Bridge Magazine is retracting a June 27 article about an 18-year-old student from Detroit who won a full-ride scholarship to Harvard University.
The teen now admits she forged a letter from the university indicating she was accepted to enroll in the university for the fall semester. She misled teachers, family and friends for months, the teen admitted in an email to Bridge on Friday.
The student wrote that she spread the falsehood after being denied admission to Harvard and other prestigious schools.
“I am not stating any of this to justify my wrong actions but rather to apologize for my misdoings. I apologize to all those who were so happy and congratulatory towards me,” she wrote.
Bridge Magazine removed the initial story from its website on Thursday and is not naming the teen because several friends, family and others expressed concern about her emotional well-being and future.
The initial story detailed how the teen persevered after missing 60 days of school over three years due to chronic asthma as well as transportation problems related to her family’s poverty. A teacher and neighbor confirmed to Bridge they drove her to school for weeks because her family had no operating vehicle.
Bridge first learned of the teen’s accomplishment through a person with ties to her school, University Prep Science and Math in Detroit, which repeatedly and publicly celebrated her supposed admission to Harvard throughout the spring.
The teen showed officials at the school an emailed copy of the forged admission letter. A program given to guests at the high school’s June 10 graduation included a photo of the teen and indicated she would attend Harvard.
School officials said the teen was a top student, inspiration and ambassador for the school, which is why they are so shocked.
“There was no reason for us to question it. This girl is a really good girl,” said Mark Ornstein, CEO of U Prep Schools, which consists of seven charter school campuses in Detroit.
“This has made me question everything. We are re-evaluating our process to see if there’s a better way,” he said.
The student’s story began to unravel soon after it was published in Bridge. The teen said in the article she did not plan to enroll at the Ivy League school until the second semester next school year because she needed to save money for the move.
When dozens of readers offered to raise money, Bridge contacted the family again and learned new information. Now, the family said the teen planned to attend a college in Michigan in the fall and transfer to Harvard later.
That prompted further scrutiny of the teen’s Harvard acceptance letter, a copy of which the student provided to Bridge before the initial story.
The review showed the seven-paragraph letter had the wrong address for the Harvard admissions office and incorrect information about the number of applicants for the 2017-2018 school year.
Bridge did not contact Harvard before the initial article. After publication, Harvard officials said the university does not publicly comment on whether a student is accepted into an incoming class.
In response to questions from Bridge, the student’s mother examined her daughter’s computer and discovered the acceptance letter to Harvard was forged. The student also lied to her mother and Bridge about being accepted to Yale University, her mother said.
Her mother tearfully apologized for her daughter’s behavior in an interview at their home Friday, stressing that she never accepted any donations. She said the family will soon contact school officials and friends to tell them the truth.
“It was your call that prompted all this, for me to go looking into it,” the student’s mother, Tosha People, who has a different last name, told Bridge. “I grabbed her laptop and said, ‘OK, what gives?’”
“It’s a lie. She didn’t get in. … When I saw that, my heart broke. I’m like, why?”
Hours after the Friday interview, the teenager sent the letter admitting the lie to Bridge.
“When we later learned this student had fabricated a Harvard admission form, it felt like a gut punch,” said Bridge Editor David Zeman. “We thought we had confirmed the foundation of the story through the student, and through her high school.
“In hindsight, there were small warning bells, which we failed to heed. We need to be accountable to our readers when we fall short. But we also need to draw lessons from this to guide our future reporting. And we will.”
Kathleen Culver, director the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said Bridge should have better scrutinized the teen’s story.
“If at second glance, the acceptance letter looked like a forgery, maybe it should have set off alarms the first time,” she said.
Culver said Bridge’s reporting “seemed pretty decent” because it included multiple sources who confirmed the girl’s account and repeated her lie. Feel-good stories often don’t include the same level of scrutiny as hard news ones, though, because reporters “want them to be true,” she said.