First-Person Target: Day 3, Sunday: “Sometimes the cards are just not in your favor.”

This is the third installment of “First-Person Target: A six-part series on fear and safety in the era of mass shootings,” a personal-participation journalistic endeavor about three years in the making.

To better understand my own feelings on these topics, I wore a bulletproof vest everywhere I went for a week. I then interviewed people I thought would have a special perspective on these issues.

(To understand the “rules” I set up for myself in regard to wearing the vest and conducting the interviews, click here.)

If you missed Part I or you want a longer explanation of how this project worked, click here. Part II is available here.

******

I wake up around 4 a.m. on Sunday. And then again at 5. Finally, at 6, I get out of bed.

The anxiety dreams kept me in and out of sleep most of the night, as I tried to figure out what was bothering me. I finally realize it was a conversation I had with Zoe the night before.

After church last night, we went to dinner at the Golden Corral. It was after 8 and not crowded which was good because this was the first time I’d be in public with this thing and no jacket.

When we walked in, I immediately managed to make a scene when I reached to take my soda from the counter guy and knocked Zoe’s water all over everything. I was yammering about how sorry I was and the guy just kept saying, “It’s OK. You’re fine.”

Truth was, I wasn’t fine and I knew it.

As much as I made a promise that I wouldn’t use my family as props in all this, I took Zoe with me to church, instead of letting her go with Amy on Sunday, because I felt safer with her than I did in this damned vest. I figured that if someone saw me alone, wearing this thing and not knowing who I was, they might really lose their mind or totally freak out. Me with a kid? I might get a pass.

I hated that I was afraid. And why? What the hell was I really afraid of here? Goddammit…

Nobody said anything or looked at me strangely, which meant either I had been overthinking this whole thing or the people who work there have seen far weirder things than a middle-age man sharing a quiet meal with his daughter at 8 p.m. while wearing a bulletproof vest.

IMG_1265.jpg

(Photo by Zoe Filak)

The waiter showed up and placed a business card sized note on our table, letting us know his name was Luis. I judge all waitstaff in exactly the same way: Do they drown me in Diet Coke? Luis filled me up about three times and never seemed to bat an eyelash or stare at me.

A doubly large tip was coming his way.

I noticed one kid about 4 years old staring at me half the night from across the room while his mom played on her phone, but I honestly think the kid was just zoned. I finally ignored him and started talking to Zoe about safety in her school.

I had always assumed they had drills, but the degree to which people dealt with them or worried about them wasn’t really something I thought a lot about.

Do they have drills in your school in case someone comes in with a gun? I asked her.

“Yes, and we practice them about once a month so we make sure we’re good at them.”

A lot of people in the field refer to these kinds of drills as ALICE training, although that refers to a specific program that has come to represent all forms of active-shooter training in school, much in the same way people call all gelatin deserts “Jell-O” or all giant trash receptacles “Dumpsters.”

ALICE, which stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate, emerged in the wake of the Columbine shooting as a way to manage an active shooter scenario within a school. Greg Crane, founder of the ALICE Training Institute who built this approach into a national brand, created and developed this plan to help keep the elementary school where his wife worked safe in the event of a similar attack.

The approach advocated through ready.gov simplifies the ALICE method to include only three key points during an attack: Run, Hide and Fight. The Ready program, which was developed in 2003 as a national public service lists active shooters alongside fires, severe weather and other “natural and man-made disasters” that require public awareness and preparation.

The run-hide-fight approach is the one Zoe’s school used in the event of a shooter. It indicates that students should run to safety if they think they can get to a “safe zone” without unnecessary risk, leaving behind everything else including personal possessions and even friends. If running isn’t possible, the approach tells students to shelter in place, blocking the door and getting in a place where the shooter can’t see them from the hallway through the door. Silence is crucial, but so is getting information to the outside world, so students are encouraged to contact the police or other adults on the outside through texts or instant messages.

Fighting serves as the last resort. Use whatever you can, including scissors, PE equipment and brooms to attack and disarm the shooter.

Don’t stop until one of you is no longer moving.

Zoe outlined the rules specific to her classroom, such as where to hide and what her responsibilities are if the door needs to be blockaded. If escape is possible, she said she knows which ways to get out of the building and where she has to meet up with others from her school.

“We always have to run in a zig-zag,” she explained, motioning her hand in a back and forth pattern toward me.

“Why?”

“Because if I run in a straight line, it’s easier for the person to shoot me.”

It wasn’t so much the statement that bothered me, but the matter-of-fact tone in which she delivered it. She made that life-or-death explanation much like she would say, “I have to charge my phone so the battery doesn’t die.”

I started to take another bite of food but I just couldn’t at that point. I went back to the questions.

“Do you ever get scared when you have to practice these things?”

“Not when we’re practicing them. I guess it would be different if there really was someone. Did you have to do these when you were a kid?”

“No. We just had fire drills and tornado drills. We had to go outside in the parking lot or duck our heads like a turtle in the hallway for a tornado drill.”

I thought about my parents in the 1950s and their drill: Duck and cover. In case of a nuclear explosion, you were supposed to hide under your desk and duck your head.

All of these drills were intended to keep us safe from something, although the degree to which they could seems variable at best.

******

 

IMG_1315.jpgChance Duenkel’s bulletproof vest looks more like a utility kit than a life-saving device. His Point Blank brand body armor contains pockets, pouches and clips that allow him to adorn it with various practical items he requires for his daily duties. A gold sergeant’s badge rests above his heart, while his name tag and SAFE training pin parallel it on the right side of his chest. A small notepad protrudes from an unzipped pocket just above pouches containing safety and restraint gear.

A flashlight is holstered off of his left hip while a pair of safety gloves dangle from a clip on his right. His radio, usually attached to the vest, sits next to him on the table during an interview. All told, the vest and the items adhering to it weigh about 25 pounds, not including his taser and his firearm, which are safely holstered on his belt.

His close-cropped blond hair extends in the front with a sharp wave of gel-supported bangs. His greenish-gray eyes shine past his matte-black-framed eyeglasses and express a happiness that tells people he’s doing exactly the job he always wanted to do. His alertness and enthusiasm run counter to the idea that this man is working 12-hour overnight shifts and has a 3-month-old son at home.

He grew up in Trenton, Wisconsin, a farming community outside of West Bend in a military family that prized duty and honor. Those standards, plus an experience with a Police Explorers group during his teen years, had him excited to become a law-enforcement official.

“I give it a lot to my parents always telling me that if you have the capability to help somebody, do it,” he said. “Honor was always huge in our family, doing the honorable thing, having integrity, being honest, those types of things have always been huge things in our family, so I knew I would want to do something like that.”

Guns were a part of life growing up, and Duenkel said rules and respect were drilled into him.

“My father was in the Navy so he had some familiarity with firearms and I grew up out in the country, too,” he said. “We had a firing range in the back yard, so it started at BB guns and working your way up to .22, bird shot and slowly progressing… The rules for firearms were ingrained into me early on, always treating the gun as loaded, even the fake toy guns, building those rules internally that you constantly follow.”

Duenkel came to UW-Oshkosh for college, where he became a community service officer in 2008. The CSO program partners these students with residence hall advisers to work in security stations, provide students with Safe Walk partners to help them get home safely and assist the campus police department as requested.

In 2012, Duenkel took a full-time job at the police department on campus and said he continues to love the job on campus. He embraces the idea that his job is the same as all law-enforcement officers: keep people safe, eliminate fear and stop crime and disorder.

“I’m a police officer because of who I am, I’m not who I am because I’m a police officer,” he said. “I’m pretty much always in the range of being aware of different things. It gets annoying to some people at some times, but it is who I am.”

Over the past six years, his life has changed in a number of ways, including his marriage to his wife, Samantha, and the birth of their first child, Jackson. When it comes to those life changes, Duenkel said he hasn’t altered his approach to the job, but he knows he has more things to think about now.

“When I got married, when we had the kid, I was surprised at the change,” he said. “It made me pause seeing a couple different things, thinking, ‘Do I really need to be getting into this right now?’ Having that thought, ‘Pull a traffic stop, it could be my last traffic stop’ type of thing but it only drives me more to refine my skills and really prepare myself even more because there is a lot more at stake personally… Make sure that I do go home.”

Although he feels safe on campus and has taken measures to keep his skills sharp, Duenkel said he knows keeping himself alive isn’t always a sure thing.

“There are cases where you can do everything by the book and have all the equipment on you and sometimes the cards are just not in your favor,” he said, recalling the death of area police officer Craig Birkholz.

Birkholz was a military veteran and served as a Fond du Lac police officer until he died in a line-of-duty shooting on March 20, 2011. According to the Department of Justice report, James Cruckson was holding his girlfriend’s 6-year-old daughter hostage and had threatened to kill both of them if she reached out to the police for help.

When the police tried to free the girl, Cruckson started shooting at them. Official documents indicate Cruckson, an Army veteran, fired more than 50 shots at the officers. When Birkholz showed up in the middle of the chaos, Cruckson shot him twice in the chest. One bullet struck below his bulletproof vest. The other struck just above it.

“It was kind of like, ‘Whoa this happened in our backyard. It’s not California or New York. It’s 15 minutes from here,’” Duenkel said.

“He had all the equipment, he had the experience dealing with these types of firearms and weapons calls and the cards, unfortunately, weren’t in his favor.”

******

 

Although Birkholz had participated in a UWO project titled “War Through Their Eyes,” I had forgotten about him and his death. I had also forgotten the name Sergio Valencia del Toro, but not how the random lottery of chance kept his mass shooting from occurring on my campus.

In May 2015, Valencia del Toro was a non-traditional student at UWO, studying criminal justice. The 27-year-old served in the U.S. Air Force, rising to the rank of senior airman, and had subsequently enrolled in the U.S. Army. He was engaged to his long-time girlfriend, Haylie Peterson, with whom he shared a home in Menasha, approximately 15 miles up Highway 41 from the campus.

According to media reports, Valencia del Toro suffered from depression and recently had been acting irrationally. On Sunday, May 3, the couple had an argument at their home around 5 p.m., ending when Peterson left the house to get dinner. Valencia del Toro grabbed a 9 mm, semi-automatic handgun and a revolver and rode his bike approximately one mile to the end of the Trestle Trail bridge, a serene area with pristine beauty.

After watching people walk on and around the bridge for an undetermined amount of time, Valencia del Toro opened fire indiscriminately, killing three people, including an 11-year-old girl. He then shot himself in the head. He died later that night at Theda Clark Medical Center in Neenah.

When the news broke on campus, the staff of our student newspaper, the Advance-Titan, began to dig into the story to report the UWO angle on it. When someone found his photo online, several of us gathered around the computer monitor to see if we recognized him or Peterson. A news reporter got a sickly look on his face.

“They were both in one of my classes,” he said.

He took a deep breath and then asked the question all of us had:

What if he had decided to start shooting people while he was on campus?

******

 

When Jarrod Ramos began his attack on the Annapolis Capital Gazette on June, 28 2018, reporter Chase Cook wasn’t there. His request for an extra day of vacation might have saved his life.

“I wasn’t in the office that day…” he said. “Rob Hiaasen, who is now dead, gave me the day off because I worked 16 hours covering a primary election on the 26th. I was supposed to work Thursday and I sat at his desk on Wednesday and asked for an extra day off because I was exhausted.”

