TV report misses the real picture at CASH

WPVI went sensationalist, but the facts are more complicated

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times

UTMikeColLogo copyThe video on Channel 6 last night was, if nothing else, attention grabbing, detailing fights at Coatesville Area High School’s 9/10 Center.

Was it good journalism? Well, that probably is a matter of debate. The breathless story led Wednesday night’s WPVI newscast at 6 p.m. and showed a series of smart phone videos of fights at the 9/10 center.

It is a story we’ve been working on for some time, similar issues have been reported at Scott Middle School, not to mention more troubling incidents we’ve heard about at other district schools — but context is clearly part of the problem here. Were those fights from a single day? A week? A month? We don’t know from the TV report. The claims that teachers fear being fired for reporting fights is not credible — as unionized teachers, termination is a long, difficult process and its pretty clear union leadership would stand up for any teacher threatened in such a way and do so publicly.

Nuance, facts and details are often lost on TV talking heads who parachute into a story, lack context and run for the shock value, rather than seek to tell the truth, even if it is complicated and even a little boring. As one student put it, talking to us today, the TV report was unfair, saying that he didn’t see fights in the building and the report left him frustrated and angry at the way his school was portrayed on TV. We didn’t see that side of the story on TV.

That having been said, the response from the Coatesville Area School District, initially to the report and now today is, to be polite, wanting.

An excerpt from the statement sent out to the community today by Superintendent Dr. Cathy Taschner:

“The report was filed in response to videos that were not recent, and to a story that we have addressed numerous times with various newspapers, at School Board meetings, community forums, and in notes,” Taschner wrote. “Contrary to what was reported fights are not daily realities in our buildings. I was saddened that the responses provided to the media were not all shared in the story.

“I want to assure you that our police officers, security guards, administrators are indeed instructed to break up fights, and an employee would never be reprimanded, fired, or have their job impacted in any way if they report a concern about fighting or anything else, for that matter. Similarly, our teachers and staff are supported when they elect to step in to quell a disturbance.

Immediately after this went out, local social media flared Thursday with claims of multiple fights and a lockdown of a district school. District sources initially confirmed to us that at least three incidents had occurred at the 9/10 center Thursday, but no lockdown — and that it appeared a number of parents were at the school to take their children out, concerned about their safety, possibly prompted by the social media storm. The district later said two incidents — and only one a physical altercation — took place this morning.

But is that a factor of the TV report inspiring bad behavior and panic or is it business as usual in the building?

Let us suggest a few facts: teenagers often act like idiots. They get into stupid tussles, fights and disputes, some of which are caught by school officials and some of which are not. This has been the truth for quite a while — but we now see it because virtually every student roaming the halls has a smartphone.

But another fact: CASD is really terrible about dealing with the media (and by extension, the community) — needing multiple calls from WPVI to respond to things is sadly par for the course in our dealings with Taschner and the rest of the district, not to mention the Board of Education’s ongoing refusal to speak to the media.

Is Coatesville alone in that regard? No. Downingtown Area School District is even harder to work with — even on positive stories. However, most of the other school districts in the county are happy to work with us — happy to talk about their schools and students, so the behavior of both districts often leave us puzzled and frustrated.

That lack of public accountability has contributed to an atmosphere of public distrust in Coatesville — so even when district administrators are right or have a point, folks in the community don’t trust or believe them. And as quickly as CASD folks like to point the finger at the media, the blame falls squarely on them — we’ve bent over backwards, been careful and judicious (to the extent of being attacked at times for allegedly protecting the administration) to make sure what we print is fair and accurate.

We’re not in it for a quick buck — we’re not owned by a hedge fund or operated to make quarterly profit numbers. We live here and pay taxes here — our News Editor, Lauren Parker-Gill lives in the district and sends her children to school there, and my wife and I own a commercial property in the district and pay taxes.

So, let’s take it as a given that some level of chaos exists in any high school and district officials stink at communicating what’s really going on — the question becomes “how much” and “how is it being handled?”

Again, a bit of context and perspective is in order. Back in the old days of former Superintendent Richard Como, the theory was “when in doubt, toss ‘em out.” Coatesville expelled a lot of students — typically more than the rest of the county combined. Instead of focusing on keeping kids in school to get with the program, graduate and become useful members of society, they were tossed out the door to become high-round draft picks for local drug operations, which did nothing to help the local crime rate.

Taschner clearly has a different take on the matter — that keeping kids in school is probably better. The question many are asking is whether keeping the kids in school is about producing better citizens or making for better stats and optics for the school district.

We’ve been told a number of troubling tales — some of which we’re in the process of verifying — others of which seem to have little or no basis beyond rumor. When we asked Fonz Newsuan, who leads The Movement — the group that has been vocally critical of Taschner, to cite sources for his many accusations his response was to send us a smiley face emoticon, something not likely to instill our confidence in him as a source. We are also aware of efforts, being pushed by former district administrators to undermine and oust Taschner, as they felt they should have gotten the job when Como was ousted.

Allegations such as these must be carefully and thoroughly vetted and investigated. Being first with a story is never our policy if it means being wrong or sloppy.

That’s not to say that there aren’t reasons for concern. We’ve been told of a couple of alleged incidents in recent months, if the accounts are true, that represent issues worse than a lack of discipline in the schools, but rather obstruction of justice and neglect if not outright child abuse. We continue to work through various sources, including local law enforcement, to see if the allegations have merit.

As is often the case, the truth is a lot more complicated than two minutes of breathless video, a Facebook post or a tweet. We continue to work to find it and welcome anyone who wishes to come forward tell us — and better yet — show documentation for the issues so many seem to feel are real.

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One Comment

  1. Mark says:

    Everything eventually works its way back to parenting (or lack thereof).

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