An unusual story began making the rounds on right-wing Web sites last week. It seems a second grader in a Taunton, Mass., public school had been suspended for drawing a picture of Jesus on the cross.
As the Taunton Daily Gazette reported, a class at Maxham Elementary School was supposedly given an assignment to make a Christmas-themed drawing. One 9-year-old boy drew a stick figure on a cross. He was suspended.
There was a good bit of outrage among the Religious Right about this incident, but further investigation has exposed a number of holes in the story. The Boston Globe has reported that the child was not suspended, and his classmates were never assigned to do a Christmas drawing.
So what did happen? According to school officials, the boy for some reason drew a picture of a figure on a cross and labeled it with his own name. A teacher interpreted the sketch as a cry for help. Following school protocol, she referred the matter to the principal and the school psychologist. The psychologist met with the boy and determined there was no reason he could not remain in school.
"Religion had nothing to do with this at all, 100 percent nothing to do with it," said Julie Hackett, superintendent of the Taunton public schools.
She added in a statement, "In this case, as in any other case involving the well-being of a student, the administration acted in accordance with the School Department's well-established protocol. This protocol is centered upon the student's care, well-being, and educational success. The protocol includes a review of the student's records."
Hackett accused the Daily Gazette of having a vendetta against the school and failing to get its side of the story. The newspaper's editor, Dino F. Ciliberti, refused to talk to the Globe.
Meanwhile, the boy's father, Chester Johnson, seems intent on milking the incident for some type of gain.
"It hurts me that they did this to my kid," Johnson said. "They can't mess with our religion. They owe us a small lump sum for this."
Johnson also said, "I also think they should give him a fully paid scholarship to the school of his choice. We should be compensated for our pain and suffering."
Stories like this often pop during the holiday season. They are spread far and wide over the web and usually spark copious amounts of outrage from the Religious Right.
The problem is, the stories almost always turn out to be distorted – or just plain made up.
In 2005, I was invited to discuss the so-called "war on Christmas" on the Fox News Channel. John Gibson, host of a since-cancelled program called "The Big Story," wanted to talk about alleged assaults on Christmas in public schools.
Fox had been shopping around a list of alleged Christmas "horror stories" from public schools. I obtained a copy, and an AU researcher and I spent a day calling the schools on the list.
What we found, in every case, was that relevant facts had been omitted or that the stories were fictitious. For example, one school in Texas was accused of ordering students not to wear red and green clothes during the month of December. When I called the school, an official there just laughed. There was no such policy in place, but the school was getting so many calls on the matter it actually had to post a statement on its Web site debunking it.
Things got a little testy when I challenged the veracity of Gibson and the entire Fox network. In fact, we ended up screaming at one another. It was perhaps not my finest moment on television, but I have to admit I was angry. Hard-working people in the public schools were being slimed because some folks dislike public education and have an axe to grind.
I wasn't at the school in Taunton and don't know for sure what happened. What I do know is that some facts were misconstrued, and there are two sides to this story. The Daily Gazette failed in its duty to present both accurately.
Also, the fact that the boy's father is trying to shake down the school should be a huge red flag waving in the face of journalists. As I learned from my days as a newspaper reporter, a certain amount of cynicism and skepticism is helpful in that job.
The holiday season is winding down, but I'm sure we haven't seen the last of stories like this. An old adage states, "If it sounds too good to be true, it is." Likewise, if a story sounds completely and utterly outrageous, it doesn't hurt to be a little skeptical.