Christian schools

Wink and nod: What was a black girl doing at Karen Pence's 'Christian' school anyway?

Wink and nod: What was a black girl doing at Karen Pence's 'Christian' school anyway?

In many ways, it was the perfect “white evangelical” horror story.

So you had an African-American sixth-grader who reported that she was bullied by three boys who taunted her with racial insults and cut off some of her dreadlocks. This took place at a “Christian” school where Karen Pence, as in the wife of Donald Trump’s loyal vice president, has taught off and on for more than a decade.

It’s a story that, in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in), host Todd Wilken and I explored on three levels, as in the three parts of a click-bait equation.

First, there is the story of the accusations of an alleged assault, which turned out not to be true, according to the girl’s family.

That was a tragic local story. What made it a national story?

That’s the second level of this story — the key click-bait link to Trump World. That was especially true in a rather snarky NBC News online report (which even worked in an LGBTQ angle, due to the school’s doctrinal statement on marriage and sex).

But that wasn’t the angle that interested me the most. No, I was interested in the school itself. I imagine that lots of readers much have thought to themselves (I will paraphrase): What in the world is a black girl doing enrolled at the kind of white evangelical Trump-loving alleged Christian school that would Mrs. Mike Pence would be teach at for a dozen years or so?

Thus, I was interested in the following paragraph of factual material that was included in two Washington Post stories about this case:

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False charges: Did journalists spot a crucial fact about Karen Pence's Christian school?

False charges: Did journalists spot a crucial fact about Karen Pence's Christian school?

On one level, what we have here is another sad, tragic, case of a person of color making false accusations of racism — violent racism in this case — against other people.

That’s an important story. But wait! There was a chance to link this attack to Donald Trump and his White House team. That makes it a bigger story, right? Maybe even a national story. #Obviously

We will deal with those issues rather quickly, because I think there is another interesting news story hidden inside this case study. It’s an angle that The Washington Post didn’t dwell on, but managed to handle in a way that was accurate and fair. NBC News, on the other hand, settled for stereotypes and politics.

Let’s start with NBC and this dramatic double-decker headline, before this story took a dramatic twist:

3 boys at Christian school where Karen Pence teaches allegedly cut black girl's dreadlocks

"They said my hair was nappy and I was ugly," the sixth-grade girl said.

That headline does say “allegedly,” which is important since the 12-year-old girl has now said the attack never happened. Her family says she made it up. That’s really all we need to say about that, methinks.

What interests me is how NBC handled the school involved in this story. This whole situation is newsworthy, of course, because Karen Pence teaches at this Christian school.

So, a black girl is bullied — with racist taunts — in a Christian school that is, somehow, connected to the white evangelical empire of Donald Trump.

Many readers probably asked: Why was this African-American student attending a white evangelical school? She was doomed from the start, since this has to be a white evangelical school if Karen Pence is teaching there. Right? All of those evangelical “Christian” schools are for white people, you know.

Now let’s turn to the Washington Post story that ran with this headline: “Virginia sixth-grader now says she falsely accused classmates of cutting her hair.” Here is the crucial statement from the family:

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Friday Five: #ExposeChristianSchools, Trump's Bible, buried lede, tmatt's future, Mariano Rivera

Friday Five: #ExposeChristianSchools, Trump's Bible, buried lede, tmatt's future, Mariano Rivera

“Reporter Trolls Christian Schools” was the headline on a recent Wall Street Journal column after a New York Times reporter asked for feedback from people who had attended Christian schools.

A lot of conservatives saw the request — tied to the viral hashtag #ExposeChristianSchools that emerged after headlines over Vice President Mike Pence’s wife, Karen, teaching at an evangelical school — as a pretense for a looming hit piece.

In fact, the actual New York Times article published drew praise from some, including a Southern Baptist minister who called it “insightful reporting and not one-sided negative.”

Me? I didn’t find the piece terribly insightful, enlightening or revealing of Christian school experiences that I know about.

This will give you an idea of the tone: The Times starts with quotes from those who “struggled with bullying and depression” at Christian schools, moves to quotes from those who “experienced lasting pain and confusion” at Christian schools and finishes with — this must be the “not one-sided negative” part — those who “shared stories of love and acceptance of others” at Christian schools.

Got a different view of the article? Feel free to comment below.

Now, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: This is one of those weeks when a single story or issue didn’t really stand out. So let’s go with President Donald Trump’s tweet supporting Bible literacy courses in public schools.

I wrote an entire post about this subject earlier this week, and since I see our analytics, I know many of you missed reading it.

So here’s another chance to check it out.

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Why was Karen Pence's Christian school choice worthy of all those Eye of Sauron headlines?

Why was Karen Pence's Christian school choice worthy of all those Eye of Sauron headlines?

Let’s play a headline-writing game, inspired by the fact that one of the world’s most important newsrooms — BBC — wrote a blunt headline about You. Know. What.

