Letter on School Violence Pits Paducah Sun Against McCracken Sheriff

A clearer picture has emerged of the standoff between the Paducah Sun and the McCracken County Sheriff’s Office that prompted a school closure earlier this week.

Clearer, but not prettier.

Authorities now believe that a letter received by the Paducah Sun on Monday referenced an incident the previous week that had already been investigated. A couple of kids in Paducah’s Reidland High School were talking about the video game Minecraft; their chatter about placing bombs—part of the game—was misinterpreted as a possible threat.

No harm, no foul.

Until Monday.

A refresher: The letter received by the Sun referred to a student the writer believed had brought weapons to Reidland High and made threats. The Sun staff called the McCracken Sheriff’s office, who asked for the letter and contact information for the writer. The Sun provided the letter at some point, but withheld the name and contact information, because the writer had asked to remain nameless. Authorities canceled classes for Tuesday at Reidland High and the adjoining Reidland Middle.

A media controversy ensued.

Classes resumed Wednesday, and now the Sun and the McCracken sheriff are pointing figures like, well, kids in school.

On Tuesday night, Sheriff Jon Hayden said in a news release posted to the office’s Facebook page that the school was never under a threat of violence. It added:

It was impossible for school officials or law enforcement to know this was the same threat that had already been investigated and cleared six days ago, due to not having the information that had been requested as to whom the author of the letter was.

Had investigators been able to obtain the identity of the author of this letter sooner, this investigation would have been concluded much sooner.

On the Sun’s website, publisher and editor Jim Paxton defended the paper’s actions in a long column. (I’ve linked to the story, but the Sun has a paywall.) Paxton said the paper has a right to protect the identities of its sources—that it’s vital to reporting.

There’s more. Paxton wrote that the letter writer is a juvenile. The Sun contacted the letter writer’s parents to convey the sheriff’s office’s desire to talk to their child; the parents were reluctant.

Paxton then writes:

That apparently led to a Monday evening summit involving sheriff’s investigators, the school superintendent and board attorney, and people from the Commonwealth Attorney’s office. Sometime after 10:30 p.m. the sheriff’s department sent out a press release to all local media that 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. Tuesday morning, Superintendent Waldrop’s office sent out a similarly worded release to school personnel and at least one TV station outside Paducah.

For reference sake, the McCracken sheriff’s initial news release on the Sun’s letter begins:

Monday morning December 17, 2012 at approximately 10:00AM, the McCracken County Sheriff’s Department was contacted by a reporter with the Paducah Sun stating that a letter that contained a serious threat was sent to the newspaper’s editor concerning Reidland High School. When myself and a detective requested the letter, as well as the authors name and phone number which was attached to the letter, our request was denied, citing ethical obligations to protect the newspapers sources.

The key passage of the letter, which was posted to the Sun’s website Tuesday amid the controversy, reads:

But we have a student, someone who sits in class with us, who has brought weapons twice and most recently plotted a map of bomb and gun attack sites around the school area. This student has yet to be punished for anything. Is it that Doctor Waldrop, the superintendent, is afraid to enforce school rules?

Many commenters on the sheriff’s Facebook page took the news release as meaning that the letter writer was making threats. People began calling the paper, threatening to cancel subscriptions and advertisements, writes Paxton, who says this is what officials “planned.” 

Paxton writes that he and the Sun’s executive editor were later subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury, along with the controversial letter.  Paxton said the subpoena arrived as the Sun was arranging for the letter writer, his parents and a school staff member to meet with the sheriff.

The school was never threatened, the sheriff’s office said. A teacher urged the student to send the letter to the Sun because she believed another student had brought weapons and made threats, but school officials had done little about it, the Sun reported in a separate story.

A big misunderstanding. One that led to the closing of two schools for a day, public criticisms of several Paducah institutions and, surely, frayed nerves in a community days after the Newtown, Conn., shootings—in a community that’s already suffered its own school violence.

The McCracken sheriff argues that the investigation would have ended sooner if the Sun had provided the letter writer’s name sooner.

Ostensibly, perhaps a school day wouldn’t have been canceled.

Meanwhile, Paxton writes: “We as a newspaper remain puzzled by the scorched earth approach taken by local officials involved here.”

Hayden told the television station WPSD:  ”We certainly understand the media has a job to do. We know that, we respect that. When the media receives information on something of this magnitude we just feel that there’s a moral obligation to consider over any ethical obligations.”

Joseph Lord

Joseph Lord is the online managing editor for WFPL.

@joseph_Lord

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