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.