A NYT school-bullying story comes under scrutiny

Last month the New York Times ran a front-page story about the plight of a Fayetteville, Ark. high school student named Billy Wolfe, who had been “a target of bullies for years”, physically and verbally brutalized by fellow students despite his family’s repeated pleas to a seemingly heedless school district for his protection. (Dan Barry, “A Boy the Bullies Love to Beat Up, Repeatedly”, Mar. 24). Billy’s parents had sued teens they said had harassed their son, and were also considering legal action against the school district.

The article generated a big reaction, especially after young Wolfe himself appeared on the Today show to discuss his plight. Most observers seemed to agree that the harrowing tale lent credence to the whole idea of using lawsuits as a way of responding to bullying in schoolyards, Facebook, etc. — an idea that, coincidentally or otherwise, is the subject of an increasingly visible campaign these days. Even as level-headed an educational observer as Joanne Jacobs wrote on her blog, “Normally, I’m anti-lawsuit, but this may be the only way to bully the bullies and the principal to crack down.” Huffington Post writer Jonathan Fast cited the article as evidence that schools should adopt “zero tolerance” policies on bullying. Some of the many other blog reactions are assembled here (e.g.: Marcotte, Greenfield, DadTalk, The Common Room).

Could there be another side of the story, you may wonder? Well, as a matter of fact, there is. To find it you need to consult the local paper, the Northwest Arkansas Times (Scott F. Davis and Dustin Tracy, “Who’s the bully?: Police, school records raise questions about claims made by Fayetteville High student”, Apr. 3)(via Childs). One may argue about whether Wolfe’s own alleged exploits in victimizing other kids, as catalogued in the NWAT article, will or should affect the disposition of his family’s legal claims. What seems beyond dispute is that the NYT’s story would have been very different in the emotional reactions it evoked — and much less effective in promoting the particular “cause” it was advancing — had it included that other side of the story.

More/updates: Word Around the Net, Val’s Bien, Pennywit @ Likelihood of Success, Joanne Jacobs, Crime & Consequences, Kierkegaard Lives. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette notes that Arkansas already has an unusually strong anti-“cyberbullying” law which “requires school districts to adopt discipline policies banning harmful and disruptive online behavior”, despite misgivings from civil libertarians about official penalties based on students’ out-of-school speech: Evie Blad, “School bullies move online; rules tricky to write, enforce”, Apr. 6. And Scott Greenfield minces no words:

…what is the New York Times thinking? To have its knees cut off by its Northwest Arkansas namesake is humiliating, but to be shown up as deceptive fundamentally undermines its credibility. Without credibility, the Times is just a dog-trainers best friend and a tree’s worst nightmare. …

The failure of the New York Times to present a full and accurate account of the Billy Wolfe story is disgraceful and unacceptable. … If you’re going to put an article on the front page with a big picture, don’t blow it. The Times did. They should be ashamed.

And in our comments section, Ole Miss lawprof Paul Secunda provides the Wolfe family’s response to the NWAT coverage. Update Apr. 24: Jay Greene weighs in.

14 Comments

  • In Charlotte a couple of weeks ago, there was a news story about a mother who reported to the school and took matters into her own hands, confronting a boy she labeled a bully. The news ate it up. As it turns out, the alleged bully was bothering the mother’s 13 year old about a marijuana debt. So our 13 year old pot smoker is the victim?

  • SCHOOL BULLYING

    Thought you’d be interested in the following article on Bullying ,103.2 Power FM
    http://www.powerfm.co.uk/article.asp?id=486855

    http://www.powerfm.co.uk

    This system is great for children and teachers, it is in my son’s school and it works, the Bullying has stopped

    The link is http://www.speakoutnow.co.uk [email protected]

    Nick

  • “that other side of the story”?

    When “that other side of the story” interferes with the deep-set liberal prejudices, pro-lawsuit feelings and rollicking narrative of pre-identified good vs. pre-identified evil preferred by the MSM, there is no “other side.” I always appreciated the admission of Don Hewitt of 60 Minutes years ago that in all their stories, “we set up a good guy and we set up a bad guy” (or words to that effect). A huge and related problem is that modern journalists simply aren’t skeptical of stories, claims and subjects that they naturally prefer. There are a thousand examples daily: a claim of ‘racism’ or ‘sexism’ will be taken at face value and not plumbed. A claim that ‘big business’ is doing something bad will be treated similarly. And so on. It’s about the questions that AREN’T asked, the people NOT spoken to, etc. that shape press coverage in the MSM. Or the old saw, “don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.” We need less Oprah and more Mencken among the press corps.

    And believe me. If you don’t hold these prejudices, you are going nowhere in the world of the media.

    One solace for skeptics is the Internet.

