Week after week, members of the GetReligion team receive emails pointing us to stories that readers want us to read and consider critiquing. These emails are essential to what we do. Please keep sending them.
Once or twice a week, people send URLs and, once I glance at the stories in question, it's pretty obvious that these readers are upset about the events covered in the story -- period. In other words, they are mad about something that happened or is happening, as opposed to being concerned about a religion-beat journalism issue.
Emails of this kind come from liberal as well as conservative readers. Often, it's easy to tell when a correspondent is involved, in some way, in the events being covered, even if that means they are just onlookers in the community in which an institution is located. However, it is common to hear from angry former members of a particular congregation or religious group.
Let me stress: I still take these emails very seriously and look at these stories. Often, the conflicts described in these stories are truly heartbreaking.
That is certainly the case with a story in The Tennessean that ran with this headline: "Lawsuit: Brentwood Academy officials refused to report repeated rapes of 12-year-old boy." Tennessee readers will know that this is a school that is famous for a lot of reasons, including athletics.
At the top of the article there is this: "NOTE TO READERS: This story contains graphic descriptions that may be disturbing to some readers." That's an understatement.
Now, if you know anything about news coverage of lawsuits involving schools -- especially private schools -- you know that in the early going school officials can say next to nothing about cases linked to student discipline because of privacy laws. Thus, early news reports are dominated by charges made in the lawsuit. One of the only questions one can raise about this early Tennessean report is whether it made that fact clear to readers. Here is the overture:
A prestigious Williamson County private school is accused of allowing teenage boys to repeatedly sexually assault a 12-year-old boy, then downplaying the attacks and refusing to report them to authorities, according to a lawsuit seeking at least $30 million.
The lawsuit, filed Friday in Williamson County Circuit Court by a Nashville parent and her son, accuses four eighth-grade students at Brentwood Academy of repeatedly raping and sexually assaulting the sixth-grade student during the 2014-15 academic year.
Brentwood Academy Headmaster Curtis G. Masters is accused of telling the 12-year-old boy to "turn the other cheek" and "everything in God's kingdom happens for a reason."
Next up is the story's key paragraph. Is it just me or is this crucial information presented in a rather confusing manner? Is the key issue whether school LEADERS declined to contact authorities or whether the COUNSELOR failed to do so?
When school administrators were approached by the boy's mother about the attacks, the lawsuit states that the boy's private counselor, a former Brentwood Academy employee, shied away from reporting the abuse to authorities, saying "this isn't how Christian institutions handle these things."
I understand that the implication, with the reference to the counselor being a former school employee, is that the counselor was somehow legally linked to the school. That is almost certainly going to be debated in the trial or discussions of a settlement.
What can school leaders say at this point? Legally, not much. The Tennessean report adds:
Masters responded to a request for comment with an emailed statement that said:
"Our highest priority is the safety and protection of our students. We take any allegation involving our students very seriously. We responded immediately and fully cooperated with authorities when we became aware of concerns in 2015. We are obligated to maintain confidentiality in any legal matter. Out of respect for all parties involved, and based on the advice of our legal counsel, we are unable to discuss details at this time."
Note that the statement said school leaders "cooperated" with authorities -- as opposed to "contacted" authorities -- when they "became aware" of these allegations.
The only other detail in the report I would note is this:
After John Doe's mother, listed as Jane Doe in the suit, learned of the assaults, she approached counselor Chris Roberts, an employee of Christian counseling ministry Daystar Counseling. Roberts is accused of not reporting the assault accusations to authorities, later telling Jane Doe reporting is not how "Christian institutions handle these things." Roberts is a former Brentwood Academy employee, the lawsuit says.
Jane Doe took her son to a pediatrician, who stated "if Daystar Counseling failed to contact Department of Children Services immediately then he would do so," the lawsuit states.
Tennessee law requires counselors and school officials report suspected child abuse or neglect.
My questions, thinking like a reporter: Is Daystar legally connected to Brentwood or to a local religious congregation? Why isn't Daystar being sued, in addition to, or instead of, Brentwood?
My next question, thinking like a religion-beat reporter (and as someone with lots of experience in Christian private education), is this: Just how "Christian" is this "Christian school" in terms of its admissions policies and doctrinal covenants? What is the atmosphere like on this campus?
The Tennessean report offers little or no information on this. Well, in this story it's probably relevant that the school's motto (and the name of its endowment society) is "Vivat Veritas (Let Truth Prevail)." The headline on the school's website "About" page states: "Intellectual Growth Begins With Knowing Truth."
Does this matter?
I would argue that this issue is a valid part of the story. You see, there are plenty of religious schools in the Bible Belt, and elsewhere, that are so excellent at what they do (academics, sports, etc.) that some people want to send their children there because of motivations that have little or nothing to do with a family's faith commitments. It's interesting that the school's admissions FAQ tells parents:
Brentwood Academy is not affiliated with any church or religious denomination, and prospective families do not have to sign a statement of faith prior to enrollment. The school’s mission, however, is to nurture and challenge the whole person -- body, mind, and spirit -- to the glory of God.
Now, here in the athletics-mad South, cynics would read that and think: "There is no need to bring us a testimonial letter from your family's pastor if you are a 7th grader who can throw a football 50 yards or dunk a basketball. We may even have some scholarship money for you, care of a chunk of Vivat Veritas endowments."
The story notes that the alleged attacks began with an incident at an "after-school football game party" and subsequent attacks were said to have taken place in school locker rooms.
Thus, my question: Part of the shock factor in this story is that these alleged events took place at such an elite, Christian school. As this story unfolds, it will be crucial for reporters to probe exactly what kind of school this is, in terms of its policies and faith commitments. How consistent are policies enforced? Are there special breaks for athletes?
In conclusion, let me stress again: At this point, because of privacy laws, these private-school officials can say little or nothing. This is the he-said and that's that stage of the story. No one on the other side can talk.
However, Masters said that his school cooperated with authorities "when we became aware of concerns." Thus, reporters face that classic journalism question (think Penn State scandal): What did school leaders know and when did they know it?
Stay tuned and, readers in Nashville, keep me posted on further developments.