Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Sun gives police letter alleging schools' laxity about weapons, but honors request for anonymity

A newspaper in a Kentucky county that had one of the first mass school shootings gave police a letter it received from a student alleging lax enforcement of rules about weapons on campus, but refused to identify the student, who asked to remain anyonmous. The Paducah Sun gave the McCracken County Sheriff's Department a copy of the letter about Reidland High School on Monday "after a reporter called the department . . . although the name of the author was not included," the paper reported Tuesday in a non-bylined story.

Reidland High School
The story quoted from the letter: “Someone who sits in class with us, who has brought weapons twice ... has yet to be punished for anything.” It "does not mention the person’s name," the story says. "It adds that the person has plotted attack sites around the school area and asks why school administrators are afraid to enforce school rules. The letter does not contain any specific threats of violence, just the student’s observations."

After being told about the letter, police and school officials decided to close the school and the attached Reidland Middle School. “School will not be in session until the threat has been adequately investigated,” Sheriff Jon Hayden wrote on his department's Facebook page. The paper's story is here; the letter is here.

Reidland (A) and Heath (B) schools (Google map)
On Dec. 1, 1997, a student at a high school on the other side of Paducah fired on a group of students at a prayer meeting, killing three and injuring five. He pleaded guilty but mentally ill and was given life in prison with the possibility of parole in 25 years. "A federal appeals court panel is considering whether Heath High School gunman Michael Carneal should be allowed to take back his guilty plea and get a trial," Angela Hatton of WKMS in Murray reports.

The Wednesday, Dec. 19 Sun has a copy of the letter, a story about an unnamed teacher who says she prompted it, and a column from Editor Jim Paxton explaining the paper's handling of the matter: "Newspapers by statute in Kentucky have a right to protect the identity of their sources, just as law enforcement agencies do. Absent that ability, we would never be able to develop the type of information that is reported in today’s lead story about the school threat issue, information we believe most readers will agree sorely needs to see the light of day." Paxton said the paper asked the student's parents if he could speak to the sheriff's department if his confidentiality was protected. "The parents expressed reservations, noting their son is a juvenile. We advised investigators of the parents’ position, but said we would continue to try to broker a resolution that would allow investigators to speak to the student directly."

Paxton says a press release from the sheriff's department at 10:30 p.m. Monday "was at best disingenuous and at worst defamatory. The release was crafted in such a way as to make it appear that the newspaper had received a letter from an individual who had directly threatened the high school and we were refusing to tell authorities his name citing 'journalistic ethics.' The release didn’t say that specifically, but it was clearly intended to be interpreted that way, and it was." That release appeared to be the basis for a story by WPSD-TV, also owned by Paducah-based Paxton Media Group. The county school superintendent sent a similar message to school-district employees.

"The effect was as officials planned," Paxton writes. "People called to cancel subscriptions. Advertisers called threatening to pull out of our newspaper. Profane comments poured onto our Facebook page." And though the paper's First Amendment lawyer said it had an absolute right to withhold the student's name, "we continued working to broker a resolution, and later that morning, our source, his parents, and an adult employee of the school system who we learned was our source’s source agreed to meet here at the newspaper with Sheriff Hayden. While we were in the process of setting that meeting up, a sheriff’s detective showed up in our offices with grand jury subpoenas demanding that Executive Editor Duke Conover and yours truly appear in less than two hours before a grand jury along with the letter disclosing the identity of our source. (In what can only be described as a show of belligerence, the sheriff’s detective undertook to 'read' the subpoena to Conover in Conover’s office while Conover was engaged in a phone call. First, that’s hard to do, since subpoenas mostly have boxes and checkmarks on them. Second, legally, it has no effect. Subpoenas are simply supposed to be delivered, and sheriff’s deputies are well aware of that.)" Paxton, a lawyer, writes that the subpoenas were illegal and "purely an effort to intimidate a news organization. We doubt Kentucky’s attorney discipline board will smile on this exercise."

In the end, Paxton reports, "Our source and others familiar with this matter did meet in our offices with the sheriff, and as today’s lead story indicates, much was learned. Interestingly, some of what was learned was very unflattering to school administrators and others in the school system. Meanwhile, we as a newspaper remain puzzled by the scorched earth approach taken by local officials involved here." (Read more; subscription may be required)

Sheriff Hayden issued a press release Tuesday night saying that the alleged threat was a misinterpretation of two students' conversation about explosions in a video game, which had been investigated and cleared. "Had investigators been provided contact information sooner, this incident could have been cleared up much quicker," Hayden said.

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