Saturday, June 24, 2006

Anatomy of a propaganda attack

Anybody heard about this one?

There was this dad in Lexington, MA, David Parker, who has embarked on a crusade to protect his seven year old from hearing about gay people. The son brought home in a reading bag with books about different types of families, including gay families. He complained to the school board - which is fine with me. I don't agree with his attitude, but I suppose he should have the right to opt out. In this case, he carried his protest so far that he refused to leave the school grounds and got arrested.

Then a few weeks later, this story pops up: Seven-Year-Old Beaten at School For Father's Stand Against Homosexual Activism.

I first encountered the story on alt.atheism last week. Naturally, every right wing media outlet picked it up as fast as they could and used it as a bludgeon. You can probably guess what they said, along these lines: "Shameful! These so called 'tolerant' liberals support physical assault to intimidate believers in family values! Why won't the liberal media pick up this story?"

The first question that springs to my mind is, "How do they know that the beating had anything to do with the dad's anti-gay crusade?" The second question is, "Seven year olds are really THAT concerned with gay politics?"

Here's the school's side of the story:

Some of you may be aware that the press has received a news release related to a playground incident at Estabrook. The Estabrook principal has investigated the issue over the past two days, talking to the adults and children involved. The following are the facts as she understands them.

On May 17, several first graders were involved in a disagreement over who would sit where in the cafeteria. As a result, upon going outside one child took another by the hand and brought him to a third student in an area of the playground that is somewhat difficult for the adults to see. (The student who was hit said that he went willingly.) All children who saw agreed that the third student then hit the student who had been brought to him two to four times in the chest/abdomen (children’s accounts vary) and he fell to his knees. The student who was hit says he was hit when down; the other children say he wasn’t. One child reports that one student held the arm of the student who was hit; however, the child who was hit and the other children did not report this. The children involved named five children who were nearby watching but not directly involved. Several other students were close enough to see a cluster of students but not close enough to see what was happening. The student who did the hitting suggested that others also hit, but none of them did so. Based on the children’s accounts, this all may have happened in under a minute. The aide on duty saw a group of children gathering, and as she walked toward them was approached by a child that said someone was being bullied. When the aide inquired what was going on, the child who was hit identified one student who hit him, and the other children agreed. The child who was hit said he was not hurt and did not want to go to the nurse. He reported that his feelings were hurt, because the child who hit him was his friend.

The child who did the hitting was sent to the assistant principal’s office and while talking with her acknowledged his behavior. As a result, he filled out a “think sheet,” to reflect on his behavior and choices, missed recess on two days, and wrote an apology. In addition, the classroom teacher called both sets of parents and a class discussion was held about not hitting and speaking up when there is a problem on the playground. The teacher indicated that both parents took the matter seriously and seemed satisfied with the outcome. Following the incident the boys were observed arm in arm at school and subsequently the child who was hit went to the house of the child who hit him for a play date.

On May 31, the parents of the child hit casually inquired of the assistant principal as to the consequence given to the other child, and they were told that the child’s parents were informed and a consequence given. Other than this brief interaction, between the time of the phone call by the teacher to the parents on May 17 until June 14, there were no complaints of injury or dissatisfaction with the process to the teacher, nurse, or the administrators. On June 14, school administration received a call from a local paper stating that they had received a press release that a child had been assaulted at Estabrook.

In this case, we followed all of our usual procedures and worked with both sets of parents to resolve this issue. We are surprised that it has resurfaced in a press release issued by a group calling itself Mass Resistance without any prior contact with the school. The press release states that the incident was "fueled and incited by adults (and yes, school officials).” We have found nothing in our investigation that would support this allegation in any way. Nonetheless, in the interest of an open and thorough review of the incident, the matter has been referred by the superintendent to the Lexington police, District Attorney’s office, and the Department of Social Services for independent investigation.

