"Star" Over Joaquin?

was really disappointed in the cover story of your February 19 edition dealing with the town of Joaquin and its school (“What Really Happened to the Class of ’99?). Being a resident of Joaquin and the elementary principal, I knew that I would not agree with much of what was in the article. What I didn’t expect was such biased, one-sided sensationalism. Nate and Karen not only gathered information almost exclusively from critics of the school, but they also purposely put false information into their story. Instead of being in the fine tradition of such progressive magazines as Mother Jones and the Nation, the Observer has become more like the Enquirer and the Star.

Karen and Nate messed up from the very start. Joaquin is not located at the end of Highway 59. Joaquin is located at the intersection of Highway 84 and Highway 7. After reading the article, I felt sure Nate and Karen must have gone to another town and school at the end of Highway 59 — wherever that might be. Also, the school is not located on Highway 7 but on Highway 84.

Karen and Nate made it seem like before-school detention was Mr. Barlow’s creation. In reality, before-school detention has been used as an alternative to corporal punishment since the 1970s. The article stated that if a student received one tardy, s/he was subjected to three licks. This is not correct, and Karen knew it was not accurate. In fact, a student can have as many as fourteen tardies in six weeks with no penalty. (Seven class periods, with two free tardies in each class.) If a student has excessive tardies, the student is assigned an hour of before-school detention. The student can opt for corporal punishment if s/he chooses. However, any parent or student can sign a form stating the student is not to receive corporal punishment, and corporal punishment will not be used. Why would Karen and Nate purposely distort the truth? The reason is that in tabloid journalism, the emphasis is not on truth but on sensationalism.

In November of last year, after two lawsuits were filed by an Austin law firm, the community of Joaquin organized a rally in support of the school. Karen and Nate stated that this rally was organized by the school administration. The administration (our entire administrative staff consists on one superintendent and two principals) had absolutely nothing to do with organizing this rally. Four to five hundred people did rally in support of our community and school. Our state representative, Wayne Christian, did speak favorably about Joaquin schools. Nate and Karen knew that the administration had nothing to do with organizing this rally. Why would they distort the truth? Again, it was needed to create a sensational story.

Nate and Karen stated that “about 30 percent of Joaquin’s population is unemployed.” A quick check with the county employment office would have shown that the unemployment rate has been around 6 percent for the last several years. But 30 percent unemployment sounds much better for a story trashing a small, rural town.

In another section of this story, the paper referred to a teacher named Betty Herkey (kind of sounds like Jerky). Her name is actually Hervey. In the same paragraph, Nate and Karen accuse Barlow of misusing “Alternative School Placement.” All districts now have off-campus centers that allow disruptive students or students who have committed serious violations to continue their schooling. A quick check with Dr. Claudia Knowles of the Texas Education Agency would have revealed that “the 7-8 students referred to A.E.P. by the Joaquin School district annually is not considered excessive for a school district that size.” Why wasn’t this in the article? Because the truth didn’t serve the reporter’s purpose.

As reported in the Observer article, several parents filed complaints with the Texas Education Agency. The complaints were referred back to the district. The district was to investigate the complaints and report back to T.E.A. The article went on to say that “Rinehart (school superintendent) appointed none other than Barlow to investigate the discrimination complaints, and paid him $1,000 for the favor.” Nate and Karen got it wrong again. Some of the complaints sent to T.E.A. dealt with matters that happened twenty-five years ago. Many occurred before Mr. Barlow became principal. Mr. Rinehart conducted the investigation. He assigned numerous people to look into various allegations. Mr. Barlow and I were each paid $1,000 in the spring of 1998, for extra duties we were assigned during an extended illness of the school superintendent. Nate and Karen could easily have found this out. But the truth was not sensational enough for their story.

On the last page of the article, Nate and Karen stated that the school took Anise Tolson to court. Again, this was false. A quick check of district court records and a short refresher course in civics would have shown that Tolson sued the school, not the other way around. Tolson, a resident of Louisiana, had falsified and lied about her residency. When her son was denied the right to illegally attend Joaquin schools, Tolson sued. The court did not order Tolson to pay Joaquin I.S.D. thousands of dollars. After it became clear to Tolson’s attorney that Tolson had not been truthful in court about her residence, her attorney approached the school’s attorneys and worked out an agreement. In the agreement between the school and Tolson, Tolson agreed to pay back tuition for some of the years in question. This is all public record. Why didn’t Karen and Nate take the time to find the truth? The reason is that the truth did not fit into the type of sensational story that they wanted to create.