  • Bullying is of course bad…was sort of a victim of it myself…took a few arbitrary whoopins back in the day. It’s the Hobbesian spirit of brutish and waring that we have in us. But, good parenting (especially nuclear parenting), discipline, teaching self-reliance…all things good, can work wonders for this. Or, you can blame something else; the deeper the pockets the better. Case in point. Most of us read in the last day or two of the horrific behavior of those cheerleaders brutalizing their teammate on video. While I was disturbed by just about every aspect of the story, I found one part exceptionally noteworthy. From Fox News: Her parents blamed the Internet for the incident.
    “These Web sites are creating a space for criminal activity, beating, fights,” Patrick Lindsay said. “MySpace, MTV’s ‘Jackass,’ they are enticing our children and desensitizing out children. Now, if they create the best shock video, they are the heroes. They think it is top dollar.”
    Now, are they trying to set the stage for a suit, overcome with emotions, just plain stupid, or not accustomed to the notion that perhaps personal responsibility and good parenting are the real answer?

  • Todd, you’re right, far too many believe personal responsibility is for the other guy. However, I do agree that those sites really ARE desensitizing the kids. The line is drawn in that we, as the parents, must teach our children right from wrong, and to make good choices.

    One other point – I have zero tolerance for zero tolerance policies! They are ALWAYS a bad idea, and they don’t really solve the problem anyway, because they simply provide litigators with a different set of parameters under which to sue.

    Zero tolerance is how a kid with his prescribed asthma medicine is suspended or even expelled from school for “possession”. It’s all about absolving the administrators of THEIR responsibility. “What choice did I have? The policy says automatic expulsion.” That way the paper-pusher can’t be held responsible for making a decision someone didn’t like, or be accused of discrimination for treating two cases differently (regardless of the fact that their circumstances really were different, and thus, deserved to be treated differently).

  • Does anyone remember the “cell phone stalking” case in Washington state, where a family was “terrorized” through their cell phones?

    http://abcnews.go.com/TheLaw/Story?id=3312813&page=1

    Funny how we never find out what happens with some of these stories the media bombards us with – they just vanish.

  • Walter:

    The other side to the other side of the story (little did you know besides labor and employment law, I also mediate special education disputes).

    The Wolfes felt that the article in the Arkansas paper was irresponsible. Also, from a legal perspective, the response raises the question as to how a principal’s handwritten notes about the “victim” ended up in the newspaper, but not the attacker’s records. His “notes” are the exact opposite of Billy’s official record and his individual education plan (IEP) reports. The parents believe that this administrator has helped fuel a culture of hate against Billy. Malice on the principal’s part can certainly be inferred by his actions.

    But see the Wolfe’s letter in response to the article you cite above:

    As parents we hope that your children never have to endure the wrath of the public relations machines of Fayetteville School District and the Northwest Arkansas Times. Under the headline of “Who’s the bully? Police school records raise questions about claims made by Fayetteville High Student,” the Northwest Arkansas Times became a part of the problem instead of the solution. The head line is wrong and the Northwest Arkansas Times had all the information that we are sharing with you before it printed the article.

    With the exception of one, all of the boys interviewed have brutally assaulted our son, or have participated in the Facebook group entitled “Everyone That Hates Billy Wolfe” including Dylan Gray who suffers from muscular dystrophy and is in a wheel chair. Dylan was one of the creators of the Facebook site. All of the boys interviewed have violated the criminal statutes of the State of Arkansas, except for Andrew Holtzen who claims our son threw dirt clods at his house. In this Facebook group they called our son a “b****”, a “homosexual” and reminded everybody how they yelled “F*** you” at him and hit him in the face with a newspaper and the teacher did nothing. Ian Teeters states in the Northwest Arkansas Times’ article that our son is blowing this all out of proportion and “[he] never really planned to hit Wolfe.” The Northwest Arkansas Times presents the attack as if Ian Teeters stepped in the middle of an altercation between our son and another student whose name is Will Starks. That is far from the truth.

    On March 7, 2007, Will Starks posted on Facebook that “everybody’s going to kick his ass” referring to our son. On March 8, 2007, Will Starks stated “ha ha who said I was going to hit him? Ha ha nah I got people who are going to do it 4 me…”

    On March 9, 2008, another Facebook site that encouraged “Everybody Start Carrying Their Cameras to School and Provoking People to get into Fights! We Need Some Pictures!!” the bragging continued. Will Starks stated further:
    “my friend just clocks this little b*** right in his jaw and ends up bustin out 1 or 2 of his teeth and this little hoe just drops to the floor and just passes the F**** out or just starts ballin ___ but it was funny as sh**!!! I’m a little made that I didn’t get a punch in b/c a teacher was right around the corner ……. agh damn I wish I could of.”

