Just Because It's on Internet, Doesn't Mean It's True
Two sexual harassment stories grabbed headlines, and made the rounds on Facebook and Twitter recently. The "hook" for each story was that small children -- seven and nine-year-old boys -- were suspended from school for sexual harassment; the younger because he kicked a bully in the groin, the elder because he said a teacher was "cute."
Both stories sparked outrage on the right, but they had something else in common. Each was a single-source, uncorroborated piece that told only one side of the story. In each case, the narrative came from the boy's mother. Reporters dutifully recorded that the administration at Brookside Elementary School in Gaston County, North Carolina, would not comment on the "cute" case, nor would officials at Tynan Elementary School in South Boston explain the "groin-kicker" incident.
But journalistic niceties like balance and accuracy did not stop many from touting these as just two more examples of political correctness run amok and of the indoctrination of children by the Left. Not only were the stories posted and circulated online, but they included photographs of the children involved.
I studied journalism in college, but it doesn't take a higher education to know that you need to get more than one side of a story if you hope to understand what happened. These stories were full of red flags.
So, I called Jerry Bostic, the principal at Brookside Elementary on Tuesday, December 6, before he was forced into retirement. (My editor at PJ Media held this story until now at my request, after we learned of the retirement. I wanted to verify the facts in light of the new information. This seems like common sense, but unfortunately, it's not so common in the realm of journalism.)
I finally spoke to Bostic again on Monday, December 12.
Bostic was forbidden by policy from speaking about the particulars of this incident while on staff. After his hastened retirement, Bostic still protected the privacy of the child, and of his former colleagues, the teachers.
But he said some things that shed light on the situation.
1) Bostic plainly stated that in his 43-year career, "I have never suspended a child for saying anyone was cute."
2) He said that he has suspended middle-school and high-school students for sexual harassment, but those suspensions are 5-days, at least, and often 10 days or more -- serious offenses. The nine-year-old in the "cute" case was suspended for just three days. He served the final day in school.
3) Bostic had nothing but good things to say about the student who was suspended. "This young man is a fine young man," Bostic said. "We don't have any bad kids at Brookside. He's going to be successful. We're going to work with him and give him the best possible opportunity to do well. ... He's a good young man, successful at this point, and we want that success to continue."
It's clear that something happened here that has not been reported, something more serious than a childish compliment to a woman's beauty. But in his post-retirement interview, Bostic described a scenario that has all the complexity of human interactions, with the added burden of a confidentiality obligation, thus making the story difficult for the traditional media to tell.
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.)