Yes, this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in) takes another look at the great scandal of the week — that the wife of Vice President Mike Pence returned to her old job teaching at an evangelical Protestant school. This is the kind of small-o orthodox school that has a doctrinal code for teachers, staffers, parents and students that defends ancient Christian teachings that sex outside of marriage is a sin. We’re talking premarital sex, adultery (Hello Donald Trump), cohabitation, sexual harassment, same-sex behavior (not orientation), the whole works.

Thus, the BBC headline: “Vice-president's wife Karen Pence to teach at anti-LGBT school.”

Now, that BBC report didn’t make the common error of saying that this policy “bans” gay students, parents, teachers, etc. There are, after all, gays and lesbians, as well as people seeking treatment for gender dysphoria, who accept traditional Christian teachings on these subjects. There are some careful wordings here:

Second Lady Karen Pence, the wife of the US vice-president, will return to teaching art at a school that requires employees to oppose LGBT lifestyles.

The school in Springfield, Virginia, bars teachers from engaging in or condoning "homosexual or lesbian sexual activity" and "transgender identity". …

"I understand that the term 'marriage' has only one meaning; the uniting of one man and one woman," the document states.

My question is this: For the journalists that wrote this headline, what does “anti-LGBT” mean?

If that term is accurate in this case, would it have been accurate for BBC to have used this headline: “Vice-president's wife to teach at anti-LGBT school for Christian bigots”? Is the judgment the same?

Now that I think about it, in many news reports it certainly appeared that editors assumed that banning homosexual behavior is the same thing as banning LGBT people. If that is accurate, then why not write a headline that says, “Vice-president's wife to teach at school that bans gays”?

Then again, looking at the content of the school policies, journalists could have used this headline: “Vice-president's wife to teach at school that defends Christian orthodoxy.” OK, but that doesn’t get the sex angle in there. So, let’s try this: “Vice-president's wife to teach at school that opposes sex outside of marriage.” That’s accurate. Right?

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The discussion continues: You are a pastor and a reporter calls. What do you do?

The discussion continues: You are a pastor and a reporter calls. What do you do?

This week's "Crossroads" podcast -- recorded by telephone, with me here in Prague -- is extra long and should be of special interest to clergy and other religious leaders who have ever found themselves facing a journalist who is holding a pen and a notepad (or calling on the telephone).

Now, I am not saying that journalists will not be interested in this topic.

You see, this podcast is yet another response to that urgent question raised by my colleague Bobby Ross, Jr., about how pastors should or should not respond when contacted by the press. Click here to catch up on that thread.

What do reporters think when clergy refuse to talk? Do journalists understand why so many clergy are afraid of the press?

Yes, this fear does have something to do with clergy fearing that many journalists "just don't get religion." Clergy fear mistakes. They fear reporters yanking their words out of context. Hold that thought.

In this podcast, host Todd Wilken (a radio pro and a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor, at the same time) and I talked about two very specific scenarios, when it comes to a reporter requesting an interview with a pastor.

Number 1: You are a minister and you return to your office and there is a message waiting for you. A journalist has called requesting an interview. The note does not include information about the subject of the story (something journalist should share right up front, in my opinion).

Do you return the call?

Well, in this case let's say that the minister KNOWS what the story is about and knows that it's about a problem that has emerged in this church, religious school, etc. Let's say a student has been disciplined and a circle of parents is mad. It's safe to assume that the parents called the newspaper or local television station.

In other words, this is a BAD news story, from the point of view of most pastors. Should ministers return these calls?

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Trying to figure out why a tiny Christian school's financial problems are front-page news in Dallas

Trying to figure out why a tiny Christian school's financial problems are front-page news in Dallas

As we at GetReligion frequently lament, the Dallas Morning News — which once boasted a team of religion writers — no longer has anyone covering the Godbeat.

That lack of focus and expertise shows up often in the Dallas newspaper's coverage of stories with religion angles.

I can't help but think that the Morning News — in its religion-writing heyday — would have offered a much more insightful treatment of a story on today's front page.

Actually, I'm not sure I can explain exactly why this particular story is Page 1 news in a major daily.

The basic story is that a small Christian school in the Dallas area is experiencing serious financial problems.

The somewhat opinionated lede:

Carrollton Christian Academy may soon need another miracle.
After struggling financially for years, officials at the tiny, faith-based school scrambled in December to raise $400,000 they said they needed to keep the doors open through the end of the school year.
In a matter of weeks, donors were able to raise enough money to keep the school afloat, and Carrollton Christian officials now say they believe they can complete the school term.
But court records, interviews and statements from school officials over the past few months cast a wide shadow of doubt about whether that confidence is merited.
"It is our plan to move forward, finish the year, re-enroll for next year," Principal Elaine Marchant said in an email Thursday. "But we are still working on financial planning."
It seems, though, that Carrollton Christian is always walking a financial tightrope, relying on crowdsourcing and even pleas through the media to help meet its basic obligations such as payroll for its 17 teachers, rent and insurance.