Ramos had a long-standing feud with the newspaper, which included an unsuccessful defamation of character suit and a series of ongoing social media attacks. He arrived at the newsroom on that Thursday in late June carrying a 12-gauge, pump-action shotgun, which he used to blow apart the office’s glass doors. He had planned the attack for some time, officials said, noting that he had barricaded a back exit to prevent people from escaping.

The shooting left five dead and two others injured. In addition to Hiaasen, staff members Wendi Winters, Gerald Fischman, John McNamara and Rebecca Smith died in the attack.

Cook was at home when he heard about the attack. He immediately changed into his work clothes and headed to the newsroom.

“I was kind of there to cover it and also make sure my friends and colleagues were OK,” he said. “It was kind of a balancing act.”

Cook and several of his colleagues gathered in a nearby parking ramp and set up their computers in the bed of a pickup truck, preparing to cover an incident that had ended the lives of several of their colleagues.

“I just remember meeting Pat (Furgurson) and Josh (McKerrow) at that truck…” he said. “I remember asking Rick (Hutzell) to put as many bylines on it as he could because I felt strongly that this was a group effort. It wasn’t just me.”

As he gathered information and helped construct the main news story on the shooting, Cook found himself having to go to a nearby mall for supplies.

“I remember going to buy a charging cable for my phone because it was going to die and I didn’t have a charging cable with me,” he said. “I must have looked insane to the person I bought it from because I was sweaty, I had been crying, I was tired and I was like frantic and I must have looked like I was on drugs or something.”

“It was weird, too, because being in the mall, everybody was kind of going through their day,” he added. “They were living a normal experience and my whole life felt paranoid. I thought this guy was following me in the mall I got really paranoid because I kept seeing him everywhere I went.”

In the wake of the shooting, the most famous words that emerged came from Cook’s Twitter account when he declared, “I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow.” Cook said the paper was a group effort involving the staff of the paper, the folks at the home office of the Baltimore Sun, the press workers and countless others, and he thought it was important to let people know the Capital Gazette would still publish.

“For me personally it was kind of a 50/50 of my own personal resolve. I was really upset and I was there working and I wasn’t going to let that stop us from running a newspaper…,” Cook said. “The other part of it was this was news. Nobody knew if we would have a newspaper tomorrow. I was sitting there thinking, ‘Well, I don’t have anything to tell people except that this was a targeted attack. We’re the local paper. We should know more, this happened literally in our office.’ So, I confirmed it with Josh and them that we were still going to have the paper tomorrow.”

“I felt that nothing would have prevented any of us from putting out a newspaper the next day,” he added later. “Even if I had been dead inside the building, somebody would have done it.”

Accolades for the staff’s work have poured in from a wide array of sources. Time magazine named the staff of the paper among its “Person of the Year” winners in December, interviewing its members at a hotel near the Newseum. Cook said he begged out of that trip, because he is still having difficulty reflecting on his work on the shooting.

“I did not go to the Newseum with the staff because I still had some anxiety seeing the words that I had written, even if they were in a tweet, being on the wall of the most popular news museum in the country,” he said. “I wasn’t ready to do that.”

As much as the staff feels honored, Cook said he has trouble coming to grips with the attention and the praise.

“We internally reconcile with, ‘This is awesome we should be happy but why can’t Wendi, Rob, John, Rebecca and Gerald be here to enjoy it with us?’ And they can’t be,” he said.

“I struggle with feeling good or proud about what I did on the 28th and every day since then,” he added. “There’s no room in me to feel proud about that, it’s really just grief.”

******

 

If ever a topic personified the adage, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics,” it would be guns and gun-related incidents.

Federally funded research into gun-related deaths and injuries is weak at best, as a result of the 1996 Dickey Amendment which effectively ended the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s examinations of the topic. Other organizations, both public and private, continue to study the issue and have come up with a mixed bag of results.

According to the National Safety Council, deaths attributable to guns have continued to increase in the United States over the past 15 years for which we have data. In 2015, the NSC found that 38,658 deaths occurred via a firearm, up from 28,663 deaths in 2000.

The National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action has pushed back on this notion, stating that “gun violence is alien to most people’s experiences and the nation’s murder rate has been cut by more than half since 1991 and in 2013 fell to perhaps an all-time low.”

Even statistics involving mass shootings have widely differed among investigators, primarily due to how these incidents are measured.

For example, the Washington Post stated in its expansive look at the topic that 158 mass shootings have taken place in the United States since 1966, when Charles Whitman killed 17 people from the clock tower on the University of Texas campus. Conversely, the website gunviolencearchive.org states that 325 mass shootings have taken place in 2018 alone.

Although mass shootings and random violence associated with firearms garners the most attention, the majority of deaths associated with guns happen without confrontation. Statistics reveal that nearly two-thirds of all gun-related fatalities are suicides, with the remaining one-third falling into the category of “assault.”

The Washington Post’s report indicates that only 68 of the 12,509 “assault” deaths caused by guns in 2018 came in the form of a mass shooting. The 158 mass shootings the paper studied since 1966 yielded 1,135 deaths, or less than 10 percent of all “assault” gun deaths in 2018 alone.

In addition, data from the National Safety Council reports a 1 in 11,125 chance of dying in a mass shooting in the course of a lifetime. Of the top 48 causes of death, assault by a gun (1 in 315) ranks 18th, meaning you have a better chance of dying of the flu or by falling than you do of being shot to death. As far as mass shootings go, their ranking at 32nd places them as less likely than dying of choking on food or any airplane/boat/spaceship incident.

A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that more people died from gun deaths in 2017 than any time since at least 1968. The data revealed it was the third consecutive year that the rate of deaths from firearms increased, with about 60 percent of those deaths attributable to suicide.

Statistically speaking, mass shootings account for less than 1 percent of all firearm deaths, thus placing them well below suicides, homicides and accidents on the list of fatalities.

******

Statistics state their case plainly and simply, but fear’s whisper grows louder with each outburst of gunfire and media report of massive death. As the frequency of these shootings grows, so does the number of people who feel the ripple effect.

“I’m so much more intimately familiar with the wave of destruction that happens after (another shooting),” Cook said. “It’s not just to the bodies of the people who are shot but how it proliferates throughout the community that I just feel depressed and sad.”

Cook continued working at the paper for days and weeks after the shooting, using work to help him cope with the tragedy. He said he didn’t really feel the full impact of the attack until he took a week or so of vacation and the adrenaline surge subsided.

He said he is still working to acclimate to daily life in some ways.

“I have a hard time in movie theaters now,” he said. “I get anxious when the lights go out, which is a bummer because I love going to the movies. I think about it a lot when I’m in really crowded places… That fear factor has kind of permeated through everything. I’m at work, I’m in danger. I’m at school, I’m in danger. I’m at church, I’m in danger. I have to convince myself that I’m not because while mass shootings are a problem in the country and they’re up, they’re still a rare crime.”

Cook said the most dangerous thing anyone does on a daily basis is drive a car, something he hasn’t stopped doing. He uses this logical approach to keep his mind quiet when it begins to spiral with fear.

“I try not to live that way but still people knock on the door or ring the bell or something unexpected happens, I get anxious there’s no way to not do that. It happens subconsciously,” he said. “I just try to say, hey, recognize how you’re feeling… Be honest with yourself and how you feel.”

“I think my general sense of safety is different now because I’m constantly having to have that conversation with myself of convincing myself that I’m not in an immediate threat,” he added. “That was not something I thought about before this happened.”

Cook said as he works toward feeling safer, he wouldn’t be inclined to turn to a gun for his own for protection, even though he has spent much of his life around them.

“I don’t know if I would feel safer with more people with guns in the room,” he said. “I’m from Oklahoma. I’ve shot guns. Shooting guns is not a thing you just show up and do. Shooting is a skill and it degrades so if you are going to have a gun, how often are you training with it? Are you confident that you can do something? Are you confident that you can kill somebody? There’s so much more to it than just having it.”

Over the course of his career, Cook has written stories about gun deaths, recalling one about a child finding a gun and accidentally shooting himself with it, which makes him leery of owning a firearm.

“For me personally, I have massive respect for guns,” he said. “That’s how my dad raised me. He’s in the Marines. He carries everywhere he goes… So, I’m intimately familiar with guns. I don’t personally own one. I don’t want to own one, only because I’m so aware of their destructive power that I’m afraid of making a mistake and I would rather just remove that possibility from my life by not having a gun.”

As he continues to move forward from his experiences on June 28, Cook said he sees an important conversation that needs to take place, with citizens demanding more of their leaders on this topic.

“It’s an incredibly complicated thing that I think at the basic level citizens should be demanding that their politicians and their newspapers do something about it,” Cook said. “Write about it. Talk to politicians. Demand they have a stance. Make the politician who thinks every teacher should be armed make that stance… explain to people why you think that would solve the problem and start that conversation.”

“It always turns out where people say, ‘Oh, you just want gun control,’” he added. “That’s not it. It doesn’t work that way. I’m not smart enough to come up with a solution on my own. I want to hear about it. I want to write about it. I want somebody to convince me that this will solve the problem, and use data, and we’re just not having that conversation.”

First-Person Target: Day 2, Saturday: “God is weeping.”

This is the second installment of “First-Person Target: A six-part series on fear and safety in the era of mass shootings,” a personal-participation journalistic endeavor about three years in the making.

To better understand my own feelings on these topics, I wore a bulletproof vest everywhere I went for a week. I then interviewed people I thought would have a special perspective on these issues.

(To understand the “rules” I set up for myself in regard to wearing the vest and conducting the interview, click here.)

If you missed Part I or you want a longer explanation of how this project worked, click here.

******

Most of Saturday is spent cleaning the house, until about 3 p.m., when I get ready to go to church. It is the first time I will wear the vest out of the house and I start having second thoughts.

Amy sees me fiddling with the straps and asks in an incredulous voice, “Are you REALLY going to wear that thing to CHURCH?”

At that point, I make up my mind, thanks to both my stubborn streak and a broader understanding of the moment at hand.

Eleven people were shot and killed in a house of worship a week ago,” I tell her. “I don’t think sitting this one out is in the best interest of what I’m trying to do here.”

Amy says she won’t go with me and that she’ll catch a Sunday morning mass, but I decide to take my daughter, Zoe, with me. Even though the church is only about three blocks away, we take the truck, with the idea of maybe going out for dinner afterwards and running a few errands.

ChurchPlaqueSt. Mary’s Catholic Church in Omro dates back to 1866, when the Gothic-style structure with clapboard sensibilities arose in the middle of this river town. The Milwaukee Diocese officially codified its presence as an institution intent on serving the many Irish immigrants who fled their homeland during the potato famine and took up farming in the area.

The wooden building with a tall bell steeple was recently wrapped in weather-resistant siding, thanks to a fundraising campaign among parishioners. The main entrance is a Gothic opening with two heavy wooden doors that are painted pewter gray open onto the Madison Avenue side of the building.

Two equal sections of pews run from the altar back to the entrance. Large, ornate stained-glass windows line the sides of the church, with small dedications to their donors noted on tiny translucent panels.

