Yesterday, the Chronicle Herald published an article with the alarming headline “Parents worried over school kids’ brutality at Chebucto Heights Elementary School.” The lede:

HALIFAX — Concerned parents are reporting incidents of violence by refugee students at Chebucto Heights Elementary School.

Reports of students choking, pushing, slapping and verbally abusing their fellow classmates are causing parents to worry about the school’s disciplinary action.

Refugees in the news

Much of the reaction to the Chronicle Herald article on social media was related to the allegation that refugee children are a problem.

Leading up to last fall’s election, Justin Trudeau campaigned with a pledge to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada. His Liberal Party of course won a majority in Parliament, and as prime minister Trudeau has lived up to his pledge. While the process has taken a little longer than promised, as of last week, 26,213 Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada.

The Canadian public has mostly supported the refugee policy, and communities across the country have mobilized to sponsor refugee families and provide the needed services.

But the reaction south of the border has been less enthusiastic. In March, an Ipsos poll found that about 50 per cent of Americans thought the refugees coming to Canada posed a security threat to the United States. And Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has stoked anti-refugee sentiment, saying that if elected he would deport Syrian refugees.

While it’s not the prevailing attitude in Canada, some of the American anti-refugee sentiment is shared north of the border. In March, Toronto legal scholar Azeezah Kanji catalogued some of the uglier reactions:

An online Care2 petition asking the government to “stop resettling 25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada” has garnered almost 50,000 signatures, accompanied by comments such as “terrists [sic]” and “If the Liberal Government wishes to increase the number of refugee’s [sic] to Canada, BRING IN THE CHRISTIANS. I don’t think Mr. Trudeau will as he seems to be dedicated to the Muslim Brotherhood.” Calgary schools have been defaced by anti-Muslim graffiti, most recently two weeks ago. In January, a group of Syrian refugees attending a welcome event in Vancouver were attacked with pepper spray. Anti-immigrant groups have organized demonstrations in Canada; Pegida Quebec’s march in Montreal on Feb. 6 was shut down by activists.

As Chris Parsons points out, there was an immediate xenophobic reaction to the Chronicle Herald on Facebook. But not just Facebook. A quick google search this morning found the following:

Arnie Lemaire’s blazingcatfur:

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Ezra Levant’s The Rebel:

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An American gun rights site:

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Something called jihadwatch:

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I am not arguing that any problems associated with refugees should not be reported because xenophobic and crazed right wingers will use the articles to advance their own warped causes. But this article fails as reporting.

Accuracy

In the article, several disturbing details were offered by an pseudonymously named parent, “Missy”:

Missy said her daughter, who is in Grade 3, was choked on Monday and Thursday last week by two refugee boys. A chain was used on both occasions, but she cannot confirm the size or strength of the chain. She said one boy yelled “Muslims rule the world” while choking her daughter. School staff intervened, but to her knowledge, the students were not disciplined further.

But this morning, the headline on the online version of the article has been changed to “Chebucto Heights bullying worries parents” and the allegations that a chain was used in an attack and that the boys yelled “Muslims ruled the world” have been removed. The paragraph now reads:

Missy said her daughter, who is in Grade 3, was choked on Monday and Thursday last week by two refugee boys. School staff intervened, but to her knowledge, the students were not disciplined further.

There is no editorial note explaining the changes. I’ve archived the original article here, and the revised article here. I’ll update this page if there are further revisions. Update: the article has now been removed completely. There is still  no explanation.

Surely an attack with a chain would be reported to the police, no? Last night, I asked the police department if they had any record of such an attack, and spokesperson Lauren Leal responded this morning as follows:

I looked at the calls from Jan 2016 to present and did not find an incident that correlates with what is described in the article. We did receive one complaint from a parent who reported an assault that occurred on February 19 involving a six-year-old assaulting another six-year-old. We have limited information, as the parent reported for information purposes only and requested no further police action. 

At best, then, we have a parent who was so concerned about an alleged attack with a chain that she called the local newspaper, but not so concerned that she would call the police.

Without an editor’s note explaining the changes, we’re left with guesswork. Possibly, the facts were simply incorrect— there was no chain involved and no one yelled “Muslims ruled the world,” and so those details were removed.

Or maybe the original article wasn’t clear enough. Was the “chain” actually a necklace?

Another possibility is that in light of the negative social media reaction, the paper changed the story to tone it down and take out the most disturbing details.

But whatever the reason for the changes, without an explanation for them, the paper will rightly be perceived as dishonest and untrustworthy.

Lack of professionalism

When I first read the article I thought the reporting could be incorrect because the chain of evidence was too long: an unnamed child told an unnamed parent something that was relayed to an unnamed reporter, who wrote an article that was vetted (or not) by an unnamed editor.

It’s impossible to ignore that this article was written during the strike by the Chronicle Herald newsroom employee union, which represents reporters, photographers, and some editors. During the strike, Chronicle Herald management has hired temporary “replacement workers” to fill in on reporting, and the paper is not publishing bylines on the articles produced by the scabs.

One could argue that the no-bylines policy is meant to protect the reporters from retaliation by striking reporters. But another byproduct of the policy is that there is a lack of accountability. We don’t know who to blame for the reporting. We don’t know if the reporter has an axe to grind, or has been responsible for other unfair or inaccurate articles.

The lack of accountability extends to the editors. Two of the pre-strike editors — Brian Ward and Paul O’Connell — are not members of the union and so remain at the editing desk. But three other editors who are unionized are walking the picket line and their seats at the editing desk are being filled by advertising staff and other non-journalists. Ward and O’Connell have good reputations as editors, and would likely have flagged the article in question. It appears to me that the article in question went through the other, non-journalist, editors.

The point of publishing the article seems to have been to get content out, possibly content that generates wide discussion, and never mind the ethical considerations.

