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Just Because It's on Internet, Doesn't Mean It's True

The suspension, Bostic said, was really for "disruptive" behavior during a quiet reading time in a room with about 150 children at the end of the school day. He took the disciplinary step after hearing of the "unusual" incident from more than one teacher. The handbook permits a one to three-day suspension for such offenses.

In addition, Bostic heard a second-hand account, from a group of teachers, that the student had made remarks about an unidentified substitute teacher. Bostic didn't learn her identity until after he had filed his report on the disruption incident. During his conversation with the boy's mother, in addition to explaining the suspension, Bostic mentioned his concerns about some other behavior and used the term "sexual harassment," intending to nip it in the bud. He also wanted to make sure Mom was clued in, so that if something like it happened again she wouldn't be taken by surprise.

Bostic told me that his years as a principal at the middle and high-school levels have made him an advocate of early intervention. He's seen some terrible things happen among older children. Nevertheless, he said the suspension was not for sexual harassment, but for the disruptive behavior. If he had the chance to do it over, he would have kept his remarks to the mother "more general" and avoided the term sexual harassment.

In the wake of inaccurate news stories, Bostic said he has been besieged with media phone calls, and angry emails from people who found the story online. He's also been forced out of a 43-year career that he clearly loves. But that's not what disturbs him most. His teachers have received nasty, personally-insulting emails from all over the country, often making reference to the teachers' physical appearance in degrading ways.

Meanwhile, up in Massachusetts, Matt Wilder, spokesman for the Boston public school system, also could not tell me about the incident in which a seven-year-old boy kicked a bully in the groin and got suspended for sexual harassment. What he did say repeatedly was: "Keep in mind that you're only hearing one side of the story."

Equal justice, fairness, and due diligence demand that journalists and their readers/viewers take greater care when disseminating information, especially such inflammatory charges. As eager as we are to prove our case that the public schools have run amok, we must do it with careful documentation to build credibility. Every false, or overblown, report diminishes the argument.

As a Dad, I'm particularly concerned about how the images and names of these children have been spread around the globe. The Internet is forever, and so these stories will follow them into adulthood.

Just as first reports from battle are usually wrong, initial accounts, relayed second-hand via aggrieved mothers, must be handled with care. It's better for a journalist to hold a story, or for a reader to refrain from "sharing" on Facebook or Twitter, than to become an accomplice to inaccuracy that can damage a person's reputation, or scuttle the credibility of the case against government-run schooling.

While Jerry Bostic didn't say this, it's hard to imagine he would have been shown the door by his superiors if not for the deluge of media attention and abusive emails.

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage based on a modified Shutterstock.com image.)