The ceiling doesn’t reach to the heights one would expect upon entering, given the giant peak visible from the outside. A butter-cream color paint covers the thatched-panels of beaver board that round the sidewalls into the ceiling with an organ loft established at the end of the room opposite the altar.

The church is relatively full for a Saturday mass, but we find seats off the outside aisle on the left-hand side of an empty pew about half way up.

Shortly before mass begins, Sister Pam, the parish director, walks briskly to the front to welcome everyone to the services and to outline a few musical elements of the upcoming mass. As she does this, two ladies in their early 60s come down the main aisle and sit in our pew, with them edging toward the right side and us gravitating toward the left.

As Sister Pam retreats to the back of the building to help lead the priest in the processional, she strides with a speed walker’s pace, her thick-heeled shoes pounding into the hardwood floor.

As the first notes of the processional hymn begin, I unzip my coat instinctively but suddenly yank it closed when the zipper hit the last Velcro strap. I feel my face flush.

Zoe looks at me.

“Daddy, are you OK?”

“Yes, peanut. Thank you.”

******

At 68 years of age, Sister Pam Biehl said she has no intentions of “sitting in a rocker.”

As the parish director, Biehl oversees the day-to-day operation of both the St. Mary’s Church in Omro and St. Mary’s Church in Winneconne, two cities with a collective population of less than 6,000 people.

Her “nicer” office is in the Omro church, with space for a desk and several bookshelves filled with religious texts and spiritual knick-knacks. A few inspirational sayings are neatly stenciled on the walls. To create a more intimate environment, she eschewed using the chairs near her desk that would separate her from a visitor and instead suggested a triad of padded wooden chairs near the entrance. Their proximity to one another gave a sense that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit could huddle there before providing inspiration to those in the gathering place down the hall.

As this interview progressed, Biehl stared forward with an intense expression, as if through sheer will she would fully understand how she could have missed seeing a man in her church wearing a bulletproof vest during a Saturday mass.

“Nobody said a word,” she said with a look of astonishment on her face. “Not a word. I totally was not aware… I’m not sure. When I’m up in front, I’m so attentive to so many things, I would have registered it, but I don’t know if I would have thought about it that long.”

Biehl was born and raised in Chicago and said she wanted to join the convent after eighth grade, but her dad convinced her to spend at least one year of high school before making that choice.

Once in high school, Biehl said she became actively involved in councils, groups and organizations, which pushed the idea of a religious order to the back of her mind for a few years. As graduation neared, she had considered going to college for a year before committing to a convent.

“I had been communicating with our vocation director from the mother house that had the sisters who had taught me… and she said, ‘No, no, no,’” Biehl said. “She said the exact opposite: ‘You go to the convent.’ And I think to this day that I would not have gone had she not said that. I always say I owe my vocation to her.”

Biehl did attend college as part of her vocation, attending Silver Lake College of the Holy Family in Manitowoc and learning to become a teacher. She started teaching in Waukesha shortly after graduation, before heading west, where she taught in Nebraska, Arizona and California. Eventually, she came full circle, returning to Manitowoc where she became a campus minister.

As a “hobby,” she conducted liturgy workshops and taught teachers how to work with children as part of the ministry.

“I made it up as I went along and I said maybe I should get some schooling, so I know what I’m talking about,” she said. “I asked the community if I could go back to school, and they said, ‘Sure.’”

With her master’s degree in liturgical studies from Notre Dame in hand, Biehl became a director of liturgy and ritual at St. Raphael’s in Oshkosh in 1994. Thirteen years later, she landed in Omro as parish director where she oversees both St. Mary’s there and in nearby Winneconne.

“It was the grace of God that I got the job because they lost my files,” she said of her current post. “They didn’t even know I was in the system.”

As the director, Biehl said she has dealt with the issue of concealed-carry and parish safety over the past decade or so. When Wisconsin passed “right-to-carry” legislation, several places were exempted and were allowed to post signs that alerted people to the “weapons-free zones.”

The church is not one of those places, she said.

“It’s come up and we were told we can’t put that sign on the door,” she said. “I can’t remember why, but we did receive notice a couple years ago that we can’t post it.”

As far as people who actually carry, Biehl said no one has ever mentioned carrying a gun in church or asked for her thoughts on the matter.

“There could be somebody in church who has one,” she said. “Someone might have one in their purse. I’ve never come across anyone asking me about it… That doesn’t mean anyone isn’t.”

******

 

After the procession, the priest opens with an explanation that today we all will honor the memories of the parishioners who died this year.

Sr. Pam had 11 candles set up at the front of the church, one for each of the departed. As each name is read, a family member is invited to come to the front of the church and light a candle in their honor. The women who joined us in our pew a few moments earlier stand up and head to the front when the name of their loved one was read.

I keep thinking about the number 11.

Eleven people in our parish died in a year, while 11 were shot and killed at the Tree of Life synagogue in less than 10 minutes. I didn’t know any of the people in our parish who died, but I know in almost painful detail who died in that shooting and how they met their end.

I try shaking that out of my head, but the priest’s homily is about how he kept looking to God for signs that his recently deceased mother wanted him to do something. He said  he kept seeing sandhill cranes each time he asked for a sign, so I keep thinking about how nothing really is coincidental in life.

I wear my jacket, even though I feel hot. I attribute a great deal of the warmth to the adrenaline that I can almost sense pouring into my bloodstream throughout the mass.

I have it unzipped, which mean the “Second Chance” straps and the padded plating are visible. The weight of the vest, which I previously dismissed as inconsequential, has become an issue after a short amount of time. Also, no matter how many times I adjust the straps, I feel the vest tightening around me each time I move and about half the time I breathe. However, I still don’t feel ready to take the jacket off. I am already well aware that I am wearing this thing and I find it horribly distracting.

In other ways, it makes me more attuned to certain things I tend to say or do in church without thinking about them. I suddenly become hyper-aware of how many times we mention death in our faith. Also, how many times we talk about evil as a concept, as opposed to the manifestation of it and what it can do to people.

I also realize the main two entrances are behind me and that only a small side door kitty-corner from my position will let me out if someone came in the main entrance with a gun.

I occasionally find myself able to forget about the vest for a moment or two, like just after the homily when we are all quiet for a second. However, when I look down to grab a hymnal, I see the straps and I snap back into a spiraling panic about what I am wearing. This thing is meant to keep me alive if someone suddenly decides to start shooting at me.

It also dawns on me that even this thing might not keep me safe if a shooter has evil intent and the desire to end me.

******

As a parish director, Biehl’s thoughts about life after a horrifying event, like a mass shooting, tend to gravitate toward the people she serves.

“My first thought, the boss in me says, ‘Oh my gosh, what if that happened to me?’” she said. “What would we be doing now? How would I respond? How could I be the pastor of that place? How could I pastor to those people?”

“I think about how to help people deal with it,” she added. “And what I think we struggle with and I come back to this all the time is we’re not good living in mystery. Not knowing why. Why a synagogue? Why? OK, so a man was angry and we find out he was anti-Semitic so he killed Jews. OK, but why that one? Why?”

In the times of pain and suffering, people often seek answers in religion, even when those answers seem unlikely to satisfy them. Biehl said that her work with parishioners who experience losses and despair requires her to help these people understand how faith can assist them.

“I have never had to deal with that kind of a tragedy,” she said. “But I’ve had to deal with people who have taken their lives, I have dealt with car accidents, things that are not as horrible but horrible in that moment. I say to people ‘God gave us that free will and people make bad choices,’ and I don’t mean to make it simplistic but what I work hard at is having people understand that God is still with us.”

As people struggle for answers, they often will turn to bad or erroneous justifications just to have some solid ground for themselves, Biehl said. She recalled a story in which a child died and the parents struggled to understand the loss.

She said she asked the parents if they considered that they had done something wrong as to incur punishment from God. In asking this question, she explained to the parents that it was likely they would look deep inside themselves and find something they did wrong, such as a theft they might have committed, to rationalize the loss.

“Somewhere in the depth of your being you will acknowledge that and you maybe won’t accept that but you’ll say, ‘Well, maybe that could be true… so maybe that’s how God is punishing me,’” she said. “Somehow in the back of your mind I believe, you now feel that you have an answer. It’s a horrible answer, a wrong answer, a totally wrong answer, but you have one.”

The Roman Catholic Church itself is laden with mystery and faith, often relying on the concept that seemingly negative outcomes represent our lack of understanding in God’s larger purpose. In allowing for the all-knowing nature of God, Biehl said she doesn’t want people to think God intentionally inspires mass shootings and other tragedies within his creations.

“So often I hear, ‘Well, that’s part of God’s plan,’” she said. “That is not God’s plan. I will never believe that my God would ever plan any of that.”

Instead of seeking the “why” behind tragedies or attributing them to “God’s plan,” Biehl said she tries to help people continue living when something horrible happens.

“I think, ‘How would I speak to my people?’” she said. “’What would I say to them?’ And I would say, ‘God is weeping. God is weeping with us.’ And the question is to say to God, not why did this happen, but now that this has happened this horrible thing happened, how will you help me through this? How will you walk with me, how will you show me the way so that tomorrow I can put one foot in front of the other when I can barely, I can barely breathe right now.”

******

Church might have be the ideal place for a first public appearance in this vest. Because everyone faces forward, nobody can really tell anything about how I look from the back. The vest doesn’t seem to be an issue and nobody seems to notice. However, in various parts of a Catholic mass, people interact with each other, and that thought niggles at the corner of my mind throughout the mass.

The church takes up a collection while the priest prepares the altar for the consecration of the bread and wine. This offering of financial support for the institution involves people passing wicker baskets throughout the rows of pews and dropping in cash or parish envelopes to help support the place.

The woman in front of me turns to pass me the basket and I think it is the first time anyone really sees what I am wearing. She hands it off as she looks away quickly. Zoe tosses in a couple bucks, hands it to me and I pass it down the pew to keep the process going. The people next to me take it, look at me and smile. On it goes.

The next point in which we interact is the sign of peace, in which the priest invites us to shake hands with people around us.

I shake Zoe’s hand first and give her a hug before I turn around to greet a married couple in their 30s was behind me. I shake hands with each person and don’t get a reaction. I shake hands with one of the women next to me. No problem.

I then reach to shake hands with the woman who had handed me the basket. She finishes shaking hands with someone in front of her, but refuses to turn back toward me.

She stands ramrod still and pulls her arms in at the sides and doesn’t move, even as I accidentally brush my arm against the sleeve of her coat, while I shake hands with a lady sporting a tight, poodle perm hairstyle two pews in front of me.

The woman has to be in her 60s or 70s. She is shorter than Zoe, so I peg her at about 4-foot-10 or so. She has a bony build with relatively larger hands that are gnarled with arthritis. She is wearing thin, silver-framed oval glasses and her gray hair is styled into a mushroom-cap haircut. Her face, what I can see of it, would be best described as “beaky.”

When it comes time to go up for communion, she skitters to the end of the pew quickly. She doesn’t say anything to anyone, not even the usher, a tall woman who has to be no more than 30 years old, wearing a fleece vest and a name tag indicating her role at the church.

The usher, on the other hand, had looked in at me a bit strangely when she was monitoring the collection, but she didn’t treat me any differently. When it is my turn to enter the aisle to go down front for communion, I extend my hand to her.