A large part of the article dealt with two assaults and drug use on the high school campus. Senate Bill 1 and state law are very clear in what is to be done in cases of assault or drug use. These episodes cannot simply be ignored.

There were many things Karen and Nate discovered during their visit to our small community. Most of what they reported was distorted or outright wrong. Many things were purposely left out of their article because it did not fit their biased, prejudiced view. They didn’t mention that one of Joaquin’s city councilmen is black. That the parents on the high school and elementary site-based committees are both black. That the director of the Senior Citizen Center in Joaquin is black. That the regional educational service center recently recognized Joaquin schools as “champions of migrant students.” The service center noted that even though Joaquin has a small migrant population, the school and community went far beyond what is required in providing services to migrant families.

As any school or town, Joaquin has its share of problems. At the present time we have no African-American teachers. (We have in the past and will in the future.) The picture painted by Karen and Nate did not reflect a true picture of our community or school. Nate and Karen made a point of leaving out anything that did not paint Joaquin as a hate-filled town.

Randall K. Smith Joaquin

Nate Blakeslee and Karen Olsson respond:

We very much regret two significant errors in our story. First, 30 percent (actually 28.08 percent) is the poverty rate in Joaquin, not the unemployment rate — which, according to the Texas Workforce Commission, is 9.9 percent. Second, as Mr. Smith correctly points out, it was Anise Tolson who brought the lawsuit which resulted in her paying thousands of dollars of “back tuition,” and the case was settled out of court.

We apologize for misspelling Ms. Hervey’s name (unintentionally), and we apologize for getting the highway number wrong: Highway 59 splits off from Highway 84 about twelve miles west of Joaquin. And, having mistakenly assumed the “Save Our School” event was organized by the school, we stand corrected: when faced with serious charges of abuse of power by its high school principal, the town spontaneously erupted into rallying.

While we did speak with Smith, Principal Barlow, and members of the multicultural committee, many school supporters (including the school board president, the superintendent, the city marshall, the site-based committee’s community representative, and state Representative Wayne Christian) declined to talk to us or did not return multiple phone calls.

We did not contend, or try to imply, that Barlow created before-school detention. There is no way for us to know for certain how many licks Principal Barlow administered; we reported what Anise Tolson says that students told her. The reason we did not delve further into the school’s calculus of swatting is because — as with the questions about inappropriate use of Alternative Education placement — the more significant allegations against Barlow have to do with whether punishments are meted out in a discriminatory and/or overzealous fashion, not just with numbers of swats or A.E.P. placements. As for whether parents sign a form so that their children will not receive corporal punishment: we made it clear in the article that this is school policy. We also did not include allegations, which we heard from several sources, that parents are not consistently informed when their children are disciplined, and that Barlow has in the past pressured students and parents who’ve opted for detention to relent and let him use the paddle anyway.

We did not try to characterize Joaquin as a “hate-filled” town, but rather as a place where many people are in denial about problems at the high school. Our article described how students have been (according to parents and students) chased around campus by the city marshall brandishing a gun, jailed for three weeks as the result of an argument with a teacher, taken into custody for no reason, ridiculed by Barlow in his newsletter, and made to feel “targeted” and unwelcome because they are lower-income or nonwhite or learning-disabled or, in the words of Ricky Gibson, “anything other than middle American white class.” It is strange to us that Smith’s response doesn’t address any of these charges.

But not that strange. When we asked students which teachers seemed to lend the most support to Barlow’s disciplinary regime, the first name mentioned was usually that of Smith’s wife, Sue Smith (“She just hated me,” was the common refrain). Mr. Smith presumably gets much of his information about what’s going on at the high school from his wife and from Mr. Barlow himself.

Smith would hear a different story if he took the time to listen to the kids who’ve left Joaquin High School because of their bad experiences there. The school has done a great disservice to these students. And all that’s necessary for this evil to persist is for good men to sit around and count little factual errors.

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Published at 12:00 am CST