The decision by the Clover school district to withhold details from the public about a May 13 assault at Clover High School no doubt was viewed by district officials as the best way to defuse the situation. Unfortunately, an overly cautious approach can increase apprehension, spur false rumors and foster public distrust.
This was not a run-of-the-mill student altercation. Clover High freshman Arkiva Rashon “AJ” Hunter, 16, has been charged as an adult with attempted murder after allegedly picking up a 16-year-old fellow student, slamming his head onto a concrete floor and then repeatedly hitting the boy in the head with his fist. That attack caused “great bodily injury, which was life threatening,” according to reports by the York County Sheriff’s Office.
Sheriff’s Office spokesman Trent Faris, later said the attack was premeditated. Hunter has been released from jail on a $15,000 bond.
Few details regarding the assault were provided by Clover school officials the day it occurred. They refused to answer questions posed by The Herald, and parents received no information about the attack from the district until 28 hours later.
The first official notification to parents came in a statement from Clover High Principal Mark Hopkins, distributed by email and social media.
“There is a great deal of misinformation and rumor circulating in conversations both online and offline,” he wrote. “I want you to know the injured student is recovering and that the sheriff’s office is coordinating the investigation into the altercation.”
Ironically, this terse, uninformative statement in all likelihood helped fuel the misinformation and rumors Hopkins complained about. It is naive to assume that, in an era where communication via cell phone and social media is instantaneous and viral, the school could control the flow of information by sitting on the details.
When the school’s response later was questioned, district spokesman Mychal Frost said, in a written statement, that “school officials’ immediate primary focus becomes the safety of the injured student and isolating individuals involved.” We would not argue that this was the top priority for school officials.
We would, however, assert that officials also had an obligation, once order had been restored, to tell parents and students what had happened, what actions the district took and what school officials would do to ensure the safety of all students. That reassurance might have helped squelch the misinformation and rumors.
School officials also said they didn’t want to interfere with the sheriff’s investigation and that they were constrained by student privacy laws from releasing details. But many details of what had occurred and steps taken by the school could have been explained without breaching privacy guidelines.
For example, schools officials could have revealed that two Clover High students would be disciplined for filming the attack, which the school deemed to be highly inappropriate behavior. That doesn’t invade anyone’s privacy.
Soon after South Pointe High School’s quarterback was arrested for selling marijuana on campus, Rock Hill school district officials were forthcoming about the incident, commenting on the seriousness of the allegations. District officials no doubt realized that getting in front of the story was the best approach.
We don’t question that Clover officials had the best interests of students at heart in withholding information about this incident. But after Columbine and Newtown and scores of other instances of school violence, silence breeds dread.
When a student is charged with a crime as serious as attempted murder, the school has a responsibility to set the record straight, put a stop to the rumors and reassure the community that the situation is under control and students are safe. Platitudes just aren’t enough.