- Walter Novak
- Big headlines do not a big plot make.
In so many ways, South High is not Columbine. Its students are 70 percent black and overwhelmingly working class. They hail from neighborhoods a long way from suburbia. A few days before Halloween, they were thrust into the national spotlight, even though there was no shooting rampage in their halls or blood shed in the name of teenage angst.
Yet in Cleveland, the names of five South High students are becoming synonomous with Kip Kinkel, Andrew Golden, Dylan Klebold, and others who have gained entry into the notorious brotherhood of student killers. While it isn't unusual for the media to publicize the names of teenagers accused of serious crimes, the South High case stands out in one regard: Were it not for the surety of Mayor Michael White and Cleveland school officials, nothing obvious would connect the five students accused of a mass murder conspiracy to any criminal activity whatsoever. In Springfield, Oregon; Jonesboro, Arkansas; and Littleton, Colorado, there were bodies. So far in Cleveland, there's just bluster.
The way in which the "massacre" allegedly planned at South High has been handled is at once remarkable and baffling. White announced at a press conference that a number of 14- and 15-year-olds had been caught masterminding the plot. His timing was as surprising as his candor. The announcement was made on the evening of Thursday, October 28, before arrests were made and shortly after a full-scale investigation had been launched.
White said the plot was uncovered when South High administrators received a tip from a parent that a group of students was planning violent acts for Friday, the date of the school's homecoming football game. On Thursday morning, school officials questioned 11 students. Sources say they were made to write essays about what they knew of the plot. Then the school released the students to their parents. White held a press conference that evening. It was not until the next day, however, that White announced the arrests of four students and recited the charges against them.
The mayor's decision to go public Thursday night -- before the students were arrested -- bucks all the rules of prosecutorial procedure. "The charges to be filed are not the mayor's decision," explains John Zachariah, juvenile court administrator. "It is a prosecutorial decision."
In some respects, the media's knee-jerk response mirrored White's. In addition to printing their names, The Plain Dealer published two photographs of the babyfaced accused on the front page. The paper relied heavily on an anonymous source alleging that the students were planning a "mass slaughter." The television stations followed its lead.
Media ethicist Dick Schwarzlose says The Plain Dealer's decision to publish the students' names parallels the prejudicial publicity that tainted the Sam Sheppard case a half-century ago. He believes the paper may have jeopardized the young defendants' rights to a fair trial, like The Press did Sheppard's.
"[Naming the students] is much less acceptable there in Cleveland than it might have been in Jonesboro, where kids were killed," says Schwarzlose, a professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. "There was no criminal action on the part of the kids who are defendants -- at least it's not clear that there has been -- and there surely have not been any confessions."
Most of the national media who covered the incident, including The New York Times, did not publish the students' names. Plain Dealer Editor Douglas Clifton says his newspaper chose to do so because of the seriousness of the charges.
"I believe people in the general public can deal better with that kind of information if they know the specifics, mainly the names," he says. "There may have been people in the community who, once knowing the names, could have come forward and said, "Hmm, I happen to know that kid was buying guns.' Or on the other hand, they could have said, "I happen to know that kid is an altar boy and is stone-cold innocent, and couldn't have been involved in this thing.'"
However, some of what the newspaper reported and attributed to a "source close to the investigation" has already turned out to be false or questionable -- a characteristic of City Hall-initiated leaks (remember charges of racism in the police department at the time of the impending KKK rally?). For instance, the students did not arrive at school that Thursday "dressed in black," White said at his Friday press conference. Nor has it been made clear how the students could have been plotting a "mass slaughter" when a search of the school turned up no weapons and only one student so far has been reportedly charged with possessing a gun.
It's dangerous to publicize serious charges against juveniles before evidence exists to back them up, according to Raymond Vasvari, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio. "If we've learned anything from Columbine, it's that demonizing students or singling them out for harm or criticism is stoking the fires of racial or ethnic strife, and it doesn't get us anything but more school violence," he says.
Ironically, publicity stemming from the mayor's actions possibly thwarting one act of violence instigated other threats around the school district. White did not grant an interview for this story, but he has already noted that several copycat incidents, including bomb threats, followed his Thursday press conference. White's acknowledgement that the plot may have included a racial element, coupled with the fact that all 11 implicated teens are white, revved up racial tensions at South High and in the surrounding neighborhoods. Timothy and Tabatha Braddock, who were suspended but not criminally charged, said they have been harassed by other teenagers who called them "KKK."
Exactly who first identified the accused students remains unclear. Both the school district and the juvenile court deny releasing their names to the media. White has insisted that he would not reveal further information about the case because of the suspects' ages and the ongoing investigation. But at least one attorney (Larry Zukerman, representing one of the accused students) feels sure White facilitated the leak.
While there seems to be overwhelming support for the safety precautions taken by the mayor, including closing South High on homecoming day, his decision to publicize the situation has been criticized by people close to the case.
"I think a lot of it was frankly staged to get political mileage out of it," says Dan Shields, an attorney representing the Braddocks. "[White's] riding the backs of a bunch of poor kids who are 14 and 15 years old, and he has left a tremendous amount of damage in his wake."
That perception notwithstanding, the publicity White has received from the South High incident has been overwhelmingly favorable. The school district's response is now being touted as a national model for halting school violence. But absent hard facts, there's only one rampage at South High that can be affirmatively linked to Columbine -- the one instigated by White and perpetrated by the media.
Jacqueline Marino can be reached at email@example.com.