    We brought these posts to the attention of Byron Zeagler who did not approach any of these kids. On March 9, 2008 Ian Teeters sucker punched our son knocking him out cold. His whole face was bruised. It was not Ian Teeters stepping in between Will Starks and our son. It was a cold blooded and pre-planned attack. One 14 year old girl related the attack to her mother as follows:
    She said a big boy just turned around and punched Wolfe in the face with his fist so hard it knocked him to the floor. She said that Wolfe had done nothing to this boy whom she did not know. The teachers stuck their heads out of the doors and said “kids cut it out.” They ignored the attack. This angered her and she wanted to say something to the big boy that hit Wolfe, but she was too scared.

    This was not an attack brought on by our son as the Northwest Arkansas Times and the School District would have you believe.

    Lindsey Broadway, the daughter of an FHS coach and teacher, posted in a new Facebook group entitled “Bias.” Lindsey claimed that she spoke with her father and another teacher, and that they spoke negatively about Billy’s academic performance. It does not surprise us that teachers continue to talk negatively and breed this culture of hate as they are just following the administration’s example. There is no way our son can learn in this hostile environment. She further stated “part of me wishes he would get the crap beaten out of him, he is lier [sic] and there is no need for that…he is lying!” Finally, she stated as if it were a fact that “Billy killed Dylan’s cat.”

    Lindsey is just one of the students engaging in an intentional rumor spreading campaign on the internet. A significant number of these posts are being done during school time, supposedly at Fayetteville High School. The posts appear to be a coordinated effort to portray our son as a “cat killer,” that is cruel to animals in general. The only student thus far to post a conflicting opinion was Dylan Gray himself (the owner of the cat that many students claim our son killed) who posted that he only “suspect[ed] that he killed my cat.” Our son did NOT kill Dylan’s cat. Our son is NOT cruel to animals. These rumors are just more savage assaults on our son. The vast majority of the student’s accounts offer nothing more than rumors; things the students have heard from “friends” or sadly, parents and teachers as in Lindsey’s case. We have been very careful to only relay facts, or events that we have witnessed first hand to every media outlet we have spoken with. It’s unfortunate (but predictable) that our son’s attackers, the Northwest Arkansas Times and the School District are not doing the same.

    Perhaps most heartbreaking is the continued bullying by the Fayetteville School District’s Public Relations Department and its Superintendent. On March 24, 2008, the school district issued a press release stating “In fact, the whole story cannot be told, since the Federal Family and Education Right to Privacy Act prohibits the release of any information from a student’s record to anyone other than the student’s parent or guardian,” inferring that if the New York Times writer knew that our son was really a loser, he would not be writing the article. John Brummett of the Morning News confirmed our suspicions in his April 3rd column where he wrote that although Bobby New, Fayetteville’s Superintendent of Schools could not discuss student’s disciplinary records, Mr. New pointed out to Mr. Brummett, with an assumed wink, a letter to the editor in the NWA Times which offered that it was the “shared opinion” that our son “picks fights,” he is “rude to his superiors” and his mother is an “opportunist.” This comes from a man that is supposed to protect our son. Statements like these from the School District are why it is necessary to have a police car at our son’s bus stop. This same attitude is why he has been beaten time and again. The School District is creating a culture of hatred along with the bullies and the Northwest Arkansas to savage our son and our family. By the way, the young man that signed the letter to the editor (we expect that it was written by the school district) in the Northwest Arkansas Times is the same young man that stated in the Northwest Arkansas Times article that our son threw dirt clods at his house.

    The press release goes on to state that the District has no jurisdiction over many of the incidents leaving the impression that the District was somehow absolved of its responsibility. Please note that out of the nine (9) incidents noted by the Northwest Arkansas Times, eight (8) happened on school property or on the way to school. Also, please note that there was no police report available for six (6) out of the nine (9) incidents. The report for the one incident that occurred outside of the jurisdiction of the school was unavailable because the perpetrators were juveniles. The two available police reports were only made because we reported the attacks after the school refused to report.