“Peace be with you,” I say to the usher.

“And also with you,” she replies, smiling and shaking my hand.

******

 

I outlined my experience with the woman in front of me in mass as part of the interview with Biehl. She said nobody spoke with her about seeing me and no one raised an issue, but she can understand the anxiety I provoked in this person.

“She must have thought you were going to do something harmful and then I think (if it were me) I would think, ‘Yeah, I wouldn’t probably think you were there to do something good,’” Biehl said.

I apologized anyway, explaining that for me, church has always been a sanctuary of sorts. I find that I do some of my best thinking inside of a house of worship. In some cases, that’s finding answers to personal problems or finding strength when facing difficult emotional situations.

Of all the things I remembered about church in each stage in my life, the biggest one was a sense of safety and comfort in those buildings. The calm hand of God somehow found me each time and made me feel protected, even though I knew full well I was nowhere near as good of a Catholic as I could or should have been.

“We’ll never be totally safe… I’ve thought about that every time there’s a shooting,” Biehl said. “It’s everywhere. It’s in the malls now. Where has there not been somebody who shot a group of people? Churches, malls, the synagogue, Las Vegas and in the schools.”

“No matter how much we sit and put together a safety manual, if people want to kill you, I think they will kill you…” she added. “I don’t think there’s a way to keep us totally safe.”

With that in mind, the Earthly element of Biehl’s job takes hold.

She said the Green Bay Diocese, which oversees the parish, created a pamphlet with guidance on safety measures for all of its churches. The diocese recommended meeting with the police and the schools in the area to see how they monitor safety and what they do to help keep people out of danger in the event of an attack.

In response to that prompt, the church will add a camera at the door to allow people to see who is outside the side entrance near the parish offices, Biehl said. She also said that the “church of many doors” as she calls it, will undergo some police scrutiny for additional ways to create a safer environment for workers and worshipers.

“You can do a little added security, but I’m not going to have guns at the door,” Biehl said. “I’m not going to have guards at the door.”

******

 

When we return to our pews after communion, I kneel in prayer, noticing the woman with the silver glasses is still there and kneeling as well. As the rest of the congregation receives the Eucharist, the cantor sings “On Eagle’s Wings.”

And He will raise you up on eagle’s wings,
Bear you on the breath of dawn,
Make you to shine like the sun,
And hold you in the palm of His Hand.

For some reason, the song seems to get louder each verse.

You need not fear the terror of the night,
Nor the arrow that flies by day,
Though thousands fall about you,
Near you it shall not come.

I glance up from prayer and notice the woman in front of me is moving her head around in sharp, darting glances as if she were looking for someone or something. She looks panicked.

And He will raise you up on eagle’s wings,
Bear you on the breath of dawn,
Make you to shine like the sun,
And hold you in the palm of His Hand.

As the priest returns to his seat, the woman sits back into her pew. I have my hand on the back of the pew as I lift up the kneeler and she leans right back onto me. Out of instinct, I apologize.

She doesn’t flinch or look back.

I am grateful Zoe hasn’t noticed any of this.

Before we get into the final blessing and dismissal song, Sister Pam always whips out a thin white binder that has a list of the 912 things that are going on at the parish that week that require our attention.

Today, we need to do a second collection for disaster relief, so the baskets come around again.

This collection is a lot quicker than the first one, as people tend not to contribute as much or as often when the church hits them up twice. The usher keeps things humming until the basket reaches the woman in front of me.

She takes the basket and holds it for a second, as she looks at the usher almost like she wants something to happen or is afraid something might occur.

Then, without looking, she pushes the basket at me over her shoulder. I take it, toss in some cash and then pass it along.

As Sister Pam keeps talking, the woman continues craning her neck in sharp short movements as if she is desperate to get someone’s attention. I think about just leaving, but I realize that if I do anything, it will draw more attention and possibly upset more people, so I basically stay put.

Once the final song ends, the woman rushes into the aisle and moves toward the door quickly. We file out the side aisle, with Zoe hopping in front of a couple people who were heading out, nearly knocking into them.

“Sorry,” I say.

They smiled and both say something along the lines of, “That’s OK.”

I zip up my coat and follow my kid who is weaving her way toward the big exit doors in the back.

“I guess everybody’s in a hurry to get home.”

******

 

At the heart of so many social issues, is the balance between safety and fear. Finding the right mix between the two remains a difficult balancing act, Biehl said.

“I think the word fear is so important,” she said. “We are so afraid. How many times in the Gospel does God say, ‘Do not fear, be not afraid.’ I think that is the key. Fear.”

Biehl said she relies on her faith in God and what he has provided to her and her parish to come up with better ways to mitigate disaster and fear at the same time. The police have offered her advice in regard to ways to add cameras and establish behaviors that can tighten safety at the church. She said a subcommittee is working with her, the police and other outside agencies to improve the situation.

“I just pray that I don’t want to be paranoid,” she said. “I’m rooted in my faith, but I don’t want to get crazy thinking about this. If you think about that too much, you’re going to be crazy…God expects us to use our intelligence, so yes, we will look at the situation, call in the people we need to make our church secure, act more vigilant but we’re not going to be crazy.”

“I walk the walk because I know God is with me,” she added. “I say to God every morning, ‘If you want me to do this work, you’re going to have to keep me alive.’”

First-Person Target: A Six-Part Series on Fear and Safety in the Era of Mass Shootings

Welcome to the  “First-Person Target” series, a participatory journalism experience aimed at exploring the issues of mass shootings, the right to carry, personal safety, gun culture, fear and more.

This project started for me three years ago, as I explain below in the first installment, but the rubber really met the road for me a few months back when I realized how many mass shootings had taken place in the types of places where I worked, taught and visited. I also realized I had no good way of verbalizing or understanding the issues associated with fear and safety that drove some people to call for mass armament and others to call for a gun ban. All I knew is that I didn’t really see a lot of people discussing (as in listening as well as talking) these issues very well.

In an attempt to jar something loose in my own mind and maybe spur others to speak out, I spent a nearly a week (Nov. 2-7) wearing a bulletproof vest everywhere I went. I had no idea what it would evoke in me personally and what it would bring about in the people with whom I interacted. I didn’t even know what I wanted to accomplish at that point. I just thought it could be a starting point for something worthwhile.

After that week of participation, I sought a wide array of perspectives from people who aren’t “the usual suspects” in the debates we have in this country. Instead, I looked for people who I felt would have a unique insight, a willingness to talk honestly, the ability to avoid the standard soundbites/talking points and who had some connection to the actions I was taking while wearing the vest. I wasn’t seeking “sides,” but rather looking for the feelings of thoughtful people who I hoped might improve my understanding about the topic or teach me something unexpected.

(To understand the “rules” I set up for myself in regard to wearing the vest and conducting the interview, click here.)

For the daily material, I relied on notes taken after each interaction I outlined in the series, fleshing out descriptions by revisiting the scene of these interactions or taking pictures of them at the time. Additional research was used to augment observed details in the writing.

Interviews with each participant were recorded with the participant’s knowledge and agreement. Quotes from these sources were drawn from notes taken during those interviews and reviews of the recordings. Dialogue is based on notes and recall from the daily events and supported by further discussions with the individuals involved to clarify or check on the accuracy of my recall.

The interview subjects and the order in which they occur in the series tie directly to the daily experiences I had at each point and the order should not be taken as order of importance or a lean toward bias. For example, on Day Two, I attended church and thus my interview with Sister Pam Biehl runs as a part of that day’s piece. Had I attended church on Day One or Day Five, her interview would have ended up there.

One last thing: Please feel free to email me with any questions, comments or concerns you have through the contact link here. I only ask the following:

  1. Enter with an open mind and read the WHOLE series before you think I skipped your point of view.
  2. If you think I suck or I failed, fine. Tell me WHY you think that. There is always room for revision and improvement in any piece of journalism.

Special thanks are due to Tracy Everbach, Sister Pam Biehl, Chance Duenkel, Chase Cook, Joe Peterson, Nate Nelson and Kelly Furnas for their time and honesty in their interviews. Thanks to Kelly Lash, Chance Swaim and Margaret Done for their work. Thanks to Chief Kurt Leibold and Sara Steffes Hansen for their support and encouragement.

Also, there is no way this project would be half as good as is without Allison Sansone, who helped me rework major sections of this and had no fear about telling me when stuff needed to get rewritten. She is the best editor and an even better friend.

Most of all, I wouldn’t have been able to do this without the help of my wife, Amy, who never once told me I was insane for trying this. And, of course, Zoe, my favorite peanut, whose presence is a joy, whether or not I’m wearing a bulletproof vest.

And now, Day 1, Friday: “I’ve Chosen Not To Be Afraid.”

****

The package arrives via UPS on Friday afternoon and it looks like someone intentionally beat it with a baseball bat, making it clear that this Amazon box is a retread from a friend who wanted to save on packaging costs.

I open the box and when I empty the contents onto the table I find a note, written in a sharp printed scrawl, with them:

Vince,

Try not to get any holes in it…
Have fun!

Vrag

For two weeks I’d been trying to borrow a bulletproof vest for a story, a participatory journalism project I’d wanted to work on for almost three years. Those of you who aren’t in law enforcement or combat might not know this but it’s not the kind of thing people have extras of hanging in their closets.

I asked Chief Kurt Leibold of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh police department if he had a spare somewhere I could use for this. It turned out that each officer was responsible for his or her own vest, so there weren’t spares laying around the department. When I asked Leibold if he knew of anyone else who could loan one to me, he sent me an email that brought me back to reality:

Vince,

I’m sure you could purchase a vest for yourself, however I do not know of any police outfitter that would loan out this type of equipment.  In fact, if you started inquiring about borrowing a vest it could cause some concern from these vendors on your motives. As you stated people have a heightened awareness because of these mass casualty events.  Sorry I couldn’t be of more help to you.

 

Even after that tactful admonition, I kept asking around and eventually a former student agreed to lend me his.

The student said he wore it when he covered the 2012 Republican National Convention because some people thought “things were going to get rowdy.”

The vest is black with four Velcro straps that criss-cross the midsection. It is thick and pliable and feels like the lead apron the dentist uses on patients while doing X-Rays.

The student told me that it was rated IIIa, which meant it would stop most handgun fire, but nothing heavier, like a rifle round. According to the National Institute of Justice ratings, IIIa vests would stop any firearm projectile up to a .44 magnum round. A IIIa is “soft” vest, so it moves with you and is usually worn under clothing. Some vests allow you to upgrade them to “hard” vests, which means they contain compartments for damage-resistant plates that can stop larger rounds and prevent injuries from explosive devices.

IMG_1264With my wife, daughter and dog all watching me like I’m about to attempt a dangerous stunt, I slip the vest over my head and secure the straps around my torso to see how it feels.

“Are you really going to do this?” my wife, Amy, asks.

For months, I’d been asking myself the same question.

“I guess so.”

 

******

 

I started thinking about this project three years ago after reading a Facebook post from a grad school friend. Tracy Everbach, a professor at the University of North Texas, noted her concerns that the state was allowing “campus carry” for concealed firearms. According to the new Texas law, students who possessed a concealed-carry permit were allowed to carry a gun any time they were on university grounds, which included any time they attended class.

