We spend so much time teaching our children not to bully one another and not to gossip, but all too often adults don’t practice what they preach, especially given the often toxic and viral nature of social media.
Given the series of events last week regarding a disputed story involving the Somers girls and Yorktown boys lacrosse players, it seems that Somers school administrators were bullied into making premature statements.
Many people are so quick to judge—and to judge publicly—without any deference to due process and the concept of “innocent until proven guilty,” which are the hallmarks of our justice system.
The impetus was an anonymous letter claiming that the Somers girls lacrosse players had been using the Yorktown boys locker room and were in various states of being undressed when members of the boys team deliberately came in and began taunting them, with one or more boys suggesting that the boys get undressed as well.
While this letter went viral on social media, our editor began receiving letters demanding that we publish this story.
If true, surely the alleged victims deserved to have their story told. However, the only problem with this entire story was that it was he said/she said, and we don’t publish stories based on anonymous accusations. The only exception to this rule would be if the person revealed their identity to us, was credible, and their motive for remaining hidden was fear of retaliation.
The only other exception would be if school officials began publicly talking about the matter, which is what happened last week when Somers administrators released a statement siding with the Somers girls lacrosse players. At that point, we had an obligation to publish something.
On Tuesday of last week, Somers Superintendent Dr. Raymond Blanch issued a statement saying that members of the Yorktown team engaged in harassing and intimidating behavior. But by Thursday, Blanch walked back his initial statement, saying he did not intend to implicate the entire Yorktown team, that the boys team entered the locker room unaware that the girls were in there, and that there was no evidence of sexual harassment.
When I spoke with a couple of Somers parents who were totally unaware of the alleged incident and were never notified by the anonymous writers before the letter went viral, they told me that their daughters didn’t know what the hubbub was all about, and their daughters didn’t witness the worst actions described in the anonymous letter even though they were present in the locker room. The parents also said their daughters had, in fact, witnessed typical banter expected of any opposing team and were not at all intimidated by it.
In addition, my sources describe a heated exchange this past Monday afternoon at a meeting with the Somers parents.
“Everything is he said, she said,” one of my sources said, describing the meeting. “I cannot confirm any version of events and neither can anyone else.”
So, what explains the anonymous letter in light of the Somers administration walking back their statement and in light of the mitigating statements made by my own sources?
There is a saying that there are three sides to every story: his side, her side and the truth. With this story, I think the truth is that with a couple dozen girls in the locker room, there were a couple dozen different perceptions of events. That’s human nature. Clearly, a few girls felt very uncomfortable by what happened, regardless of the boys’ intentions, and other girls may have perceived things differently, and even positively, according to a source.
The anonymous letter writer and a couple of other parents were understandably protective of their daughters and they sent out a letter claiming to represent everyone. As a father of a girl myself, I could understand if several other parents jumped on the bandwagon out of concern for their daughters.
The social media mob shared the anonymous letter and accepted it as fact. Had the letter remained something directed toward administrators, we might have gotten a thorough—and private—investigation. But the viral nature of the letter on social media put pressure on the school district to make a statement too quickly.
In one of the letters sent out to parents, the person wrote, “We owe it to our girls,” and I’m sympathetic to that statement. But part of protecting our girls is preventing a frenzy. We also owe it to our boys to not convict them in the media and to not assume they are sexual predators. Just as there were different perceptions among the girls, the boys certainly perceived things through their own individual lenses. In reality, the solution is not to place a scarlet letter on the boys, but to ensure this type of encounter never happens again.
In the movie “Doubt,” a priest described gossip as tearing a hole in a pillow, letting the feathers out, and then attempting to gather all of them back. An impossible task.
The victims of this viral story surely are the majority of the boys who didn’t engage with the girls in the way described in the letter as well as the girls who don’t feel represented by the anonymous accusations or are embarrassed by the media attention. The horse is out of the barn, but hopefully this column will help clean up some of the mess.