Moreover, at the heart of the story are allegations made by a pseudonymous parent — essentially, an anonymous source. There’s a disturbing lack of context given to the decision to grant the parent anonymity.

However, as Chris Parsons points out, the article uses the parent’s nickname — Missy — and a Facebook user by the name of “Missy Karma Lewis” has weighed in on the discussion:

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Ethical reporting

But the biggest problem I have with the Chronicle Herald story is that it violates basic ethical guidelines about reporting on children.

Generally, we don’t report on alleged violence at elementary schools at all, unless it rises to the level of a lockdown and a police response that warrants notifying the broader community. I can’t think of any previous Chronicle Herald story about an alleged schoolyard fight at an elementary school.

Our legal system recognizes that children under 12 years of age can’t be held criminally responsible, and for good reason: Children are not fully formed. They are still learning how to function in the world, are not thoroughly socialized, and have only the beginnings of an understanding of morality and right-and-wrong. They’re kids! Every kid screws up, acts inappropriately, has trouble. That’s why we have parents and adult professionals charged with helping them in the journey.

Beyond that, these particular children came from a war zone. The horrors they have seen by age eight likely exceed anything most of the readers of the Chronicle Herald article could even imagine. They then were removed from their friends and extended families and took a long journey that brought them to a strange land with different languages and customs.

Is it believable that these kids might have some problems adjusting? Sure. But what kind of person uses traumatized children as pieces in a public relations game? We can expect as much from the Ezra Levants of the world, but reporters are held to a higher standard.

Reporters should recognize the long-term implications of what they write with regards to children. It’s one thing to praise a kid for being an environmental advocate, or being a good basketball player, or what have you. A positive news story about a young person will likely leave that kid feeling good and build self-esteem.

It’s entirely a different thing to label a child as a “brutal” thug. The Chronicle Herald article will be referenced by the refugee kids’ peers, no doubt as soon as tomorrow. It will be used to stigmatize and alienate the boys. It will slow their integration into society and may serve to marginalize them for years to come. It may screw up the rest of their lives.

Again, we’re talking about kids. We don’t know their exact ages, but they’re probably younger than 10.

Kids.

Tim Bousquet

Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

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13 Comments

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  1. Haven’t been buying the Chronicle Herald for a couple months and just as well! Too bad this school yard story was processed & printed with little mind regarding journalism ethics. I think it’s gone international, for crying out loud

  2. When discernment and clarity are required, they sometimes show up. But not always.

    Thank you, Tim Bousquet, for recognizing the need to speak up—and then acting upon it.

  3. There are so many errors here, all very well enumerated and explained.

    The real danger is that stuff like this inflames people. The damage the journalist — and the herald in publishing it — have done is still unknown and may never be knowable.

    Taken on its own, there are serious questions raised about this writer’s ethics and basic powers of discernment. But taken in context, a context that nearly every somewhat-informed adult would be aware of, the risks to these specific children’s safety and well-being are obvious, and the risk to all Canadians who aren’t lily white with a mid-atlantic accent rises too.

    And context is what we pay journalists to provide. Thanks again for providing it.

  4. First-class research, reporting and writing. In her poem “Aurora,” the pioneering Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks put it this way: “It is the giant-hour. Nothing less than gianthood will do.”

  5. I agree that this was a trainwreck of a story, but I am not sure there was nothing at all to look into here. If I read your “ethical” commentary right, you seem to think that violence by kids at a school is something we wouldn’t report. I am not sure that is always the case, although, as I say, this isn’t the way to do it. If there is violence at a school, I would want to know what the school is doing about it, and whether it has been given enough resources to handle this. It is always worth looking into, because I don’t always expect a straight answer from school officials. Where I live, a girl hanged herself after being bullied at school. It isn’t kids will be kids. Bullying is a serious matter that deserves attention.

    As for calling the police, I can’t speak for the police in Halifax but the police here will generally not get involved if they are under 12, since no charges can be laid. It can be hard enough to get them involved even when they are older than 12. So possibly — assuming the incident happened at all — those concerned didn’t think it worthwhile taking that step.

    But this story plainly shouldn’t have been printed, and caused a lot of damage and let the bigot trolls strut in triumph and post the most outrageous assertions on social media. It is like serving up improperly prepared pufferfish. As you say, hearsay upon hearsay and no verification of any incident at all other than from people who won’t let their names be published. Any number of questions for specific details that should have been asked, weren’t asked. If such an incident could be confirmed, I would want to know (amongst other things) what resources have been made available to the school to meet this kind of challenge and what specific steps are being taken to make the school safe for everyone. Specific steps, not vague references to provincial policies and bureaucratic marshmallow words. Also are the incoming kids themselves being bullied and victims of violence, etc.? And I’d have sought some kind of expert voice here, to put things in perspective and probably give me some guidance on what further questions to ask.

    I’m not sure I see the soccer game thing as huge. We used to do that exact thing when I was in school. Possibly a stern lecture from the coach, or the ref calling a foul for unsportsmanlike conduct, would be sufficient. But I’m not an expert on how these things are handled now. Assuming it even happened at all.

  6. Thank you for writing this, Tim. It’s pieces like this that make me proud to support your work.

  7. I thought the original article couldn’t possibly be true. I wouldn’t read it on the CH website, only saw screen shots and discussions about it. I am strongly opposed to anything concerning a specific child being shared by an adult in a public forum – including parenting columns that discuss the family’s life, blogs, plays about a child’s disability, etc. This goes so far beyond that it’s sickening, whether it occurred or not, and of course the negative effects are far greater than just for those children.

  8. Great piece. One point though: Depending on whom you ask, the child who supposedly yelled “Muslims rule the world” can’t speak or understand English. How does that get past the reporter/editor?