In May, Ethics Alarms opined on the reported story of a student who set out to embarrass his principal by “web-shaming” her regarding an assumed DUI arrest that was in fact an arrest for something less serious, and her subsequent reaction, which I regarded as excessive based on the published accounts. The principal, Jamille Brown, then endeared herself to this blog by taking the time to post her own account of what occurred, and also by showing grace and good humor in the process. Now she has given us a more thorough account of the incident from her perspective, in the form of a letter she has sent to the TV station that reported the story initially, WSBTV
In response to it, our own Grand Inquisitor, tgt, has carefully critiqued her account, making some perceptive points. Together the two posts exemplify the collaborative nature of our ethical explorations here, and I am grateful for them.
Here are the Comments of the Day, by Jamille Brown and tgt, on the post “Clash of the Ethics Dunces: The Web-shaming Student and the Angry Principal”.
First, Ms. Brown:
“Jack, thank you for allowing me to share the full story. Please see below.”
“Dear Ms. Turnbull (Managing Editor WSBTV):
To put Mr. Jones’ lax reporting in its proper context, I will outline the salient facts seriately.”
“I. Salient Facts and Reckless Reporting Conducted by Tom Jones
“On or about January 11, 2013, Mrs. Miller-Brown was ticketed in Clayton County for speeding. She was given an original court date of February 14, 2013. On February 14th, Mrs. Miller-Brown appeared in court and the matter was rescheduled for March 21, 2013. Mrs. Miller-Brown failed to appear on March 21, 2013 and a bench warrant was issued for her arrest. On or about March 29, 2013, Mrs. Miller-Brown’s license plate was randomly run by Fulton County Police. The bench warrant appeared and she was arrested. She was released shortly thereafter and the charges were dismissed on or about May 2, 2013.
“On or about April 2, 2013, Mrs. Miller-Brown, through her attorney, informed her employer of her arrest for failing to appear on the speeding citation. On or about April 30, 2013, Mrs. Miller-Brown informed her employer, all of the leadership staff, including all department chairs, coordinators and managers of her arrest. Subsequently, students at her school also learned of her arrest. On May 6, 2013, one of Mrs. Miller Brown’s students informed her that she had received an Instagram message from a classmate, Keandre Varner. The student further informed Mrs. Miller-Brown that Mr. Varner had disseminated the identical text message to students in and outside of her school. Mr. Varner’s Instagram message read as follows: “Your school ain’t turnt, unless your principal is turnt. She’s a Stoner. DUI.”
“After reading Mr. Vamer’s post, Mrs. Miller-Brown directed Mr. Varner to her office. Present in her office, in addition to Mr. Varner were Mr. Tommy Ector, athletic director, who also has administrative responsibilities and the School’s Resource Officer, Deputy Edwards. Mr. Varner admitted he posted the Instagram as a result of a dare from another student. Mr. Varner also admitted that he utilized school property to disseminate the Instagram during official school hours. Mrs. Miller-Brown advised Mr. Varner that she was arrested for failing to appear on a speeding violation. She advised him further that she was hurt by the mean spirit of his false Instagram and that he could be sued for defamation of character.
“Both Mr. Ector and Deputy Edwards confirm that Mrs. Miller-Brown never threatened to have Mr. Varner arrested. In addition, both Mr. Ector and Deputy Edwards confirm that Mrs. Miller-Brown never threatened to suspend Mr. Varner for posting her booking photograph.
“Following his admissions, Mrs. Miller-Brown telephoned Mr. Varner’s mother, Ms. Nakesha Thomas. Ms. Thomas was advised of her son’s conduct and improper use of school property during instructional hours. Ms. Thomas was further advised that her son was being suspended for four (4) days based on his improper conduct. Both Mr. Ector and Deputy Edwards, along with Mr. Varner, were present when the telephone call was made to Ms. Thomas.
“On the following day, May 7, 2013, Mrs. Miller-Brown was informed by Ms. Arlecia Battle, secretary to Mrs. Miller-Brown’s supervisor, that Ms. Thomas registered a complaint regarding the length of the suspension. Mrs. Miller-Brown agreed to reduce the out of school suspension to two (2) days with the remaining two (2) days to be served in school. On or about May 8, 2013, Ms. Battle, in a meeting with Mr. Varner and his mother, communicated the modified suspension to both of them. Mr. Varner, in the presence of his mother again admitted to using school property without authorization during instructional time. He also admitted that he stated that Mrs. Miller-Brown was a “Stoner. DUI.” Neither Mr. Varner nor his mother ever alleged or otherwise suggested to Ms. Battle that Mrs. Miller-Brown ever threatened to have Mr. Varner arrested or suspended for posting her photo.
“Mrs. Miller-Brown never met Mr. Varner’s parents. Her only communication was the single telephone conversation with Ms. Thomas on or about May 6, 2013. Mrs. Miller-Brown had no communication at all with any other parent or guardian regarding her arrest or photo. On or about May 8, 2013, Mrs. Miller-Brown met with large and small groups of students throughout the day explaining the facts that led to her arrest. She took full responsibility for her failure to appear in court and her subsequent arrest.
