Sometimes telling the truth hurts

It’s rare that we respond publicly to a letter to the editor.

But the letter below, from Skyler Banta of Springfield, raises issues that all of our readers need to understand: why we handle cases involving children the way we do.

Banta’s letter refers to the situation a few weeks ago in which an 11-year-old student at Oak Heights School took a gun to school and was taken into protective custody after a classmate’s parent learned about it. It is true that we ran the boy’s name while other local media did not. What is not true is that we misreported the facts.

So, basically, we have two issues here. One, should we run the name of a child who has been arrested for a crime, and two, how do we report our news?

Those are questions that all our readers should be concerned about, so we’ve decided to address them here.

Neither of our two-person news staff, one of whom has covered Sweet Home for more than 10 years, takes any pleasure in reporting that anyone has been arrested, let alone a child. It’s a bummer to see anyone go astray.

Many newspapers and media organizations have decided not to print the name of minors who are arrested for minor crimes. In some states, law enforcement officials are prohibited from releasing minors’ names. That’s not the case in Oregon. If you go down to the police station in Oregon, you, as a member of the public, can read the name of everyone who has been arrested or cited in town for as far back as records are available, no matter what their age.

For decades The New Era has faithfully reported police activities in our city. It has published the names of citizens, including young citizens, who have run afoul of the law. We don’t do this to punish people. That is not our job. We don’t do it with glee. Often, we regret having to do it. We simply report something that has happened in our city for those citizens who are interested in reading about it.

The letter below is not the only complaint we’ve gotten about our policy of reporting the names of minors. Recently, we heard from the parent of another boy who has gotten in trouble. The parent told us the youngster has trouble controlling his emotions and had been teased because his name had appeared.

We’re bothered by that too – more on that later. But the arguments in both these cases were essentially that minor children have trouble understanding the consequences of their actions and that when they make a mistake, their errors should not be publicized to the point of letting people know who the accused is.

Children do foolish things. Many of us may not have ended up facing criminal charges, but we did things that may have left us with a stinging sensation on our behind and/or listening to a stern parental lecture.

While we understand that a child may not realize the full extent of consequences of his or her actions, most children, we would hope, would have some qualms about stealing some candy at the grocery store or lighting an unauthorized fire or attacking someone or sneaking a firearm into school – all activities that potentially will result in a brush with the law. They may not think things through to the possibility that their deed might become public knowledge; but most should have enough understanding of societal mores, and the laws, to realize that such activities would have the potential to get them in trouble.

At some point, children need to be accountable for their actions. If parents, for whatever reason, cannot hold them accountable, society eventually will be forced to. When a child is suspected of committing a crime, even something within the private realm of a household, police get involved and they take the children into “protective custody” and charge them.

Police involvement is a public matter. It means something has affected the public to some degree, and these matters should be handled publicly. That’s why people get their names in our community’s newspaper when they’re charged with crimes.

Though painful, publishing the names of children who are arrested or cited does serve at least two purposes.

One is it cuts down on false information. Sweet Home is relatively small. Stories travel fast and they usually take some wild twists and turns on the way, which is why it’s unreliable and even dangerous to rely on gossip. In following story leads we’ve picked up from word of mouth, we find that usually the actual facts are quite different from what we heard on the street. Keep that in mind when you hear the whispers.

A second reason is that it lets us know whom we need to keep an eye on. Because we’re a fairly close community, the chances are rather good that your family member may interact with someone who has appeared in the Police Log – much better than if you lived in a larger city. Your child may very likely one day be in school with a kid who got in trouble. You may stand behind someone in the grocery line who once assaulted someone or worse. A person whose name once appeared in the Police Log may move in down the street from you – or maybe already lives there. Don’t you think you should know?

Another issue, along the same lines, is that your child may not tell you things you need to know. According to police reports, boys who were aware the gun was at the school did not tell any school officials while it was happening. If they didn’t tell teachers about the gun, it’s certainly possible that their parent might not learn about it either.

And that brings up another point that probably the most important, especially in regard to children who get in trouble. Often there are reasons why children get in trouble – a difficult stage in life, parental difficulties, family problems, influence of other kids, etc. Just because a youngster gets in trouble once doesn’t mean he or she is ruined for life. Children can straighten out, and many do. We certainly hope the young man who got in trouble in this gun incident is one of them. Hopefully, it’s just a single, serious mistake and five years from now we will all know him as a good kid.

If you want to help keep kids’ names out of the Police Log, help kids. Volunteer as a mentor. Too many children in Sweet Home schools are playing the game of life with a weak hand. They’re from impoverished, single- or no-parent households, with little means or encouragement to pursue education or other positive activities. They need help, and being a Lunch Buddy mentor is a good way to give them a little. Call the school district at 367-7115 and inquire. There is also the Boys and Girls Club, the new community arts center we’ve reported about in today’s paper, and other attempts to reach out to kids.

Yes, we think knowing which youngsters in our community have gotten into serious trouble is a sad necessity. But just because we tell you who they are doesn’t mean we believe they should be branded for life. The community just needs to know so they can give youngsters who have gotten in trouble appropriate attention until it’s clear they don’t need it any more.

P.S. In regard to the letter writer’s other complaints, we never talked to any children in reporting this story. We talked to the police and the principal, who had talked to the boy’s classmates.

As far as the charges being wrong, we reported exactly what the police said the boy had been charged with when we inquired the day we went to press. One of the reasons we have that little gray box on the page witih the Police Log (page 2 today) is because we want to remind readers that, just as we say there, a person who isn’t arrested isn’t automatically guilty. Charges are often added and dropped as a case moves through the courts. We can only tell you what the charges were when the police arrested a suspect, then follow up later as the case moves through the sytstem.

We double-checked before we sent the Oak Heights story to press. The charges may subsequently have changed since the case moved into the court process, but what you read on Feb. 21 was accurate.