Everbach teaches a variety of topics, including a course on race, gender and the media, which can become heated at times. She also has a distaste for guns. She said she worried that firearms in the classroom would cause contentious debates to turn deadly.

Friends all chimed in with potential solutions:

  • Could she tell students they can’t carry in her class? No.
  • Could she ask students if they are carrying? No.
  • Could she force the class to go entirely online? No

 

Others offered more difficult suggestions:

  • Could she quit or change schools? Not really an option.
  • How about a sabbatical until maybe this thing changes? It’s not going to change
  • Did she think about carrying a gun herself?

“I don’t like guns,” she said in an interview for this project. “I never had one. While I was a police reporter, officers offered me a chance to go on the range and such, but I’ve declined to fire a gun. One time, the FBI tried recruit me and I said no because I would have to be armed. It just isn’t my thing.”

After all the other “Facebook friend” options were exhausted, I offered a suggestion that was a bit less aggressive, but just as bold:

“Wear Kevlar.”

My theory was that if you can’t play offense, play defense. Wearing a bulletproof vest would essentially say to her students, “If you need a gun to feel safe in here, I need protection from you to feel safe in here.”

Everbach never did this, but the thought rattled around in my head for years, mostly because, despite being a self-described “average white guy,” many places I frequented had been the site of a mass shooting.

Colleges? I teach there every week.

High Schools? I go there about once a month to work with student media and AP classes.

Newsrooms? I spent half my adult life in them.

Houses of worship? Saturday Mass is a tradition.

It also occurred to me that there’s never a good time to do something like this. I could talk myself into it as easily as I could talk myself out of it. I had no idea what the risks or rewards would be in trying this, how it would affect me and how it would affect those around me.

The main problem aside from getting a vest was in the area of writing a first-person story. As one of those classically trained, inverted-pyramid journalists, I loathe those stories by nature and I spent the better part of my life browbeating my students out of using “I” and “me” in their writing.

I’m also putting myself out there as a target for everybody and anybody with an interest in guns, shootings and safety who wants to scream that I “just don’t get it.” That’s not my idea of a good time, to say the least.

******

The idea was simple: “Wear Kevlar.”

After that, I had no idea what to do, so I started sketching out some rules for myself so that I would get the most out of this experience without overdoing it or under-doing it.

To get used to the straps and mobility, I decide to wear it around the house for about an hour or so at a time. It turns out to be surprisingly easy to wear and it doesn’t impede my ability to move around. However, I feel a huge rush of anxiety about the project overall and this physical manifestation of it.

It also doesn’t help that I get this note from a retired journalist I admire in response to my announcement that I am doing this project:

This has all kinds of T-for-Trouble attached. Kind of like wearing a cup. Someone is going to want to hit you in the balls just to see if it works.

I hang it on the back of a chair in the kitchen and retreat to the basement for the rest of the day. Just the thought of the vest sitting in my house gets my heart pounding a bit faster.

I honestly don’t know why.

******

Tracy Everbach graduated from Boston University in 1984 with a degree in journalism and concentrations in history and political science. After a brief turn as a proofreader for a state trooper magazine, she got a job as an editorial assistant at the Boston Herald, where she worked on everything from breaking news stories to obituaries.

In the mid-1980s, she took a nights and weekends position as a police reporter at the Dallas Morning News.

“My parents moved to Dallas in the ‘80s because of my dad’s job and I was visiting them one Christmas and decided to try to get an interview at the Dallas Morning News,” she said. “So I got the interview and then they called and got me a job. I was really reluctant to move but my dad was kind of like ‘Hey, this is a good job, you can do it for a year and leave if you want.’ Well I ended up staying at the Dallas Morning News for 12 years.”

Everbach joked that she went back to grad school because, “What else do you do when you don’t know what else you’re going to do with your life?” However, in going to the University of Texas for her master’s degree, she found a passion for teaching and strong interest in researching gender studies.

While working on her Ph.D. at Mizzou, her dissertation examined the only major newspaper that had women in each of the primary management positions to ascertain if it would be in some way different from all the others.

Her published journal articles cover everything from women’s roles in and around sports to sex-based associations with where men and women receive information on sexual violence. Her first book, “Mediating Mysogyny,” examines the intersection of technology, gender and harassment in the digital age.

Words like “strident” would apply to her in the same way they applied to feminist pioneers like Billie Jean King and Gloria Steinem, in that she always felt it necessary to point out inequity in a factual and straightforward fashion.

When she felt an absolute certainty about her position, which was most of the time, she would state her case firmly, increasing in volume as she felt was necessary. Her voice never was out of control, nor did it waver, but it got louder with each round of discussion or debate and its tonality could frighten an arrogant man through a locked solid steel door.

When the issue of campus carry emerged at North Texas, she found herself asking more questions and demanding more clarity than she did fearing for her safety or security.

“They actually had some public forums about it for faculty staff and students,” she said. “I actually went to them where they had the police chief, a committee that was assigned to figure out how to roll it out and dean of students was there. They would let people get up and ask questions. I did stand up and express my objections to it, but the answers that we got from them was ‘OK, but this is the LAW so we have to find a way to implement and we have to respect the law but also keep people safe.’”

Although she understood the law, one class in particular, however, concerned her the most: Race, Gender and The Media: A Methods Approach.

In the nine years she has taught the course, Everbach said she dealt with heated discussions and upset students. In most cases, she noted, content on domestic violence and sexual assault led some students to feel the need to leave her class to gather themselves, but it was one discussion about race that led her to fear violence in her classroom.

A white student had been intentionally “egging on” a black student, she said, throughout the course of the semester. The black student had shared personal information in the term, including the fact he had once been homeless. The white student used this information to poke at him further, noting that homeless people “are just being lazy and don’t want to get a job.”

“The black guy stood up and said, ‘Y’know, man, I’ve been listening to you all semester and I’ve about had it,’” Everbach said. “I saw him clenching his fists and so I walked over to (the black student) and put my hands on his shoulders and I said, ‘Let’s go outside.’”

In the hallway, Everbach said she spoke with the student about how she understood that the white student was attempting to “goad” him into a fight of some kind, but that she wanted to make sure things didn’t escalate. The student said he was fine, but took a few minutes in the hall.

Once he returned to the classroom, the white student apologized to him, she said.

In the two years since the state campus-carry law took effect, Everbach said her campus feels no more or less safe than it did in years past.

“I don’t see people walking around with guns,” she said. “The cops and that’s it. I mean there could be kids walking around with guns but I don’t see them. I don’t spend a lot of time wondering if someone in my classroom is carrying a gun anymore or thinking, ‘Are they going to pull it out and shoot you with that?’”

“It’s just a personal thing to me,” she added. “I’ve chosen not to be afraid of it. I figure I’m as likely to have that happen as a car accident or whatever. Anything can happen to anyone at any time.”

******

I am the last person to go to bed in my house tonight, a fact I realize only after finishing the last load of laundry for the night and climbing the basement stairs. I round the corner into the kitchen, where the last light in the house is on.

The vest is hanging over one of the chairs there, right where I left it.

I stop and stare at it for a moment.

What if I scare the kids in school so badly they’ll never trust me again?

What if some concealed-carry cowboy takes a shot at me for fear of what I might do?

What happens when the people I need to interview won’t understand me or won’t want anything to do with me?

Will this really help me understand anything?

Every question I pondered about this project at intermittent points over the past three years congeals into one simple thought.

What the hell am I doing?

Be “Marshmallow Alert:” Four more things that will prevent your first media-writing class from sucking

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Since many places start up again on Jan. 7, here’s a post to help start up the new year. We will return to our regular posting schedule next week. -VFF)

A year or two ago, I tried to be inspirational for new students who were entering their first media-writing course with a post on the “Four things to know to keep your first media writing class from sucking.” As you can tell by the headline, inspiration isn’t my forte.

Still, with the start of the new year, new semester and new set of classes for many of you, feel free to flip back to the previous version and then enjoy these Filak-isms to help add some merriment (and some thinking points) to your first couple days :

Be “Marshmallow Alert” in Class: I have always taught in small labs because writing, reporting and editing courses were set up that way wherever I worked. I also had the benefit of classrooms where I could see everything students were doing on their monitors and phones. Thus, when I noticed people were screwing around, I could call them out by name (another benefit of small classes) and they would re-engage pretty easily.

That didn’t mean some students didn’t try to engage every electric device they owned short of a curling iron and a Dr. Scott’s Electric Corset to avoid paying attention to me, but I did my best. (My “best” somehow included ripping the power cable out of the back of an iMac and once texting a young lady’s boyfriend three poop emojis and a snowflake after snatching her phone in mid-text.)

However, when I ended up having to teach a mini-pit class with 50 or so students, I wasn’t able to apply that same level of personal call outs and electronic monitoring, so I went a little old school in my solution. I built a marshmallow gun out of PVC piping and loaded ‘er up for each class. When I saw someone dinking around after a couple  warnings, I fired off a round or two in that person’s general direction. That really freaked them out.

By the time that class was done, I was a regular Annie Oakley. It was almost sad that they became so attentive that they didn’t even want to challenge my accuracy any more. That said, the class started participating a lot more and started doing a bit better on graded stuff.

The point is, don’t just vaguely pay attention in class. Pay attention as if a momentary distraction could get you drilled with a tiny white pellet of sugar and then mocked by a room filled with your peers.

Don’t just be alert. Be “Marshmallow Alert.”

 

Use the “Buffet vs. Cost” Theory:

Question: Why is it that so many people eat to the point of exploding while at a buffet?
Answer: “I PAID X DOLLARS FOR THIS! I’M GETTING MY MONEY’S WORTH!”

Apparently, stomach pains, bloating and that constant regurge of generic-soft-serve-vanilla-with-Gummy-Bears taste are all part of getting one’s “money’s worth” out of  a buffet. If this were a sit-down restaurant, these people wouldn’t eat half that much (except for my kid, who would eat the entire bread basket and hide crackers in her socks), but at a buffet, hey, let’s go for death!

When it comes to your education, particularly a writing course in your area of study, you are paying a ridiculous amount of money, or at least a lot more than what the Golden Corral will charge you on “Shrimp Night.” With that in mind, it’s baffling to me that students skip classes, drift off in class and refuse to answer any questions. That’s like going to the Coral (or your own regional buffet of choice) and saying, “Let me pay double for this, but all I want is one of those sprigs of parsley and a cracker, please.”

To heck with that. Gorge yourself.

Ask questions in class, be that annoying kid who always has an anecdote for every example the professor has, visit office hours to go over your graded work to find areas of improvement, color-tab the crap out of your AP style book and more. Get your money’s worth out of this, especially since you’ll actually benefit from the stuff you learn in the writing class. (This is in no way meant to disparage that “Quest Class” on Ancient Babylonian Calf Roping you are forced to take in your Gen Ed program, but trust me when I tell you that media writing is a skill employers will heavily value.)