“At approximately 2:30pm, on May 8, 2013, Mrs. Miller-Brown was advised by staff that Mr. Varner was contacting the media regarding his suspension. WSB-TV had a news truck parked across the street from the school. On or about May 9, 2013, WSB-TV with sensational teasers, broadcast Tom Jones’ report. Mr. Jones reported Mr. Varner’s lie that Mrs. Miller-Brown “tried to get an officer to arrest Mr. Varner, but the officer refused, so he was suspended.” Prior to publishing his sensational and false report, Mr. Jones never attempted to contact Deputy Edwards to confirm the accuracy of the accusation. To date, neither Deputy Edwards nor Mr. Ector has been contacted by Tom Jones or anyone else at WSB-TV News.
“Mr. Jones exacerbated the situation further by incorrectly publishing “[o]ther parents told him their children were threatened with suspensions for having the mug shot in their phones.” Mr. Jones did not and cannot identify any parents making such allegations because Mrs. Miller-Brown did not threaten any student for having her photo in their phones.
“More disturbing is the chilling fact that Tom Jones failed to verify any fact or source. He did not even seek to confirm the exact Instagram message Mr. Varner published. This simple act of ethical journalism would have provided him a substantive basis to challenge Mr. Varner’s bogus account. Ethical and professional journalism standards militate that journalists confirm the accuracy of a story by at a minimum, interviewing witnesses with first hand information. Again, Tom Jones never spoke with Deputy Edwards or Mr. Ector to determine what was said by Mrs. Miller-Brown and/ or Mr. Varner. Instead, Tom Jones sought to lower journalism standards by publishing misleading and unsubstantiated accounts with the intended objective of preying on the public’s insatiable appetite for the sensational.
“It was Tom Jones who conveniently failed to investigate to know that it was Mrs. Miller-Brown who unilaterally informed the school system of her arrest. She also informed all of her leadership staff of her arrest and the circumstances of the arrest. Finally, she met with students to inform them of her arrest and used her misfortune as a teachable moment. Tom Jones, however, failed to mention these facts because he was not interested in presenting hard facts. Tom Jones could have easily determined that Mr. Varner was not credible by simply speaking to Ms. Arlecia Battle. Mr. Varner admitted to Ms. Battle that he used school property to disseminate the defamatory remarks that Mrs. Miller-Brown was a “Stoner. DUI.” Ms. Battle could have confirmed that neither Mr. Varner nor his mother contended that Mrs. Miller-Brown threatened to have Mr. Varner arrested or suspended for disseminating her photo.”
Now tgt’s response:
“Lots of good information, but there are at least a couple of obvious issues still:
“1. Threat of arrest: ‘Present in her office, in addition to Mr. Varner were Mr. Tommy Ector, athletic director, who also has administrative responsibilities and the School’s Resource Officer, Deputy Edwards.’
“Why was a police officer present? That itself, is a threat of police action.”
‘She advised him further that she was hurt by the mean spirit of his false Instagram and that he could be sued for defamation of character.’
“That’s a passive aggressive threat of legal action with a police officer present.Further, did you at any point reference this present police officer? Did the officer say anything like “this wasn’t criminal” or “I can let him go this time”? Did you ever ask the officer a question or suggest something to him that he rebuffed? For instance: “What are we going to do about this, Deputy E?” — “I think you’re going to have to punish him.”
“2. Defamation law issues: ‘She advised him further that she was hurt by the mean spirit of his false Instagram and that he could be sued for defamation of character.’
“I am not a lawyer, but this looks very much like a spurious threat. You’re a public official, so you’d have to cross a very high hurdle to prove defamation. That you knew this was done on a dare and the student thought it was true…you’re cooked. Also, you were hurt by the mean spirit of the picture? Saying this before the punishment suggests the punishment was based on your being hurt. Oops”.
“2. Assumption of motives: ‘Tom Jones sought to lower journalism standards… because [Jones] was not interested in presenting hard facts.’
“You don’t have evidence for Jones’ motives. These statements make me doubt your “facts” pretty strongly.”
“3. Random attack on Jones: ‘It was Tom Jones who conveniently failed to investigate to know that it was Mrs. Miller-Brown who unilaterally informed the school system of her arrest.’
“Jones’ story was about the actions against the student, not the arrest. This information is spurious.”
“4. Lack of logic: ‘Ms. Battle could have confirmed that neither Mr. Varner nor his mother contended that Mrs. Miller-Brown threatened to have Mr. Varner arrested or suspended for disseminating her photo.’
“This doesn’t make sense at all. Clearly, they did contend such to the reporter. That they didn’t contend such in front of Ms. Battle doesn’t mean they don’t contend such.”
“5. The still unexplained problem: ‘In addition, both Mr. Ector and Deputy Edwards confirm that Mrs. Miller-Brown never threatened to suspend Mr. Varner for posting her booking photograph.’
‘Following his admissions, Mrs. Miller-Brown telephoned Mr. Varner’s mother, Ms. Nakesha Thomas. Ms. Thomas was advised of her son’s conduct and improper use of school property during instructional hours. Ms. Thomas was further advised that her son was being suspended for four (4) days based on his improper conduct. Both Mr. Ector and Deputy Edwards, along with Mr. Varner, were present when the telephone call was made to Ms. Thomas.’
“So… he wasn’t suspended for posting the booking photo. He was suspended for posting the booking photo using school resources and accidentally misinforming about the principal. Four day suspension for a use of Instagram and a rumor. The first offense is maybe detention worthy. The second? Correction on what occurred; nothing more. If a student had posted an Instagram picture of a teacher next to a whale with the caption: “Saves Whales” (when the teacher was actually whaling) during school instructional time, would that student be suspended for 4 days? No chance.”