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  • Last modified 152 days ago (March 22, 2018)

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Far from sensational

The English language is full of so many odd rules and exceptions to the rules it’s a wonder first-graders get so much of it right without having taken an English class.

A common challenge is that meaning of certain words change depending on how they’re used.

Take the word “dope.” If you look at someone and say, “You’re a big dope,” you’re likely insulting them. However, if you look at someone and say, “Man, that gold chain you’re wearing looks so dope,” in current lingo you have just paid him or her a compliment.

“Sensational” is another one of those words that works more than one way.

Anyone who has been watching the NCAA Division I college basketball tournament has had plenty of opportunities to exclaim, “That game was sensational!” In that context it means amazing, outstanding, exciting, and electrifying.

We’ve had the word “sensational” directed at us this week, but with entirely opposite intent.

At least one reader we know of, and likely others we don’t, called us out for being “sensational” in our breaking news coverage about Peabody-Burns teacher Christopher Young and the allegations against him detailed in a court affidavit that led to eight felony charges for sexual misconduct involving two students.

In that reader’s case, “sensational” is the equivalent of scandalous, lurid, distorted, and farfetched. We suspect she believes we stepped over the line when we reported about photos of partially-nude teen-agers and a partially nude teacher showing up on their confiscated cell phones. We’re not reporting news, we’re being “sensational,” blowing things up just to cause a ruckus or try to defame someone.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Peabody Police Chief Bruce Burke’s affidavit is 12 pages long. It describes in explicit detail the allegations of sexual misconduct that led to Young’s eight felony charges, as well as the extent of the investigation. We cringed often as we read through it.

Burke wrote 12 pages; our breaking news story would take up, at most, half of a typewritten page. Look closely and you’ll find that only four paragraphs of our article actually contain information from the affidavit. Most of the article is background material we’ve reported before, including support shown for Young when he appeared in court.

Twelve pages to choose from, and what we posted had just four paragraphs from all that? That’s not sensationalism, that’s responsible restraint.

So why did we report on the partially-nude photos? Is that being sensational?

No, it’s being factual. The cell phone picture evidence came directly from the phones. All three were forensically analyzed and data retrieved by an independent Kansas Internet Crimes Against Children task force. No “he said, she said” — just an electronic record revealed by investigation.

The shock comes from something that blatantly conflicts with what we accept as appropriate behavior between teachers and students, no matter how one finds out about it.

From their first day attending school, children are taught to trust their teachers. Many children and parents wear looks of anxiety for days or weeks before becoming comfortable with this strange new arrangement.

The responsibility of teachers and schools is so great there’s even a legal term for it: in loco parentis. It means “in place of the parent.”

We trust teachers because we need to. Imagine how horrible it would be if we couldn’t trust them. Fortunately, the vast majority of teachers merit our trust.

But when a teacher is accused of doing things that take advantage of their relationships with students, whether sexual in nature or not, our trust is shaken.

Our responsibility as a news organization is to report responsibly on matters of community concern, and there’s no greater concern than the safety and well-being of our children.

By reporting on what we have, both online and in today’s expanded article elsewhere in this edition, we’re not being sensational at all.

We’re providing information most find distasteful because information can help keep children safe.

Sexting happens everywhere else, but not here, right? Reporting what we did wasn’t sensational, it was a wake-up call for parents who haven’t the slightest idea how kids are using their cell phones and computers. We hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you can be certain some of our kids are doing it with each other. It’s already happened here. Kids sometimes make stupid and harmful decisions. The value of monitoring their technology is a lesson to be learned from this.

Information is a prompt for schools to rethink how they monitor teacher-student relationships, and what to do when they suspect something inappropriate.

A few women speaking out about how they were sexually abused by men in the workplace released an empowering and healing torrent of such revelations that turned into the #metoo movement.

A newspaper writing responsibly but openly about a case alleging inappropriate sexual relationships between teachers and students might just have a similar effect for a student unwillingly involved in a similar situation.

We’re not being sensational. We don’t enjoy reporting on these sorts of things any more than you like finding out they’re there.

But the benefits for children, families, schools, and communities that can come from responsible open reporting of things many folks would like to remain hidden?

Those truly would be sensational. That’s why we’ll keep right on reporting.

—david colburn

Last modified March 22, 2018

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