A letter shows up at the Paducah Sun. The writer says a student has twice brought a weapon to Reidland High School and has mapped out gun and bomb attacks around the school.
What comes next has set off a controversy over school safety, journalism ethics and the closure of a western Kentucky high school for the day.
After the letter arrived Monday, a Sun reporter contacts the McCracken County Sheriff’s Office. Officials ask for the letter. In both accounts, the contents of the letter were at some point shared with the sheriff’s office, but not the identity of the writer or a phone number.
The sheriff’s office said the letter contained a serious threat, but the Sun story characterized the letter as expressing observations. The newspaper later posted the letter on its website. It says, in part:
“As a student at Reidland High School, I see fights dealt with promptly, tobacco abuse punished according to school regulations, and even profanity is dealt with promptly. 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 site s around the school area.”
The letter writer goes on to question why the student hadn’t been punished, noting that “the rest of us sit in class with him knowing he’s dangerous.”
The Sun said:
“Sun officials explained to police late Monday night that they would seek advice of counsel in Louisville this morning concerning the identification of the letter writer. But, as reported, at no time throughout the day Monday was the content of the letter kept from law enforcement.”
Reidland High is in the same school district as Heath High School, where 15 years ago Michael Carneal killed three students and injured several others. All of this in the wake of last week’s shooting in Newtown, Conn., which has schools and law enforcement everywhere on edge.
Law enforcement and school officials met Monday evening and decided not to not hold classes Tuesday at Reidland High and the adjoined Reidland Middle.
The controversy has spilled over onto the McCracken sheriff’s Facebook page, with more than 120 comments of debate on what the paper should do.
The sheriff’s Facebook posting on the subject has been shared more than 400 times.
The Sun may be working under the belief that they’re protecting a source who didn’t want his or her identity revealed. But journalism-focused Poynter Institute notes on its website:
“If the letter came in unsolicited, they made no promises of confidentiality,” Poynter ethics faculty Kelly McBride said. “And you do have an obligation when you’re a journalist to follow the law. They could ask the sheriff’s department to get a subpeona, which would be really quick and easy, and then they would have a legal request to follow the law.”