Practice what we prize

3 Comments

By Cheryl Hatch/Copyright 2016

 

“Silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

 

When student journalists put the final fall issue of the college newspaper to bed last December, I breathed a sigh of relief. Incredibly, we’d made it through the semester without any threats. Challenges, yes. Threats, no.

 

They published their last issue for this academic year on Friday, April 29, 2016. We celebrated another award-winning year—and a full year unmarred by threats.

I’m the adviser for the student newspaper. I am also a career journalist who’s covered conflict in the Middle East and Africa. I came to the college in 2012 after completing assignments in Afghanistan.

 

In a decade of covering conflict, I’ve dealt with threats. I never expected to encounter threats on a small college campus.

 

In my first year as adviser, a student journalist wrote an article about a sex education workshop that generated some controversy—and threats, many from fellow students. Some of the threats were anonymous, through social media; others through the grapevine. Some threats implied bodily harm. The student’s mother said she was coming to remove her daughter from campus out of fear for her safety.

 

I spoke with the student’s mother, the counseling center and campus security. The dean of students joined the conversation. The student did not return to her dorm room that weekend. She stayed in a secure location with friends.

 

Another story reported the arrests of two students on multiple drug charges. After this story published, a group of students stormed the newsroom, shouting and throwing things. One of the frightened student journalists had 9-1-1 keyed on her cell phone. When another student journalist was walking across campus with a stack of newspapers for delivery, a passing student asked if she worked for the paper. She said yes, and the student spit on her.

 

After a story last year, a student was singled out in her class, bullied and intimidated solely for her participation on the newspaper. Despite the stress she felt in class, she didn’t file a complaint. She feared reprisal and further harassment. She feared her grade might suffer. I checked in with her in person or by text after nearly every class.

 

In the spring of 2015, a student objected to an opinion piece about snow removal. He wrote a lengthy, angry, threatening email to the student writer then later to the editors. He demanded the opinion piece be removed and he wanted an apology, though he was not the subject of the piece.

 

The student journalists offered the appropriate recourse for the aggrieved student. They told him that he could write a letter to the editor or his own guest column. He didn’t. He continued to intimidate the staff, primarily through email until one night he came into the newsroom uninvited and hovered over an editor.

 

I spoke with the counseling center multiple times and campus security. I discussed the situation with the student editors and they decided they would try to work through it before they asked the counseling center and administrators to intervene.

Next, I was called into a meeting and learned the angry student had filed a complaint against me. He was threatening legal action.

 

I explained the emails, the escalating, out-of-proportion behavior and the course of action I’d taken. I expressed my genuine concern for the safety and wellbeing of the student journalists and myself. The administrators blamed me for not meeting with the student. I said that I would not meet with a student who had threatened other students.

The student journalists handed over all the emails and explained their concerns. We were sure that would be the end of it.

 

I was called into another meeting and asked to sign a no-contact order, indicating that I would have no contact with the student. I didn’t understand. What is it? And why would I sign a no-contact order for a student with whom I’ve had no contact? Will he sign an order to have no contact with the student journalists and me? I declined to sign a no-contact order.

 

In the last meeting, the administrators told me the student had said I was harassing and following him, making him uncomfortable. I said that’s simply impossible since I didn’t know him. Noting details revealed in the conversation, I realized that the student knew my schedule and routine and he was following and observing me.

 

The administrators said they found him credible. I found a lawyer.

 

I followed my attorney’s advice. I wrote an “in-case-anything-should-happen-to-me” letter, tucked it in a drawer and informed a trusted friend of its content and my situation. She encouraged me to trust my intuition.

 

I stopped returning to my office at night. I changed my schedule and routine. We changed the open-door policy at the newsroom. The door now remains shut and locked when students are working.

 

On the advice of my attorney, I did not attend our college’s bicentennial graduation last May. I didn’t see students I’d come to respect and cherish, including several members of the newspaper staff, celebrate their accomplishments. I didn’t get to meet their families and pose for photographs. I left town.

 

After the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon last fall, my friend texted me: I couldn’t help but think of you spring semester.

 

Our college has a statement of community that offers students and employees “an inclusive, respectful and safe residential learning community that will actively confront and challenge racism, sexism, heterosexism, religious bigotry, and other forms of harassment and discrimination.”

 

I have not experienced this community.

It’s said that if students are going to be journalists, they should get used to criticism and learn to weather the tough spots. That’s true. A career in journalism will require a thick skin. As the late, iconic White House reporter Helen Thomas said: “We don’t go into journalism to be popular. It is our job to seek the truth and put constant pressure on our leaders until we get answers.”

 

It’s one thing for someone to object to a story in the college newspaper; it’s another to cross the line into bullying and threats. I want people to remember that the student journalists are first and foremost students. They are entitled to the rights and protections in their learning environment as outlined in the statement of community.

 

I understand this abusive intolerance is not unique to our campus. It’s become part of our political polemics. It’s voiced nationally and globally. We need to address the problem.

