have provided,” the attorney wrote. “I have a very difficult time understanding how you reconcile this with your basic mission to educate and protect the well-being of children.”

From left: Amanda Schneider, Hopey Fink and Elizabeth Vandenberg of Legal Services of Eastern Missouri are photographed on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023, at the organization’s office in Downtown St. Louis.
Tristen Rouse
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St. Louis Public Radio
From left, attorneys Amanda Schneider, Hopey Fink and Elizabeth Vandenberg, all of Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, on Wednesday at the firm’s office in downtown St. Louis. Legal advocates worry that many students being investigated by the Hazelwood School District are actually struggling with unstable housing. (Tristen Rouse / St. Louis Public Radio)

The McKinney-Vento factor

Legal advocates worry that many students being investigated are actually struggling with unstable housing. For instance, a student might be staying in a motel, with a relative or moving from home to home throughout the week.

“These kinds of investigations have the potential to disrupt tenuous housing situations as well,” said attorney Elizabeth Vandenburg. She pointed to the residency team visits to past clients' homes and the team’s interviews with landlords.

Indeed, one appeal sent in by a Hazelwood parent backs up Vandenburg’s assertion. In September, a parent requested an appeal hearing for her daughters after difficulties in her marriage that caused her to move in with her sister.

“Please take time to sit down with me and I can further explain the situation,” she wrote. “Our lives aren’t black and white, there are many gray areas.”

Congress enacted the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act in 1987 as a response to homelessness. Today, the measure ensures protections and rights for homeless students and children.

“To be grilled about where you’re staying when you have no control over that — that adds insult to injury.”
Barbara Duffield, executive director of Schoolhouse Connection

Under federal law, school districts must provide homeless youth with access to the same education as other children and additional services like transportation to and from school. It further requires schools to register homeless children even if they lack normally required documents, such as immunization records or proof of residence.

”We're fundamentally talking about a kid being able to go to school. And really, actually being able to access school and just to stay in a stable school environment,” Vandenberg said.

According to data gathered by the Center for Public Integrity, the Hazelwood School District reported 729 students experiencing homelessness in 2019-20. That same year, the district conducted 447 investigations.

Jackson said the Hazelwood School District does screen students for McKinney-Vento eligibility during enrollment and provides them with services. And, if a student is identified after the enrollment process as eligible, the school district provides that student and family with support through a homeless liaison.

However, Fink said many students who are McKinney-Vento eligible are likely falling through the cracks, as school districts across the country often under-identify McKinney-Vento students.

A 2022 Center for Public Integrity analysis of federal education data showed roughly 300,000 children and youth entitled to McKinney-Vento aid in the U.S. went unidentified by the school districts mandated to help them.

That same data analysis showed that one in 20 Missouri students eligible for the National School Lunch Program experience housing instability. The benchmark used by the Center for Public Integrity estimates that between 2,000 and 3,000 students experiencing homelessness in the state went unidentified during the 2021-22 school year.

Records obtained by the Midwest Newsroom and STLPR show DESE identified the Hazelwood School District as a district that might be undercounting homeless students in 2022.

Duffield said it’s common for students experiencing homelessness to become the subject of residency investigations, as they are not always identified as McKinney-Vento eligible and sometimes miss out due to the stigma related to the measure.

“Fear and shame are the things that are often told to us by parents or students as the reason why they don’t disclose their situation,” Duffield said. “They [parents] are afraid child welfare will step in and take their kids away. They’re afraid of being judged, they’re afraid of their kids being seen as new or different.”

Duffield said that even when residency checks are required, federal guidelines ask school districts to perform minimal investigations.

“To be grilled about where you’re staying when you have no control over that — that adds insult to injury,” Duffield added. “If you view children in these circumstances as a burden or a liability, that mindset is not conducive to trust or for [students] doing well in school.”

Fink said with the sheer number of investigations taking place in Hazelwood, students who should be getting aid are most likely being investigated instead.

“If there’s 2,000 investigations happening [in the Hazelwood School District] we certainly haven’t worked with all of them,” Fink said. “When we do get involved, oftentimes, we are able to get them back enrolled or get a good result, but you shouldn't have to have an attorney to remain enrolled.”

Racial changes

Fink pointed out the increase in investigations has come as the demographics of the district and region have changed. Hazelwood sits in north St. Louis County, a historically redlined part of the metropolitan area.

“Hazelwood is an interesting place as it has had a lot of demographic changes in the last decade or so — a really quick turn from being majority white to a majority Black district,” Fink said. “We think it's an interesting context for this.”

At the time of the 2010 census, about 64% of the city’s residents were white and 30% were Black, with small Asian and Hispanic populations. According to the 2020 census, the white population has shrunk to 48%, and the Black population has grown to 40%. The Asian and Hispanic communities have continued to grow.

While the Hazelwood School District does not serve all students in the city, the demographics of the neighboring communities and school districts — Ferguson-Florissant and Pattonville — are similar.

