Friday, November 04, 2022

In rural Arkansas, parents angry over sexual abuse and a cover-up knew where to turn: their local weekly newspaper

L-R: Al Cross, director, Institute for Rural Journalism; Ben Gish, The Mountain Eagle, Whitesburg, Ky.; Publisher Ellen Kreth and General Manager Shannon Hahn, Madison County Record, with institute's Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism. (Photo: Yung Soo Kim, University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media)

When older boys on a junior-high basketball team put younger players through an initiation ritual that included sexual abuse, and school officials tried to cover it up, angry parents knew where to go: their local weekly newspaper, the Madison County Record of Huntsville, Ark. The paper's pursuit of the story won it the Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues (publisher of The Rural Blog), which was presented last night in Lexington, Ky.

“This story wouldn’t let us go, and we weren’t about to let it go, either,” Publisher Ellen Kreth said as she and General Manager Shannon Hahn accepted the award.

Kreth said of school officials, “Their first order of business was to cover it up . . . The parents’ first order of business . . . was to contact the Madison County Record. They trusted the newspaper; they knew they could trust us to tell the story. Most importantly, they also knew they could trust Shannon. She lives in the community and has children in the school, and they knew they could come to her.”

The paper didn’t name any students involved, but focused on how officials handled the allegations, reducing or rejecting the recommended punishment for the violators. It reported the district’s failure to immediately report the allegations, as required by law, and multiple open-meetings violations of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act. Its reporting prompted an investigation; special open-meetings training for the school board, which didn’t do it in the time required; a lawsuit by a parent alleging violations of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which ban sex-based discrimination in any school that gets federal funding; the board’s admission of liability in that suit; the electoral defeat in May of three of the four board members who sought re-election; the charging of the superintendent and coach with first-degree failure to report; and their resignations.

“They never attacked the facts that we reported, because they knew that they were true, but . . . they attacked our role in the community,” Kreth said. “They said we shouldn’t report the allegations, that we were harming the victims, and that we should also be quiet about it. During multiple school-board meetings, the board members attacked the paper, saying our job was to promote the school, not report on it. We were to be their public-relations department. And that’s the one area I think about this whole story in the context of rural journalism that screams the loudest to me. The most common comment, but also the most surprising, was “I can’t believe a local newspaper would cover something like that.”

Noting the Institute’s maxim that “Rural people deserve good journalism as much as urban dwellers,” Kreth said, “We always believed our role in this story and in our community is telling the facts, telling the story, digging in deep and piecing the facts together. This story was built on trust” among the paper and the parents of the victims. “It was built on filing FOIA request after FOIA request and then literally pasting text messages . . . that were exchanged between school board members. They sent them all out of order, so we spent 12 hours cutting and pasting them so we could build our timeline.”

And through it all, the paper's staff remained part of the community: “We shook hands with everyone who would throw darts at us,” Kreth said. “In the same editions where we ran those Title 9 stories, we still had school lunch menus, church news, obituaries, library news, city council coverage; we told people where to get their Covid vaccines, and we also reported on Decoration Day at local cemeteries. That’s what rural journalism is to us: the good, the bad, the ugly and every single thing in between.”

Board members who sought re-election “were soundly defeated at the polls,” Kreth said. “Sometimes democracy works to support journalism, right?” That line won applause from the crowd of 160, which also saw Chris and Allison Evans of The Crittenden Press in Marion, Ky., get the Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by Kentuckians.

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