 

Embrace Your Inner 4-year-old: Anyone who has spent more than 35 seconds in the presence of a 4-year-old knows the only question any of them seems to ask is “Why?” It eventually gets to the point that you want to hand the kid a fork and tell him/her to go play with the toaster. The thing is, though, they really want to understand stuff that they don’t understand. They don’t get why they can’t stay up past 8 p.m., watch another cartoon or give the hamster a bath in the toilet. They have this sense that those are all logical propositions and they really feel like the adults should have to justify the “No” answer to those requests.

When it comes to your media writing class, embrace your inner 4-year-old, but do it in the right way and at the right time. Students have no problem asking “WHY?” when it comes to things like “Why is my grade so low if I turned in almost everything?” or “Why do we have to take the midterm when it’s so nice outside?” (Two questions I’ve actually heard.) However, when it comes to things that are more about learning and improving and less about point deductions and the one sunny day a year we get in Wisconsin, I have found students are quieter than a church mouse on Sunday.

Take advantage of the opportunity to ask questions about your work. Don’t ask questions about the grade, because, as we explained in the previous edition of this list, your grade will not haunt you for the rest of your life. However, if you don’t understand why you can’t write a news story in chronological order or why it pays to have at least one or two of the W’s (and maybe even the H) in your lead, you’re going to be in trouble.

Talk to your professor whenever you get work back and you don’t understand what made something wrong. Don’t focus on the points or the grade, but rather on the underlying rationale behind the negative outcomes and you’ll be able to improve moving forward.

 

Now is the Time to Care: I know this is cheating because I pulled it from the last list, but it bears repeating. I can’t remember a semester like the one I just had where students treated the final grades I filed as the start of a bargaining session. (It literally felt like something out of contract negotiation: “Dr. Filak, I see you have proposed a D for me here. What I’d like to do is counter with a B- and see where we can find some common ground…”) The time to care about this stuff is now, so look at what it is that you can do to keep yourself on the right side of the best outcomes possible.

I’ve told this to students before and it’s the best bit of advice I can possibly give you for any class:

Instead of saying, “I need this class (to graduate, to move on in the major or whatever)!” to your professor after you screwed up your work and you have no hope of getting out alive, say “I need this class (to graduate, to move on in the major or whatever)!” to yourself every day from the beginning of the semester and act accordingly.

Have a great semester and knock ’em dead.

Semester Wrap: Let me know how things went

With finals week wrapping up out here, it’s time to take a break from the blog until the start of the next semester. Feel free to pop in on occasion, as I might have something happening here or there between now and the latter part of January, but the daily grind will officially grind to a halt today.

INSTRUCTORS: If you have found a hole in your curriculum that you would like filled before next term, please contact me and I’ll work on filling it over the break. Also, if you have any questions, comments or concerns about the blog, the books or me in general, feel free to hit me up as well.

STUDENTS: I hope this has been helpful to you. If not, let me know WHY that was the case and I’ll work on fixing it before next term. Simply saying “You suck” isn’t going to help me and, besides, I know that already… If you like something and want to see more of it, you can tell me that, too.

May you have a fun holiday season with whatever it is you do when you’re not here.

Vince (a.k.a. The Doctor of Paper)

Life after they put out a damned paper: Chase Cook discusses his work covering the Capital Gazette shooting and the Time Person of the Year honors

(EDITOR’S NOTE: I had planned to interview Chase Cook for a larger piece of participatory journalism that should run some time later this year. However, the interview coincided with Time magazine announcing it honored the paper as part of its “Person of the Year” coverage, so here is a small sliver of that interview now. A special thanks to media adviser Judy Robinson of the OU Daily at the University of Oklahoma for helping me connect with Chase.)

Chase Cook spent most of Wednesday chasing down a story about the Anne Arundel County’s top administrator being in a pool of jury-duty candidates, hoping to find out if the local official would be selected for a case.

Approximately 24 hours earlier, he found out that he and his coworkers at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland were honored as part of Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” coverage. Cook said Time had interviewed several staff members on Sunday, but he said he didn’t think anyone knew about the forthcoming honor.

“I was having a conversation with my fiancee that night, feeling unworthy of the accolades that we’ve gotten because we’re just doing our job…,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday. “Every time we get an award it’s because something awful happened and the next day I wake up and the staff is Time Person of the Year.”

Cook had been working at the Gazette for nearly five years when the Annapolis-based paper was attacked in a mass shooting.

A man with an antagonistic history toward the paper used a shotgun to blow apart the glass doors of the newsroom on June 28 before opening fire on the staffers inside. Jarrod Ramos, who lost a defamation suit involving the paper’s coverage of his criminal history, stands accused of killing five people that day, according to media reports. Ramos had a history of stalking and harassment complaints and had taken to Twitter to attack the paper’s coverage frequently.

“I wasn’t in the office that day…” he said. “Rob Hiaasen, who is now dead, gave me the day off because I worked 16 hours covering a primary election on the 26th. I was supposed to work Thursday and I sat at his desk on Wednesday and asked for an extra day off because I was exhausted.”

Cook said he was at home when he got the call about the shooting. He changed into his work clothes and headed to the office. The street was closed down and police were everywhere.

“I was kind of there to cover it and also make sure my friends and colleagues were OK,” he said. “It was kind of a balancing act.”

Cook joined his colleagues who gathered in a nearby parking ramp as they plied their trade from the bed of a parked pickup truck. He wrote the survivor story for the paper, interviewing colleagues who had just witnessed people they all knew get slain in a newsroom they all knew so well. In addition to Hiaasen, staff members Wendi Winters, Gerald Fischman, John McNamara and Rebecca Smith died in the attack.

“I just remember meeting Pat (Furgurson) and Josh (McKerrow) at that truck and that record playing from the dash and just working…” he said. “I remember asking Rick (Hutzell) to put as many bylines on it as he could because I felt strongly that this was a group effort. It wasn’t just me.”

In the wake of the shooting, the most famous words that emerged came from Cook’s Twitter account when he declared, “I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow.” Cook said the paper was a group effort involving the staff of the paper, the folks at the home office of the Baltimore Sun, the press workers and countless others, and he thought it was important to let people know the Capital Gazette would still publish.

“For me personally it was kind of a 50/50 of my own personal resolve  I was really upset and I was there working and I wasn’t going to let that stop us from running a newspaper…,” Cook said. “The other part of it was this was news. Nobody knew if we would have a newspaper tomorrow. I was sitting there thinking, ‘Well, I don’t have anything to tell people except that this was a targeted attack. We’re the local paper. We should know more, this happened literally in our office.’ So I confirmed it with Josh and them that we were still going to have the paper tomorrow.”

In the days and weeks that followed, Cook said that he and other staff members have continued to work through their grief and their emotions in their own ways. Collectively, the paper continues to receive praise for the efforts they made that day, which Cook said has a bittersweet feeling to it.

“Most of us, and I don’t want to speak for everyone, but we’ve used this platform to talk about the importance of local journalism and the importance of safety in the newsroom…” he said. “That’s really the best we can do. And at the same time we internally reconcile with, ‘This is awesome we should be happy but why can’t Wendi, Rob, John, Rebecca and Gerald be here to enjoy it with us?’ And they can’t be.”

“I struggle with feeling good or proud about what I did on the 28th and every day since then,” he added. “There’s no room in me to feel proud about that, it’s really just grief.”

As he continues to work for the publication, Cook said he still sees himself as “a guy who works at a newspaper… I’m not that terribly interesting.” He  said he tells people in the public that they should be open to change and read stories with an open mind.

“The audience has to understand that if we come to you with something challenges your world view, you should be open to that,” Cook said.

However he said he finds that he better understands his sources, especially those who suffer a loss, after going through the situation at the Capital Gazette.

“I tell journalists that they should have more empathy which is what I learned after the fact. To be kinder to people, to be more understanding of their situation. You can still do that and get the story. It’s not hard. It might be harder for somethings, but it makes you a better person and a better journalist.”

Dear students, Don’t let Everett Piper tell you that you suck.

For reasons past my understanding, this thing is making the rounds again:

The President of Oklahoma Wesleyan University gave a lecture to students they’ll never forget. Recently a student complained about a sermon that made him feel guilty and blamed the school for making students feel uncomfortable. This is not uncommon. Many universities now are so afraid of offending even one student, that political correctness has run amuck.

However, this University is based on religion and so one would expect that discipline, good character and personal accountability would be a big part of the curriculum.

Everett Piper, who is the President of the school, wrote a letter to the students admonishing them that playing the victim, blaming others and not admitting mistakes is not a way to live a productive and meaningful life. Here is the letter titled “This is Not a Day Care. It’s a University!”

Piper’s open letter originally made waves in 2015 when he first posted it and it suddenly went viral, thanks to his leveraging of social media and the talk-show circuit. Every so often, someone finds it again and posts it to a listserv or a Facebook feed and it starts to catch fire again.

Professors often deal with a wide array of students, but it is usually the best and worst ones that make the greatest of impressions. Thus, we tend to recall the kid who skipped seven weeks of class and then showed up for the final or the guy who swears his grandmother died 19 times in the semester to justify his frequent absences. Get about four professors in a room around this time of year and a game of, “I bet you can’t top this” will inevitably happen, as we tell tales about student baffling student behavior.

That said, this letter is total crap for a number of reasons. For students out there reading this, and who are tired of getting dumped on, here are a couple points to ponder before you let a guy like Everett Piper make you feel miserable during finals week:

 

Recall the Johnny Sain Axiom on Old Timers Day

Johnny Sain, a longtime pitcher and pitching coach, had a disdain for Old Timers Day, when out-of-shape old players would return and tell stories of their glory. He captured the reason perfectly and with a phrase you should always remember:

“The older these guys get, the better they used to be.”

I don’t know Everett Piper personally, but if he’s like every other human adult I ever met, I’m fairly confident he wasn’t perfect at the age of 19. If I had a nickel for every mistake I made, stupid thing I said, dumb question I asked and wrong position I held in my college years, I could buy Earth and evict Piper from it. The point is to learn from those mistakes and help other people who are likely to make those mistakes as well.

I occasionally get a question that goes something like, “Wow, you work with college students? Don’t you ever feel jealous of them for (whatever freedom they supposedly have to drink like a fish, hook up every night or just have a metabolism that doesn’t reflexively add inches to my waistline every day)?”

The answer, “No and HELL no.” I remember living off of buckets of Ramen and those frozen chicken things that were probably part cat, but were 10 for $5 at the local convenience store. I remember having to decide between another beer and laundry money. I remember the anxiety associated with asking people out, trying not to screw up a relationship and having to listen to The Cure for hours on end after each break up.

Would I care for a return to crappy apartments where the heat was controlled in only one unit, brown water that came out of the tap and a basement that smelled of god-knows-what? No thank you. I survived the first time and I’m lucky I got out with 10 fingers and 10 toes. Remembering that is what drives me to help you get better.

Too many people eventually get older and develop selective amnesia, thus allowing them to tell kids, “When I was YOUR AGE, I (never/always) did (whatever)…” and really believe it. I’d bet every dollar in my pocket against whatever Piper has in his that there were times when he whined as a student or groused about something being unfair or complained about how he felt without thinking about how it would sound to other people.

It’s not that we have too many trigger warnings or that too much stuff is gluten free or that we can’t say “Merry Christmas” to anyone without starting a culture war these days. Those are all strawmen, just like Piper’s student at the front of his letter.

