What happens when rumors start flying in a community? When a topic of a sensational nature starts circulating in a small town, it can take on a life of its own. With each telling of the story, it can become impossible to discern facts from speculation.
That was the situation facing The Elkhart Truth's editors and reporters last week when another media outlet reported on Thursday evening, Oct. 10, that the NorthWood High School community was abuzz over a teacher's inappropriate relationship with a student. The teacher was said to have been removed from the school.
The report touched off a rapid exchange of emails between staff in the newsroom and other editors who had gone home for the day. One email from Deb Sprong, an editor on duty at the time, observed: "(T)here are no facts in this report."
Reporter Emily Pfund started making phone calls. Her reporting that night established that Elkhart County Sheriff's Department officials were investigating a child seduction report but drew no connection to the Nappanee area or a teacher on NorthWood's staff. Pfund also found that Nappanee police were not involved in the case. Wa-Nee school administrators were, of course, not in their offices in the evening and weren't available to answer questions. With only these scant facts to go on, there was no story to report ... yet.
The first verifiable facts in the case came when Wa-Nee schools issued a press release Tuesday morning reporting that Spanish teacher Brooke Wilson had been fired because of "possible inappropriate conduct" with a male student at NorthWood.
Reporter Lydia Sheaks wrote this story after receiving the press release.
After consulting with editors Tuesday morning and finding the location of Wilson's home, Sheaks and Truth photo chief Jennifer Shephard went to the teacher's home to seek comment. When they arrived, Sheaks and Shephard were greeted by Wilson's husband, who firmly declined to comment.
Our reporting isn't done in this situation, but we're comfortable that we've met the high standards we've set for ourselves to base our reporting on issues of community interest in facts.
When a NorthWood teacher is accused of misconduct, that's of great interest to the Nappanee and Wakarusa communities, which entrust the schools with the task of educating their children and being good stewards of their money. Speculation and gossip is to be expected in this case, but you won't hear any of it from us.
What serves the public in a case such as this is to pursue relentlessly the facts, to give a voice to the parties involved in the situation and to report on the actions of school administrators and police officials. That's our commitment to the people of the Wa-Nee schools and to our readers.