At Estabrook, playground safety and student behavior are school improvement goals each year. The school, like all of the schools in Lexington, works hard to establish behavioral expectations, teach students social skills, and provide strong supervision on the playground. In the seven years that Joni Jay has been principal, we have more than doubled the adults watching students on the playground and our coverage ratio at Estabrook is at or above all other Lexington elementary schools. We have separated older and younger students and have fewer students on the playground at one time. We have trained and hired skillful aides who stay actively involved with children, equipped with walkie-talkies and actively walking around identifying potential problems and working through them with students. The Open Circle program, adopted this year, has provided students with skills to help them resolve problems verbally. Administrators discuss with children the reasons for what happened, the consequences, and future alternatives every time there is a problem. We involve parents and teachers when a child has broken school rules, and if the nurse treats a child due to a playground incident. Each incident is documented, and referrals are made to the counselor and other support personnel when appropriate. As a result of the efforts of staff and parents working together, physical altercations on the playground have been reduced significantly.

A major goal of the Lexington Public School system is both to help all children feel safe as well as to help the child who has erred learn. We are continuously looking to improve the playground experience for children and welcome your input.

A few points of interest in the story:

  1. David Parker claims that "a group of 8-10 kids suddenly surrounded Jacob and grabbed him." The school says that it was one kid who actually hit him.
  2. In the conservative media story, "According to Mr. Parker, school authorities determined from an investigation into the assault that the beating was indeed planned and premeditated." While according to the school, they had not determined any such thing. Rather, the kids "were involved in a disagreement over who would sit where in the cafeteria."
  3. Despite the allegedly severe beating, the parents declined to file a complaint with the police. Apparently, filing a complaint with a local right wing mouthpiece was enough... two weeks later.
  4. "Following the incident the boys were observed arm in arm at school and subsequently the child who was hit went to the house of the child who hit him for a play date."

My conclusion? Unfortunately, kids get in fights. This is a bad thing and should not be excused in any way. The little brat who attacked Jacob Parker should be (and seemingly was) disciplined.

But the father seems to have used his status as a loudmouth political activist to act like his child was a victim of anti-bigotry-bigots. The conservative press jumped all over this claim without even bothering to verify that he had any evidence.


  1. David Parker admitted to The Boston Globe this week that the story spread in his name by MassResistance (a Massachusetts antigay group) is false.

    Parker is still upset and distrustful at the local community for not supporting him, but frankly, the community was lied about for a month by MassResistance and antigay bloggers. I don't blame the parents and school officials of Lexington, Mass., for being upset that Parker allowed lies about them to be spread for so long.

  2. You know, this trend of spreading false anecdotes in an echo chamber is a whole lot like anecdotal spam or e-chain-letters.

    I had a friend in college who (in order):

    - began studying geology in college,
    - got born again,
    - heard a Duane Gish creationism speech,
    - started believing in creationism over evolution,
    - graduated with his geology degree, and finally
    - began delivering lectures on how the constant persecution of Christians is the reason Christians are often afraid to uphold the biblical account of creationism and stand up to liberal-agenda scientists/press.

    I've heard his lectures, this one is pretty typical, in which he relays a few stories which portray Christians as oppressed (as in "Help! Help! I'm being"), or as unreasonably ridiculed. In this particular one:

    - He repeats the Plano Texas myth, where children were supposedly prohibited from wearing red and green, giving gifts with religious messages on them, or to say "Merry Christmas" on cards they wrote to US soldiers.

    - The "Silent Night"-becomes-"Cold-in-The-Night" scandal, which I've heard you talk about, also spread by O'Reilly and only corrected by critical research.

    This is all especially ironic when he asks rhetorical questions like, "Where is all this paranoia coming from?!"

    I'm sure that human nature, believing what one wants to believe, plays a huge role in the spreading of these types of false stories. And may even be due to media laziness that gives BS a kick-start.

    But there are also agent-provacateurs like Coulter and Limbaugh who I can only believe know that what they spread is bullshit, but care more about righteousness-inspired fan loyalty than any sort of truth.

    The "answer"? I think your Non-prophet group was pretty much on the money when you said that the only effective response to this type of paranoid, often hateful, sometimes harmful drivel, is ridicule. State the facts, point out the simplistic mindset of one who can repeatedly approach such stories so non-critically, and laugh. Then hope that either some of the shame sticks, or better yet, that they see the humor and silliness in the way they've been acting.