Between 2010 and 2021, the proportion of Black students relative to white students in the Hazelwood School District has expanded. According to DESE data, only 27.4% of the district’s students were Black as of 1992. As of 2022, 80.5% of the student body is Black.

A ‘culture of surveillance’

According to the Hazelwood School District, a team of employees investigates and manages probes into student residency. At an August 2023 school board meeting, Granger said the school district has expanded the team in recent years as investigations increased.

“The residency department ensures that all students that enroll and attend Hazelwood school district have a legal and legitimate right to be educated in Hazelwood,” Granger said during the presentation. “The number of overall investigations have increased over a few years, as well as the amount of students found living outside of the district.”

In a 2022 job posting, the school district sought to hire a residency investigator to determine the legal residence of students and parents, assist with residency affidavits and perform “surveillance as assigned.”

As described in the job posting, the investigator’s functions include:

  • Surveilling the community at bus stops.
  • Contacting families regarding residency violations.
  • Maintaining a database of residency investigations.
A tear sheet from a Hazelwood School District Residency Investigator job posting.
Photo Illustration by Brian Munoz / St. Louis Public Radio
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Posting / Hazelwood School District
A tear sheet from a Hazelwood School District Residency Investigator job posting. (Illustration by Brian Munoz / St. Louis Public Radio; Job Listing / Hazelwood School District)

The posting sought applicants with a background in criminal justice or public safety.

Fink said residency investigators were a common complaint for many of Legal Services' clients. Recalling the clothes-rifling incident, she said:

“They came to the Hazelwood address that had been given and they rooted around to see if the child's things were there. They asked questions of landlords, property managers and neighbors.”

Granger declined to discuss the makeup of the residency investigation team or its practices but said the team’s work focuses on connecting students to the district they are supposed to attend.

“We're not using any of our employees to act in a punitive manner,” Granger said. “In most cases, we connect families to the information that they need so that they can be properly enrolled, whether it be in our district or in another district.”

He said sometimes the district gets calls about students being dropped off at vacant homes, which can be a clue that they’re living elsewhere.

Fink said the school district created a “culture of surveillance.” She said records obtained by Legal Services show many investigations at the school district stem from outside the residency department — sparked by tips from teachers, bus drivers and cafeteria workers.

“Every grown-up in the school is supposed to be on alert for kids who might not be living where they say they're living,” Fink said. “It does seem to be a real district-wide practice that, even beyond the residency team, are supposed to be on the lookout.”

Amanda Schneider, the managing attorney for Legal Services of Eastern Missouri's Health and Education Justice Initiatives, on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023, at the firm's offices in downtown St. Louis.
Tristen Rouse
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St. Louis Public Radio
Amanda Schneider, the managing attorney for Legal Services of Eastern Missouri's Health and Education Justice Initiatives, on Wednesday at the firm's offices in downtown St. Louis. (Tristen Rouse / St. Louis Public Radio)

And while the school district is operating within the law, Amanda Schneider, who leads the Education Justice team for Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, said it may be applying the laws unfairly to students struggling with housing or in nontraditional housing arrangements, such as living with relatives outside their immediate family or with other guardians.

“There's just a belief that [Hazelwood officials] are following all of the laws and doing everything that they should and doing it all in good faith,” Schneider said. “But we're seeing the impacts of that in these exclusionary practices.”

Schneider said the impacts of investigations go beyond missing out on an education. She said the tactics deployed by the school district also leave families feeling out of place and unwanted.

And in cases where a student is struggling with housing, the impacts can be far worse, Schneider said, noting that her team believes many students the school district investigates may be experiencing such struggles.

“It's a safe place, you know — if a child is staying in a car, or you know, staying in a shelter, school is a safe place for them, a place they can get food and see their friends,” Schneider said. “It should be a welcoming place."

Has your family or a family you know had experience with the Hazelwood School District’s residency investigations? If you wish to talk about it, email reporters Kavahn Mansouri at kmansouri@kcur.org and Kate Grumke at kgrumke@stlpr.org.

This story was produced in partnership with the Midwest Newsroom, an investigative journalism collaboration including St. Louis Public Radio, KCUR 89.3, IPR, Nebraska Public Media News and NPR.

Credits

Reported, written and produced by: Kavahn Mansouri and Kate Grumke

Audio editing: Holly Edgell and Kristofor Husted

Digital editing: Brian Munoz, Brian Heffernan, Bob Cronin and Kristofor Husted

Photography: Tristen Rouse

Data visualization and graphics: Daniel Wheaton and Brian Munoz

Illustrator: Hokyoung Kim

Community engagement: Lara Hamdan

Digital layout and distribution: Brian Munoz, Brian Heffernan and Alex Rice

Kavahn Mansouri is the Investigative Reporter for the NPR Midwest Newsroom based in St. Louis.
Kate Grumke covers the environment, climate and agriculture for St. Louis Public Radio and Harvest Public Media.