    It is interesting that although the School District and Superintendent New seem to lament that the federal laws prevent them from releasing student information they somehow found a way to get Byron Zeagler’s private notes about our son into the Northwest Arkansas Times with the purpose of making him look like a trouble maker. First of all, our son does not remember most of these incidents and secondly and most important are his individual education plans (“IEPs”) for the last four years. Our son is a special education student and a committee made up of his principal and his teachers develop a plan for him. This committee is one of Byron Zeagler’s responsibilities. For the last four years the committee stated that Billy needed no behavioral interventions. If Mr. Zeagler thought Billy’s behavior was a problem, it should have been in these documents. Instead of Mr. Zeagler providing the assessment of the controlling legal documents to the police or the press, he made his private notes available. Why? He did not have accountability to the committee for his private notes. The more incriminating question is why these documents were supplied to the police when our son was savagely attacked as noted above. Certainly he got our son’s records confused with Ian Teeters, the attacker. We wonder if Ian Teeters’ records are going to be made available to the Northwest Arkansas Times or does Mr. Zeagler only keep private notes on our son? Our son’s IEP reports showing this information will be made available to anybody that asks. Mr. Zeagler has defamed and terrorized our son. The IEP report goes further and states that Billy is “quiet, cooperative and pleasant, but has recently had dark circles under his eyes and they recommend counseling to help reduce his anxieties.” At the end of his IEP review one of the teachers said the “ bleeding of Billy Wolfe has to stop.” It will stop.

    We will be glad to provide all of our son’s records, Facebook posts and other source documents to back up this letter. These are the same documents that were in large provided to the Northwest Arkansas Times and were ignored. Please email us at [email protected].

    Sincerely,
    Penney and Curt Wolfe

    So make your own judgments from having all the “facts” in front of you, but I think the Wolfes have a legitimate special education/bullying claim here. Here is a law review article I wrote which describes causes of action for especially egregious forms of bullying against special ed kids: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=632303

    Best,

    Paul

  • The Wolfe’s story, transmitted by Secunda, seems more believable and better documented than the Gazette’s. Did you run with this as a “rest of the story” post just because you don’t like the Times? If you want to raise an integrity challenge, you have to demonstrate a little integrity at the same time.

  • I would not venture to endorse RJC’s view of the Wolfe family response as “more believable and better documented” than the NWAT’s reporting. But even if I did — and even had that response been available to me at the time of my post, which it wasn’t — my critique of the NYT’s coverage would stand. The NYT omitted the perspective held by many with firsthand acquaintance with the situation, including students it accused of misconduct toward Wolfe, and yet the NWAT seems to have had no trouble getting many of these same people to talk. Had the NYT appropriately presented the story as two-sided, ambiguous, factually uncertain or complicated, the story would never have made page one or touched off the kind of national furor it did.

    I appreciate the charge that I lack integrity, though. I guess I’ve been found out at last.

  • Are people really buying into these defenses consisting merely of “they had it coming”?

    Every example in that article is some variation of “Wolfe was verbally obnoxious and sometimes verbally abusive so a physical beatdown is acceptable.”

    Same story with the 8 teens beating a girl in Florida. The mother of one of the defendants said the victim made hateful comments on myspace and shouldn’t have been talking if she couldn’t back it up. If this was the best defense my lawyer could come up with, I think I would find a new lawyer. Is any jury actually gullible enough to actually agree with this notion?

  • What is a legal system for if not preventing and providing redress for physical attacks? It can’t just be about commercial contracts (for which at least there may be ways to resolve disputes extra-judicially through arbitration and the like).

    When violence is involved, there is only self-help (escalating the problem) or invocation of a greater, hopefully impartial, sovereign. Running is not always an effective solution.

    Or do we all need to be 6foot-5 and able to protect ourselves?

  • Whether or not one side is more believable than the other, or whether the Northwest Arkansas Times story ignored the Wolfe side, is irrelevant to the New York Times failure to present both sides. The expectations and demands of the New York Times are higher than those of the Northwest Arkansas Times. That’s what comes of being the paper of record.

    The NYT should have present the allegations of both sides, and if they allegations of the bullies could be disproven, presented that as well. To omit one side, even if they disagreed with the position, is irresponsible journalism.

    But the failure of the New York Times similarly does not mean that the “defense of the bullies” in the Northwest Arkansas Times wins the war. The defense was weak and, regardless of the conclusions, the allegations fail to justify the physical harm done to Billy Wolfe. This makes the New York Times omission even more pathetic, since they could have presented a full and accurate story and still have made the exact same point.

  • RJC – You’ve got to be kidding.
    Secunda – I wish you were kidding.

  • The unedited video which was shown at the times of Wolfe’s accusations, clearly showed him being approached and bullied. He did nothing to provoke the attack.
    We have among the highest rates for children’s suicides in the world. This webpage and the Fayetteville, Arkansas School District are perfect examples of why.
    Bullies are the enforcers of the master race. A kid that is different is attacked, bullied and tortured. School administrators enforce/protect the bullies because what Southern White Person wants subhumans going to their school.
    The Vice Principal was obviously charged with attacking this kid and to protect the bullies. Whether motivated by religious persecution, hatred, bigotry subhuman children are taught suicide is the only way out by the vicious people throughout the south and behind this website.
    Remember Matthew Shepard? He was murdered because he was subhuman. They also stole his wallet.