The fact is, there have always been good things and bad things that people exalted or wailed about in life. It’s just the people doing it now have forgotten how much they hated hearing about their grandparents explaining how ungrateful “kids in your generation are these days,” which is why they do it to other people.

Keep that in mind if you ever end up the president of a university and you have an urge to yell at a kid for standing on your lawn.

 

Consider the Source

In journalism, we teach people to look at the source of the information before we consider how much weight to give it. Sure, from the outside, Everett Piper may look like the shining beacon of greatness upon the hill of glory, but consider the following information before you worry what he thinks about you:

He grew up in a town of about 8,000 people and attended a nearby private school of about 2,000 people in late 1970s/early 1980s, when you weren’t required to hock an internal organ to pay tuition. Upon graduation in 1982, he took off for the work world, as you can see below:

PiperExperience

So he graduated at the age of 22/23, immediately went into academic administration and never left. Not exactly the story his university tells about him:

A native of Hillsdale Michigan, Dr. Piper grew up in a family that valued hard work, a mindset he carried with him as he moved from industry into pursuing a college degree.

Not sure how much “industry” work he did between the ages of 18 and 23 while in school, but he wasn’t a returning student, or a single parent, or a GI Bill kid, or any of those other kinds of folks I see on a daily basis who work their asses off to survive. He might or might not be the prototypical example of a guy who thinks he hit a triple when he was actually born on third base, but he’s also isn’t a latter-day “Rudy,” either.

Piper’s proud defense of his university not being a daycare seems a bit suspect, as he is making money off the deal. He turned his “catchphrase” into a nice cottage industry of castigating the youth and yelling about the snowflakes on his lawn.

The university even promotes the purchase of this stuff on its website. (What was that story about Jesus and the money changers in the temple? Oh, yeah…)

Also, consider this line from his letter to the masses:

If you’re more interested in playing the “hater” card than you are in confessing your own hate; if you want to arrogantly lecture, rather than humbly learn; if you don’t want to feel guilt in your soul when you are guilty of sin; if you want to be enabled rather than confronted, there are many universities across the land (in Missouri and elsewhere) that will give you exactly what you want, but Oklahoma Wesleyan isn’t one of them.

(The emphasis on those two statements is mine.)

If the irony of that first line doesn’t send your hater-ade filled soul into laughing fits, I don’t know what will. It’s easy to “arrogantly lecture” people, as Piper has clearly shown with his letter doing exactly that. Also, instead of dumping all over the kid who came to you with this concern about a Bible passage you likely understood far better than he did, why not help that little snowflake “humbly learn” what it meant instead of using the kid as a strawman to bolster your self-serving position?

(Side note: When someone tells me that something “actually” happened and “I am not making this up” in successive paragraphs at the front of a story, I’d bet money that person is making something up.)

(It’s even more amazing than when you have the ability to monetize your grousing…)

The second line (and any other similar phrase) always annoys me when it comes from people in a position of advantage. When is the last time University President and Almighty Deity of Knowledge Everett Piper was called out for his horsepucky? Probably back when people were rocking popped collars and jamming out to Duran Duran. It’s easy to say that people need to be confronted when you possess the power and position to do so, without fear of retribution.

And if all that hasn’t convinced you, read his Twitter feed. The guy has a transphobic Chuck Norris meme up there (as one of his many anti-LGBTQ tweets), called incoming house Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a clueless child and referred to universities (all except for his, I’m guessing) as “bigoted, Intolerant, ill-liberal, inconsistent and closed minded.” Not exactly the bastion of intellectual argumentation I’d expect from a guy who reflexively calls himself “Doctor” more times than you’d hear it on a Thompson Twins’ Greatest Hits album.

 

Don’t Let These Guys Win

The problem isn’t that Everett Piper exists or that he has created a nice little business out of shaming college students with the tone of a high-strung school marm. The problem is that he isn’t alone.

Each generation likes to blame the one before for its problems and dump all over the one after it for not being perfect. As mentioned earlier, people like to get together and complain about how “a student did something you wouldn’t believe…”

Like any other stereotype, it contains a kernel of truth. Like any other stereotype, you can beat it. And like any other stereotype, you should call it out when you hear it.

Don’t let Piper and his ilk decide that you damned kids and your hippity-hoppity music are ruining this world and that if we could just get “Happy Days” back on the air, life would be good again. Don’t let this guy sell books off of the assumption that you will crumble or melt or whatever the comparative is that Piper or the next chucklehead uses to deride your generation. When someone decides to grump in your general direction, use your finely honed interviewing skills to pick apart their self-serving rubbish and demonstrate your intellectual journalistic superiority.

Sure, there are self-absorbed twerps in college who will claim their goldfish’s death merits a six-week extension on an already late paper. There are also dingleberries out there who misapply triggers and trigger warnings to mean anything they would prefer to avoid, as opposed to the actual medical situation they are.  There are plenty of examples of students that make us shake our heads until we develop neck cramps.

However, when you see something like this, written by someone like Piper, take a moment and smile. Think to yourself, “Gee, it must be so sad to think so little of the people you are supposed to help that your best approach to dealing with ONE QUESTION is to publicly rip AN ENTIRE GENERATION to shreds with a letter and then go write a book to pat yourself on the back for being superior to anyone under the age of 22.”

Then, go back to working hard to be better than this guy is. Commit yourself to being the antithesis of what he purports you to be. In other words:

“I have no hope of keeping my job:” What happens when an award-winning journalist works with student journalists who do actual journalism at the University of North Alabama.

Scott Morris, the media adviser at the University of North Alabama, is exactly the kind of person anyone would want overseeing young student journalists.

In his almost 30 years of professional experience, he has served as a reporter, sports editor, city editor and managing editor and received numerous awards while doing so. He earned the Carmage Walls Commentary Prize as well as state and regional awards for investigative reporting and various forms of commentary. While editor of the TimesDaily in Florence, Alabama, the paper won more than 60 awards in his last three years there including First Amendment, Freedom of Information and community service honors.

With a wide array of experiences, good management expertise and a stalwart sense of the importance of First Amendment values, Morris has provided students at UNA with invaluable opportunities to learn writing, reporting, editing and publishing over his past four years at the institution.

Which is kind of a problem for administrators who don’t like those meddling kids

ALABAMA — The University of North Alabama is ousting the student media adviser after the student paper published a story critiquing the school’s administration. The move has sparked sharp condemnation from journalism and First Amendment groups and the campus publications board.

In September 2018, The Flor-Ala reported the administration improperly withheld public documents about the resignation of the vice president of student affairs. A week later, the journalists, members of the communications department and The Flor-Ala media adviser Scott Morris met with University Provost Ross Alexander.

According to Morris, Alexander was angry about the Sept. 6 article and the meeting was tense. On Sept. 26, the provost informed Morris that the student media adviser job description had been changed, and Morris is now unqualified for his position.

In an email interview last week, Morris laid out a timeline of the events that led to publication of the story.

“Managing Editor Harley Duncan told me in late July that the university had fired (he technically resigned, we learned later) the vice president of student affairs, and university police had banned a professor from campus,” Morris said. “Duncan said he was trying to find out more by talking to university public relations. In the meantime, my boss, department of communications Chair Butler Cain, called me and told me that Provost Ross Alexander was willing to talk to Duncan about the situation.”

Alexander spoke with Duncan, but he didn’t discuss the situation or what had happened in regard tot he professor or the VP. Instead, Alexander asked Duncan to “wait a few weeks” and then Alexander would explain everything. Instead of letting the news get stale, Duncan kept digging and kept looking for other sources.

“The provost called Duncan back a few days later and said the VP had resigned to seek other opportunities,” Morris said. “He told Duncan not to ask anyone else any more questions about it.”

In other words:

Instead, Duncan did what journalists always do when human sources stonewall them: He filed open-records requests. The university denied the requests TWICE on grounds that the personnel files requested contained “sensitive files.”

“Duncan and I talked again, and he decided to try to determine if the university was breaking the Alabama Open Records Act,” Morris wrote. “He talked to a media attorney who confirmed the university was violating an opinion written by former state Attorney General Jeff Sessions concerning personnel files.”

With that information in hand, the Flor-Ala ran the story, “Administration denies public records, in direct violation of attorney general opinion” in its Sept. 6 issue.

“On Sept. 13, Duncan, another editor, department Chair Butler Cain and I met in the provost’s office,” Morris said. “We talked generally about all parties making an effort to have a good working relationship. Then, Provost Alexander flipped over the Sept. 6 article that he had on the table and said it contained ‘several inaccuracies.'”

When Morris asked about the inaccuracies, Alexander noted several things he didn’t like, but that weren’t inaccurate.

(Side note: This is a common approach among administrators and other people who don’t like what you write as a journalist. It’s also how “fake news” became a term people use to describe things that don’t jibe with their preferred world view. When someone tells you that you are “wrong” or “inaccurate” in a story, ask the person to explain what is wrong and why it is wrong. About 80 percent of the time, you’ll find the person has equated to “I don’t like that” to “That’s not right.”)

Shortly after the meeting, the administration started shifting the ground under Morris. A Sept. 19 email from Dean Carmen Burkhalter to the HR department told officials there to put Morris’ performance evaluation on hold.

A week later, Burkhalter met with Morris to tell him his position was being eliminated and replaced with a tenure-track job that required a Ph.D., something Morris didn’t possess and could not achieve before the job was to be filled. He met with his department chairman, Butler Cain, who said he hadn’t heard about this change, nor had he made this as a recommendation.

“I told Cain, it sounded like a knee-jerk decision by Provost Alexander because of the article,” Morris wrote. “He said he didn’t know, but ‘it could be.’ Cain has since circled back to support the provost 100 percent. He said this has nothing to do with retaliation, although I’m not sure how he would know that since the provost didn’t bother to include him in the decision.”

Nothing to do with retaliation. Right. Just like I’m sure Sonny Corleone just happened to catch a toll booth guy on a bad day:

 

In the mean time, College Media Association officials announced that UNA was under censure for its actions against Morris.

“I can’t tell you how much the censure means to me,” Morris said. “It was much-needed validation at a time when my own department chair and dean would not stand up for what’s right. I don’t think the censure will have any impact on my employment, but I believe it has opened the eyes of a lot of people at the university and in the community. Since the censure, a few faculty members have had the courage to speak up and question the university’s actions. Many others have told me privately that they support me but they are scared to say anything in public because they are afraid of Provost Ross Alexander.”

Others in the media covered the issue as well, noting that free speech and free press rights are getting bulldozed at the institution. Morris, for his part, has tried to stay above the fray, guiding the students who find themselves in the unenviable position of covering the news while also being the news.

“The students were concerned about how to fairly cover an issue that involved themselves and their adviser,” Morris said. “They decided to get a student media adviser from another university to advise them on this story so there would be no conflict of interest on my part.

“In the middle of it, Cain sent an email to me basically telling me to keep my students in line. He wrote: ‘I do ask that students with The Flor-Ala be reminded to think carefully before venting their spleens in the paper or in the online edition. I understand they are likely upset, and I’ll make myself available to speak with them. I’m just wanting them to avoid doing something rash.'”

(Venting their spleens? It’s rare that a phrase has me simultaneously visualizing a 19th Century medicine man and a mob guy running a protection racket.)

