Here is a possible twist in the story of Jalen Cromwell, the Taunton, Mass., second-grader who made national news for drawing Jesus Christ on the cross and getting psychoanalyzed for his efforts: Jalen's father, part-time janitor Chester Johnson, played story-hungry journalists for saps. That's what Attleboro Sun-Chronicle Editor Mike Kirby thinks.
"It was a story too good to be true -- because it wasn't," Kirby opines in a column published Thursday. He continues:
The father of an 8-year-old Taunton boy tells the local newspaper that his son, a special needs student, was suspended and ordered to undergo a psychological evaluation after the boy makes a crude drawing of a crucifix, with X's for eyes. The boy, the father says, had been asked by a teacher to draw something that reminded him of Christmas.
The story, naturally, takes off like wildfire. It seems like another example of the war on Christmas, of political correctness gone mad, of the lack of common sense in our education system, of the left-wing overtaking Americans' Constitutional right to practice their religion.
But the more the father -- who at first hid behind a veil of anonymity -- talks, the sketchier the story sounds. Because it's a story that's just too good to be true.
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The father backs off from the statement about paying for the evaluation. Details change. In one TV interview, he even plays the race card, implying that the school system suspected abuse because the family is African American.
Then the school system finally goes public, releasing a three-page statement to the media.
The boy wasn't suspended.
The teacher never asked for a Christmas drawing.
The family wasn't ordered to pay for the evaluation.
The drawing the father showed the media wasn't even the same drawing the teacher saw in school...
Kirby concludes that even though early reports were one-sided, it would be wrong to "throw the media under the bus for this one." Instead, he places the blame squarely upon the shoulders of the school district specifically and "the right to privacy" generally:
We in the media are quite used to this now. If someone brings to our attention how an individual may be suffering from a public policy or a government decision, officials hide behind a veil of privacy. We can't discuss this, they say, because it would violate the individual's right to privacy.
What you get, then, is no story, or in this case, a one-sided story.
The right to privacy -- which I have yet to find in the First Amendment along with the freedom of religion or freedom of the press -- has trumped so many other rights in America. It's this self-serving right-to-privacy argument that has public safety officials withholding names of those involved in car accidents, particularly if they are minors. It is this mentality that has health officials refusing to release the names of children born in local hospitals.
And this week, it allowed a father to trash his city's school system.
I doubt that would have happened if the Taunton school system had stepped forward sooner and answered the local newspaper reporter's questions. There would have been no firestorm, maybe even no story.
A few points. First, some of the "facts" Kirby enumerates above are still in dispute. Second, if memory serves, most constitutional lawyers locate the right to privacy in the "penumbras and emanations" of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, not the First. (I would add: Don't forget the Ninth!)
I maintain that the story is essentially about, in Kirby's words, "the lack of common sense in our education system." None of the revelations since the story first appeared alter that conclusion -- and, indeed, a few actually serve to buttress and underscore it.
Kirby is certainly correct that that a surfeit of privacy makes good journalism difficult. (For example, although I stand by my argument, I suspect there was more to the Matthew Whalen controversy in Lansingburgh, NY that we never heard about because the school district wouldn't or couldn't talk.)
It's also true that journalists are often willing to sacrifice skepticism and embrace credulity in the service of a tantalizing narrative. I've seen it countless times from reporters who are all too happy to parrot the government's line about some initiative or policy that appeals to their biases.
Kirby might want to check his indignation a bit, however. Clearly, Chester Johnson is no Rhodes Scholar. (And Johnson's "race card" play raised my hackles, too.) Nevertheless, while some heavy-duty skepticism remains warranted, I think this Catholic News Agency story helps shed more light on Jalen's parents' claims:
According to a Dec. 16 letter written to the Taunton School District by John Whitehead, President of the Rutherford Institute, Jalen drew the picture at school during free time after a snack break. “Jalen placed the picture inside his desk but for some reason it was removed and inspected,” Whitehead recounted in his letter.
Jalen was then taken to Principal Rebecca Couet's office and questioned without the presence or notification of his parents. The letter claims that this questioning greatly disturbed Jalen and that only afterward was his father, Chester Johnson, contacted. When Johnson arrived, he was shown the picture and told that his son needed to leave and could not return until he had undergone psychological evaluation.
The next day, Melissa Cromwell, Jalen's mother, went to the school to discuss the matter further and was told by the principal that Jalen needed to be removed due to school policy.
“When Ms. Cromwell asked Principal Couet to point out the policy in the school's handbook, the principal was not able to do so and Ms. Cromwell still has received no satisfactory explanation as to why Jalen's removal was required,” stated Whitehead's letter.
If that is remotely true, then Kirby is dead wrong and there is a story here -- an important one. Whitehead has given the district until Tuesday to answer. We'll see.
Meantime, my friend Julie Ponzi at NoLeftTurns kindly linked to my earlier posts and made a couple of sharp observations of her own. This one in particular is on point:
(H)ave you ever noticed that the most vociferous endorsers of "zero tolerance" when it comes to things perceived as "violent" are often the first to defend (or, at least, look the other way) when students speak to adults and peers with cheek and disrespect, when they engage in sexually explicit talk or activities, and when they otherwise act like the little jerks that the nuns of old would have rapped on the knuckles with a ruler. Of course, discipline (unless, of course, it involves therapy) is also considered "violent" . . . and we can't have that. It's much better to make little Johnny--when he departs from the leftist template--think he's a nut-job or "abnormal" and, while you're at it, make sure all his little friends are made to understand that he is dangerous and "not right."
I might phrase a few things differently, but that's about right. The damage schools have done under the auspices of therapy and in the name of children's "well-being" is simply impossible to calculate.