Column: Parents should have been notified of ‘school shooting’ incident

“School shooting.”

It’s a phrase that’s unfortunately become all too common today. It’s also a phrase that makes you stop dead in your tracks.

When I heard it in our newsroom last week, I stopped typing, looked up and got out of my chair to see what was going on. What? Where? Who?

A police report had been filed from Riverhead High School documenting an Instagram post from a student “referring to school shooting plans.”

Other than the time it occurred, no other information about the incident was immediately provided. Police had not yet released the report because a juvenile was involved.

Of course, we looked into it further and — as you may have seen in last week’s paper — were ultimately given limited information about the incident, which we reported.

Police did not consider an Instagram photo “referring to school shooting plans” to be a threat — and no criminal charges were filed. The school has an active investigation ongoing and “appropriate disciplinary action” will eventually be brought, the school has since said. It remains unclear if any disciplinary action has or will be taken.

When we first learned about the report, we ran what we had. If an incident were to occur, there is no way we’d want to have sat on such information. Parents deserved to know what limited information was available, we determined.

After we ran the story, many parents with children in the school responded in complete shock and surprise. Caught off guard, several demanded to know why they had not been informed through the school’s ConnectEd emergency response system.

In a follow-up email from Superintendent Nancy Carney, I was told that a student had reported “seeing an inappropriate image on another student’s phone. No students or teachers were mentioned. The situation was addressed immediately in an appropriate manner.”

I have little doubt that “the situation” — actually dealing with the student — was handled appropriately by the school district, and will continue to be. At least, that’s my hope.

There are two ways to look at this incident. From the administration’s point of view, student development, proper discipline and respect for student privacy must all be considered. In fact, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act demands a certain amount of privacy. Why make a big deal about something if there was no crime and no students were identified? Fair enough, I suppose.

But there’s also, of course, the perspective of the parents who entrust the safety of their children to the Riverhead School District. As one parent told me, “When I drop my son off at school, I tell him to learn something, ‘I love you’ and I tell him ‘I love you’ again.”

She, like many, thinks it isn’t right that no information about the incident was released to parents.

Would everything be fine and dandy if the school hadn’t informed parents and we had not reported anything? Did we cause an unnecessary uproar for reporting what police ultimately determined was a harmless Instagram picture? Has social media made a teenager’s stupid mistake into a news story that never should have been?

As a journalist, I mostly believe “more information is better.” Report the facts and let people make their own decisions. If not, the rumor mill is likely to get hold of what (if any) facts are out there anyway and, next thing you know, a vicious game of telephone has turned what might have been a harmless Instagram post into who knows what.

Mark Twain famously said, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” Perhaps the reports about a certain Instagram picture have been greatly exaggerated. Perhaps they haven’t. Nobody really knows since so little has been released about it.

But, understanding that some details would need to be withheld, the school district had the opportunity to report to parents directly and honestly from the start about this incident and failed to do so. For a district that has been criticized before in these editorial pages for its perceived lack of transparency, this incident is yet another reminder that the district’s default reaction is to withhold information from the public instead of speaking openly and frankly with them.

As someone who lives in the school district and is raising a young daughter, I hope that inclination changes long before she gets into grade school.

Pinciaro_Joe.jpgJoseph Pinciaro is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at 631-298-3200, ext. 238.