College is a place to learn to think critically and speak freely. Our college offers an annual prize of Civility in Public Life. Practicing civility on our campus would be a good start.

Let’s create a class that teaches students how to read the news and respond respectfully. Let’s learn to offer criticism without condemnation. Let’s teach students how to disagree without hurling toxic language, accusations and threats.

 

I’ve been warned that speaking up about these incidents could have repercussions. I also know I am a journalist and an educator. I teach in a newsroom and a classroom. I teach by example.

 

I will no longer be silent.

 

And I will attend graduation this year.

 

Note: This column was first published on The Huffington Post on May 5, 2016.

Advertisements

Ground Rules

2 Comments

A few days before Christmas, the American military announced that the Army had charged eight fellow soldiers in the death of  Pvt. Daniel Chen, 19. (New York Times, 12/22/11)  Eight Stryker soldiers from the 1st Brigade 25th Infantry Regiment face multiple charges, including dereliction of duty and manslaughter. The Army called his Oct. 3, 2011 death “an apparent suicide by gunshot.”

News reports quoting the Chen family focus on alleged incidents of bullying and hazing by his fellow soldiers in the 3rd Battalion 21st Infantry Regiment at their outpost in southern Afghanistan prior to his death.

Before the story broke, Maj. David Mattox, the public affairs officer, had already fired a shot across our bow, telling us that Col. Wood was concerned this incident would draw our focus away from the positive things the soldiers were accomplishing. For a number of reasons, I was not in a position to report on the Chen story; however, I was not going to ignore it or sidestep it either.

When the story broke, I had just filed our first story to the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on Zeke, the therapy dog. I mentioned it would be a good partner story to the breaking news of the Chen story. Rod Boyce, the editor, wrote back and asked for soldiers’ reactions to the news of the charges.

This put me in a place I’ve never been before. I wondered—if I ask soldiers about the charges/story, will I be breaking the ground rules of the embed documents I signed? Would I jeopardize our embed? Surely the Army could find a way to boot us.

JR and I had each invested roughly $5,000 each to travel to Afghanistan and document the 1/25 Stryker Brigade Combat Team soldiers. Did we want to risk the time and money (and our entire reporting project) that we’d already invested to get a few quotes for the local paper?

I pulled out the five pages of ground rules I’d signed. I didn’t read anything that indicated I would violate them if I asked for soldiers’ reactions. Next I sent an email to Maj. Mattox and asked for his response. When I didn’t hear from him, I called.

“We can’t talk about it in order to maintain the integrity of the Uniform Code of Military Justice process. It’s still under investigation,” he said. 

He told me that talking to the soldiers wasn’t a violation of the ground rules—but the soldiers know they’re not supposed to talk about it.

At 0530 the next day, two soldiers came into the MWR mud hut and made phone calls.

“Did you see the news? About the Stryker soldiers?” one asked.

“I knew those guys,” another guy said.

 I immediately realized I was listening. I had many choices.

Some journalists would listen and take notes. Some journalists would wait and talk to the soldiers after the call and ask questions. Some might track the soldiers down later.

I thought about it. I realized that these soldiers were in their Morale Welfare Recreation center. Even though they were talking out loud in a common space, they had an expectation of privacy in a place where they come to spend time connecting with family and friends. It’s a very public yet intimate space.

I’ll admit I was conflicted. I wanted to hear what the soldiers had to say—and I also realized I wouldn’t want someone listening to my private conversation.

Upon considerable reflection, I decided I would inquire about combat stress and hazing/bullying. I wrote Maj. Renee Reagan with the Combat Stress Team. (I’d spoken with her for the therapy dog story.) I asked about how her team addresses such incidents and what efforts the Army makes to prevent these types of incidents. By email, she declined to comment, citing as Maj. Mattox did, the ongoing investigation.

I then went to Lt. Col. Brian Payne, commander, 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment and asked him to comment on how such an incident affects the leaders and what types of training or actions they would take to prevent future incidents. NOTE: Lt. Col. Payne is not the commander of the battalion in which Pvt. Chen was serving.

“I’m not familiar with all the facts so I don’t want to speak on that piece but I can tell you that …any leader is going to be broken-hearted if something like that happens,” Payne said. “I know Lt. Col. Miller and I know a lot of guys that were there and at no point in time would they ever have wanted something like that to happen or dreamed something like that would happen.

“The Army works very, very hard to prevent those types of things, both prior to and then also dealing with it immediately.”

He said they dig into it the details to determine all the contributing things that took place and how to prevent another incident from happening in the future.

I offered the News-Miner the quotes from Maj. Mattox and Lt. Col. Payne. I did not question the soldiers I heard talking in the MWR.

I’m sure there are plenty of journalists who will disagree with my decision. In the end, I did what I thought was right. I had considered the possibility of losing our embed position…and I was surprised that I had been afraid of that possible consequence, though ultimately that possibility had no bearing on my decision.

I decided I would not violate the sanctity of that dark, cold mud hut where soldiers speak their own fears and feelings into the night air, surrounded by fellow soldiers.

As a human being and as a journalist, I made the right call.