Your right to know, imperiled

A potential tragedy in our public high school reveals an ongoing tragedy of public information suppression. For the good of our county, it’s time for more transparency.

“They’re just trying to sell papers.”

That was the response of Rappahannock County Sheriff Connie Compton to concerned parents last Wednesday at Rappahannock County High School when asked about this newspaper’s coverage of her department’s “ongoing” investigation that so far has led to the arrest of one student for threatening to “make Columbine look like a joke.”

We will begin by pointing out that the purpose of all reputable newspapers is to inform the public. Period.

Secondly, something is terribly wrong with this county’s obligation of providing information to the public through the media when the local newspaper editor learns of a potentially deadly threat to 400 Rappahannock high school students and teachers while attending a beer festival in Sperryville over Easter weekend.

The source of this information was angry and shaken because very few at the high school, short of the school’s administrators, were advised of the threat, even as classes were set to resume less than 72 hours later — Tuesday, April 18 — following spring break.

Not until that same Tuesday, after inquiries by the Rappahannock News to both the school system and sheriff’s office, did Compton issue a five-sentence statement confirming that “one juvenile suspect has been arrested and charged with conspiracy to possess a firearm on the property of the High School.” Otherwise, the statement said “there is no heightened security threat” and both the sheriff’s office and school system would “ensure all students and staff remain safe.”

But the parents and teachers who contacted the newspaper weren’t so sure. They knew of additional information, discussed even in school classrooms, that more than one student was involved in the incident. Once again, neither the school system or sheriff’s office had any comment except that the investigation was “ongoing.”

It was shortly thereafter that the Rappahannock News obtained a court affidavit and search warrant which spelled out in detail the numerous alleged threats against the school by not one but two students — a 17-year-old and a 16-year-old, the latter identified in the court documents as a “coconspirator.”

Both students, the affidavit revealed, were depicted in a photograph “dressed all in black clothing, black hats and wearing sunglasses and [the 16 year old] commented while showing the photograph, ‘I can’t wait for four twenty’” — referring to the April 20 anniversary of the Columbine high school shooting.

Furthermore, the affidavit said: “In conversations during this time frame, [the 16 year old] has discussed his role as a coconspirator with [the 17 year old]. [The 16 year old] would make references of black bags containing ammunition, and backpacks containing pistols and rifles. [The 16 year old] further stated in conversation, ‘I can’t forget the black bag under the lunch table.’”

While the 17-year-old was safely behind bars, those in the school community who contacted this newspaper were understandably anxious to learn the whereabouts of the 16-year-old student. Again, neither the school system nor the sheriff’s office would provide that answer. Which is unfortunate.

Just releasing the most basic information surrounding the 16-year-old student’s status or whereabouts would have gone a long way toward reassuring jittery students and parents. Instead, rumors have been allowed to run rampant for almost a month now.

As interim school Superintendent Dr. Gary Blair said in retrospect: “If we don’t communicate, people make things up.”

Had this newspaper not obtained and published newsworthy details from the telling court records, it is indeed possible that last week’s school meeting for parents would not have taken place. Why? Because the school community might never have been told of the extent of the threats to the high school, beyond the sheriff’s short statement — if indeed that would have even been provided. Which is why a newspaper is vital to a community.

Rest assured, the Rappahannock News fully agrees that criminal investigations must be conducted without risk of being jeopardized obstructed . Similarly, under no circumstances would this newspaper ever identity juvenile suspects, in this case or any other.

Which brings us to transparency. The sheriff and high school principal are both  to provide information to the media — and thus their constituents — in an efficient and timely manner.

To the best of our knowledge, neither the sheriff’s office nor the county’s school system has a designated public information officer (PIO) on their staffs to handle media inquiries and other public requests for information. The time has come to adopt a practice that nearly all other local governments have done long ago.

The U.S. Supreme Court has  that newsgathering is constitutionally protected, and because the right to publish news depends on the ability of a newspaper to gather information, restrictions on the right to gather news diminish the right to publish.

Openness, honesty and accountability are what define responsive public institutions. The taxpayers of Rappahannock County deserve no less from all of their county government, especially the two biggest sources of public funding. To that end, it is an obligation of both the sheriff’s office and school system to be far more forthcoming with citizens.

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