With the intense glare of outside eyes, UNA is attempting to engage in revisionist history regarding Morris’ situation. In other words:

 

“They are using old emails and a memo from 2014 to claim that they have planned to change the adviser’s position to tenured faculty for years,” Morris said. “In fact, all those old emails and memos say is that we agreed to move student media from student affairs to the department of communications, and the unit would continue operating and being funded as it had in the past…”

“One of the most gratifying things that happened was when Dr. Greg Pitts, the former department chair who is at another university now, went on the record disputing the provost and dean’s contention that this move had been in the works since 2014,” Morris added. “Pitts told several media outlets: ‘If anybody asserts that the discussion to change Scott’s position started in 2014 with me, I would simply say that claim is false. At best, it is a wrong conclusion based on the kind of working relationship I wanted to see the department have with student media and The Flor-Ala. At worst, it’s a distortion that gets attributed to me because I am no longer on the faculty.’”

As a longtime journalist and a rational human being, Morris said he knows that this situation will not end well for him at UNA.

“I have no hope of keeping my job,” he said. “The administrators seem intent on sticking to their actions and their dishonest explanations for those actions. Honestly, I find their behavior cruel and repulsive.”

As for his experiences with the staffers at the Flor-Ala, Morris said the juice was worth the squeeze.

“The direct work and relationships with students are among the most gratifying experiences I have had in life,” he said. “I love the students’ enthusiasm and their willingness to “take on the man.” But I would also add that learning how so many people in academia — including those with tenure — just kiss ass to self-serving administrators is so disappointing. I suppose I was naïve, but that part of the equation shocked me. People who teach the First Amendment rights in the hallways and classrooms are afraid to defend it when it involves a personal risk. They should just shut up and teach students how to write press releases instead of pretending to know anything about journalism.”

3 reasons why censoring student media is the dumbest thing you can do as an administrator

The students at Har-Ber High School in Springdale, Arkansas, just got a top-notch education in the area of journalism, censorship and the power of shame this week. The school newspaper, The Herald, published an in-depth, investigative story that details the questionable transfer of several football players to another high school. The story also highlighted some questionable behavior on the part of administrators and athletic officials in regard to this situation.

Naturally, the school district was shocked by this, so district officials decided to kill the messenger:

An Arkansas school district suspended its high school newspaper and threatened to fire the teacher who advises it after student journalists wrote a story criticizing the transfer of five football players to a rival high school.

“They are like, ‘Well, you raised an uproar, we’re going to try and silence you,’” Halle Roberts, 17, the editor-in-chief of the Har-Ber Herald, told BuzzFeed News.

Censorship of any newspaper flies in the face of freedom of the press, however, administrators often feel they have the right to do so for a couple erroneous reasons:

  1. They are the adults. The students are kids. They believe that in the power dynamic, adult trumps kid.
  2. The Hazelwood decision, which administrators have come to misinterpret as carte blanche to censor.
  3. The principle of “ostrich syndrome,” in which people believe if they stick their head in the sand, nothing bad can happen. Thus, if we can just shut people up and nobody can see the problem, it doesn’t exist.

What followed was pure outrage from pretty much the rest of the media world. Buzzfeed News, the Associated Press and Teen Vogue covered the story as did the local publications in Arkansas. The Student Press Law Center got involved and agreed to repost the stories as a public service so anyone could read them.

Eventually, the school district caved, and the students were allowed to put the story back online. Communications director Rick Schaeffer explained the district’s rationale in a particularly bloodless way:

“After continued consideration of the legal landscape, the Springdale School District has concluded that the Har-Ber Herald articles may be reposted,” he wrote. “This matter is complex, challenging and has merited thorough review. The social and emotional well-being of all students has been and continues to be a priority of the district.

In other words, this only “merited thorough review” after you played a game of chicken with the students and not only did they fail to swerve, but they were driving a tank and you were on a bicycle.

Nice save.

Look, the larger problem here is not that the students had to go through all of this, but that this could have been easily avoided if the administration understood the law, realized how media works or just Googled “censoring HS paper goes to hell.” To inspire future administrators to avoid these problems (and also to help you find ways to push back against censorship), here are a few thoughts that should help keep the important stories front and center, despite the ways in which they embarrass school folks:

 

Stop Fighting Fire With Gasoline

The whole reason that administrators attempt to censor student media is because whatever the students published is drawing embarrassing attention to the school. Administrators surmise that if they can kill the message (or the messenger), the attention will stop coming and things will go back to normal.

Simply put, that’s as stupid as trying to put out a fire with a bucket of gasoline.

The first thing that a group of media students will do when you attack them is to make a bigger issue out of it. If they’re good enough to pull together an investigation like this one, they’re not going down without a fight and they clearly have no fear. The more you try to crack them in half, the stronger their resolve will be. That means… Wait for it… more negative attention on your school.

Now, not only does your school look like garbage for whatever the students uncovered, now EVERYBODY is looking at what they uncovered. Furthermore, additional stories are now emerging about the attempt to censor the publication and how lousy the administration is in attempting to beat up on these kids.

People who never even HEARD of your city or your school now know it for all the wrong reasons. Truth be told, even though Springdale, Arkansas is “The Poultry Capital of the World,” I never knew it existed until this censorship debacle hit my Facebook feed.

If you want to avoid problems like this, don’t let stupid things happen in your school in the first place. If you want to avoid making them worse, don’t compound the original stupidity with more of your own.

 

Student Media Kids Have Bodyguards

Administrators are the kings of the castle when it comes to the school itself. Who gets a hall pass, who gets early release, what the dress code needs to be and more are all at the behest of the principal or other similar administration officials. That sense of power can lead to all sorts of things, not the least of which is the assumption that might makes right.

OK, but what happens when you aren’t the strongest person there anymore? What happens when the kids realize this and figure, “Hey, we just need a bodyguard…”

The bad news for you is that they already HAVE those kinds of folks and they aren’t remotely afraid of you. You lack power over them and they have no problem saying, “OK, you wanna play? Let’s play.” These “bodyguards” are folks like the Student Press Law Center, which has a mission and purpose to stand up for students getting messed around by overreaching administrators. These “bodyguards” are journalists at the local and national media outlets, who value the kids’ efforts and disdain censorship of all kinds. (Plus, they probably remember getting messed over by an administrator during their time as students and didn’t like feeling helpless.)

If you decide to step into the ring with the students and do something dumb like this, the students will have plenty of people at the ready who will do everything in their power to make you really regret it.

 

This Is Not Your Father’s Censorship

A few years back, I spoke to a school board in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, where the student publication had been censored and the last line I left them with is one that should ring in your ears forever: “Control is an illusion.”

In the days of Hazelwood (1980s), when an administrator dropped the hammer on a student publication, that was pretty much the end of it. If the paper wasn’t allowed to print something, the students had virtually no other way to get that story out to the public. You were the gatekeeper and you slammed the gate.

That’s not how anything works anymore.

The minute you decide to censor the paper, pull the piece off of the paper’s website or whatever else you think will stop the story from gaining traction, the kids have 12,148 other ways to get this thing out there.

Case in point: The Herald’s story was reposted to the SPLC website so everyone on Earth could read it. People in the student media community were tweeting links to the story everywhere. Someone took a photo of the print edition and it was making the rounds on Facebook, Twitter and other social media. I’m sure you could get a T-shirt made with the whole story on it at CustomInk, if you put your mind to it…

The point is, control has always been an illusion, but now more than ever, you have no control over content. The more suppression you attempt to impose, the harder people will work to share the information you want to suppress.

In summary, you need to realize that trying to censor student media these days is like trying to grab a fist full of Jell-O: The harder you squeeze, the less successful you are. If you really want this thing to go away, do the smart thing: Applaud the work of the students, tell whoever asks that you’re looking into it and fix the problem if you can.

It’s the adult thing to do.

That’s not what I meant, but it is what I wrote: The perils of not rereading your headlines

In the state of Wisconsin, we have an interesting few weeks after our midterm elections. Democrats won both the governor’s office and the attorney-general’s race while both branches of the State Legislature remained in the hands of the Republicans.

Before the power of the governor and attorney general transition from Republican to Democrat, legislative leaders called a lame-duck session to make some “last-minute adjustments” to the rights and responsibilities of the offices they will no longer control. (Side Note: The fact that one party is doing this or not doing it is inconsequential to me. I don’t like it because it seems hypocritical, given the rage that Republicans expressed when Democrats tried a similarly dumb session in 2010 as power was shifting. Both of these things are inconsequential to the point I’m making, but I figured it was fair to toss that out there.)

After a late-night/early-morning marathon session, the House and Senate voted mainly along party lines to do get some things done that they felt they couldn’t get done once the transition of power was complete. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel as done a great job of covering each iteration of this from top to bottom, but it appears their efforts might have been undone with a lousy headline:

ScaleBackHead

The story clearly points out that the lawmakers did reject a bill to protect pre-existing conditions. It also makes clear that the lawmakers did scale back Democrats’ power in those aforementioned offices. However, that’s not what the headline says. It appears to say that there is one bill that was rejected and that bill would have protected pre-existing conditions AND scaled back Democrats’ power.

Pretty much anyone following this would have seen that change as a big deal, because it would have been a 180-degree flip for the Republicans in the Legislature. Pretty much anyone following this would have ALSO figured that there was a better chance of outgoing Republican Gov. Scott Walker riding into the chamber at 3 a.m. on a unicorn, before leading both sides in an impromptu version of the gang dance from Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” video than that flip occurring.

That said, “Aw, you know what I meant” isn’t a legal or professional defense against a mistake like this. If you don’t believe me, reconsider our discussion of this gem:

Handjob
(They never had this program when I was in school…)

Here are three simple tips for making sure you don’t goof up a headline:

  1. RTFS: This stands for a number of things, but “Read The FULL Story” is probably the least offensive version of it. In most cases, you run into problems when you only read a few paragraphs and figure you can nail the headline. In some cases, that’s true, such as a bare-bones inverted-pyramid story on a baseball game. However, most things are more nuanced than “who beat whom and what was the score” so make sure you give yourself the chance to read through the whole thing before you start writing the headline.
  2. Have someone ELSE who isn’t involved in the story read the headline: Many problems in writing come from a writer who has a lot of knowledge of a topic assuming too much about what other people might know. Other problems stem from the “you know what I meant” syndrome that writers fall back on after they fall on their keys in public. I’d bet that most people who read the Pratt Tribune didn’t think the kids were really getting a “first hand job” either, but again, that’s why a second (or third or fourth) set of eyes on your writing will help make things better.
  3. Focus on helping your readers. The first time I read this headline, I thought, “Hey, maybe all the attention got to them.” Then, I read the story and realized that I was wrong, which made me angry at the situation and angry at the headline writer. Part of it felt like it might have been just a late-night goof, but the other part of it felt like, “Just put a headline on this thing and people will read it anyway.”

    We usually get ticked off at click-bait heads like, “How to make $1 million in a day!” or “You’ll never guess how good THIS STAR looks after a stint in prison.” However, we’re pretty good at this point about ferreting out the clearly weaselly heads and we kind of get over it. In a case like this, it’s a trusted source that looked bad, and that can do more damage than a particularly hyperbolic head in a lousy publication.