Some of the most difficult stories to cover are those involving students in high school, or even younger.
For one thing, any story among those lines is logistically difficult to cover, given that school officials — and, often, depending on the students' ages, even police — are bound by privacy rules or state laws not to release the offenders' names. Yet, it becomes essential for newspapers and other media to tell readers what they know.
The most common examples usually come when a school has to suspend one or more players for violations such as underage drinking. But sometimes, there are the cases and stories that literally seem to chart new ground, both in terms of school and law enforcement investigations, as well as in news coverage.
Such is the case that reared its very ugly head in Gloucester, where a number of Gloucester High students, including four student-athletes, were part of a very open and blatantly racist barrage unleashed across North America after Washington Capitals' forward Joel Ward, one of the few black players in the National Hockey League, scored the dramatic Game 7 overtime goal that eliminated the Boston Bruins from any chance of retaining the Stanley Cup.
Within minutes, Twitter.com messages went out around country, targeting the color of Ward's skin. The onslaught of racist rhetoric justifiably sparked an outrage nationwide.
A few hours after that, however, that outrage struck close to home when at least two other posters recognized at least one of the tweeting haters was a Gloucester High athlete. Within a few more hours, it became clear that other Gloucester student-athletes — easily traced through their Twitter "handles" — were also involved.
As the story grew nationally, staff writer Steven Fletcher, Sports Editor Nick Curcuru and I all uncovered more of the racist locally-generated hate — with most comments using the "N" word, others even making references to lynchings and one suggesting that the only thing black on the ice should be the puck. It became clear that we had a local story, especially as to how the school district would handle the incident.
While school officials, including Superintendent Richard Safier, who rightfully took a hard line by the end of the week, wrestled with their investigation and decisions, we faced hard decisions as well — namely, how far to go in repeating the comments and in whether to name those involved.
The first choice was easy. Right from the start, I believed it was critical to not sugarcoat the level of hate that these comments conveyed. On the school level, a prime issue was the fact that student-athletes, especially, represent the school and, to a lesser extent, the community. And ugly as it seemed, school personnel and residents needed to be aware of just what was being said.
From the start, however, we have not actually named the students, but chosen to use only the handles from which the comments came. Yes, two of the kids' Twitter handles seemed to include their full names anyway. But we were frankly not able to confirm the names of all of the students, so aside from their Twitter handles — which are very public, and never moreso than the night of Game 7 — we have not named any.
Yes, in cases of students suspended for drinking, we have named the players when they proved to be suspended. Yet underage drinking is against the law. Spewing racist hatred over the Internet, vile as it seems, is not.
School Committee Chairman Jonathan Pope, noting that the School Committee has been working on a social media policy, suggested that this incident has been, to some degree, a venture into uncharted territory. Frankly, as far as policies go, it's been that way for us as well.
Questions? Comments? Is there a topic you'd like to see addressed in a future column? Contact Times Editor Ray Lamont at 978-283-7000 xa3438, or firstname.lastname@example.org.