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Classic J-question: What did Brentwood Academy leaders know and when did they know it?

Classic J-question: What did Brentwood Academy leaders know and when did they know it?

Week after week, members of the GetReligion team receive emails pointing us to stories that readers want us to read and consider critiquing. These emails are essential to what we do. Please keep sending them.

Once or twice a week, people send URLs and, once I glance at the stories in question, it's pretty obvious that these readers are upset about the events covered in the story -- period. In other words, they are mad about something that happened or is happening, as opposed to being concerned about a religion-beat journalism issue.

Emails of this kind come from liberal as well as conservative readers. Often, it's easy to tell when a correspondent is involved, in some way, in the events being covered, even if that means they are just onlookers in the community in which an institution is located. However, it is common to hear from angry former members of a particular congregation or religious group.

Let me stress: I still take these emails very seriously and look at these stories. Often, the conflicts described in these stories are truly heartbreaking.

That is certainly the case with a story in The Tennessean that ran with this headline: "Lawsuit: Brentwood Academy officials refused to report repeated rapes of 12-year-old boy." Tennessee readers will know that this is a school that is famous for a lot of reasons, including athletics.

At the top of the article there is this: "NOTE TO READERS: This story contains graphic descriptions that may be disturbing to some readers." That's an understatement.

Now, if you know anything about news coverage of lawsuits involving schools -- especially private schools -- you know that in the early going school officials can say next to nothing about cases linked to student discipline because of privacy laws. Thus, early news reports are dominated by charges made in the lawsuit. One of the only questions one can raise about this early Tennessean report is whether it made that fact clear to readers. Here is the overture:

A prestigious Williamson County private school is accused of allowing teenage boys to repeatedly sexually assault a 12-year-old boy, then downplaying the attacks and refusing to report them to authorities, according to a lawsuit seeking at least $30 million. 

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Key voices still missing from stories on pregnant teen banned from Christian school's graduation

Key voices still missing from stories on pregnant teen banned from Christian school's graduation

Maddi Runkles, the Maryland teen who got pregnant and was banned from her Christian high school's graduation ceremony, keeps making national headlines.

My GetReligion colleague Julia Duin earlier critiqued the New York Times' original story on this controversy and noted that key voices were missing:

What about the reaction of other families who are sending their kids to this school? Do they side with Runkles or are they glad she’s being made to pay for her mistake?

After reading additional reports on Runkles' plight — via major media outlets such as the Washington Post and Religion News Service — I must say that I am even more interested in the answers to the questions Duin raised.

The Post story notes:

A small Christian school in western Maryland is not backing down from its decision to ban a pregnant senior from walking at graduation next week.
Despite a public outcry and growing pressure from national antiabortion groups to reconsider, Heritage Academy in Hagerstown says that senior Maddi Runkles broke the school’s rules by engaging in intimate sexual activity. In a letter to parents Tuesday evening, school principal David R. Hobbs said that Runkles is being disciplined, “not because she is pregnant but because she was immoral. ... The best way to love her right now is to hold her accountable for her morality that began this situation.”
Runkles, 18, is a 4.0 student who has attended the school since 2009. She found out she was pregnant in January and informed the school, where her father was then a board member, in February. Initially the school told Runkles that she would be suspended and removed from her role as student council president and would have to finish the rest of the school year at home.
After the family appealed, Heritage said it would allow Runkles to finish the school year with her 14 classmates but she would not be able to walk with the other seniors to receive her diploma at graduation. The family believes that the decision is unfair and that she is being punished more harshly than others who have broken the rules.

Later in the story, the newspaper includes these alarming claims:

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Breaking news from Indy Star: Christian schools tout, um, Christian beliefs and behavior

Breaking news from Indy Star: Christian schools tout, um, Christian beliefs and behavior

Journalists have a real hard time reporting on certain subjects in an evenhanded manner.

Some that come to mind: Abortion. Religious liberty. School vouchers.

I first covered the voucher debate in 1999 as an education reporter for The Oklahoman, Oklahoma City's major daily.

I'm thinking about the voucher issue again after reading a recent Indianapolis Star that — especially in the headline and lede — seems to favors the opponents. But please tell me if I'm mistaken.

This is the headline that struck me the wrong way:

How taxpayers pay for religious education

And the overly negative lede:

At Colonial Christian, an Indianapolis school on the northeast side that receives public funds through Indiana’s private school voucher program, students are warned they can be kicked out of school for “promoting a homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity.”
At even more voucher-accepting schools, families are required to sign statements of faith as a condition of enrollment, affirming that they hold the same religious beliefs and values as the school.
Theology classes are required for four years at Bishop Chatard High School, as are hours performing service and outreach. And some schools, including Bethesda Christian in Brownsburg, require a recommendation by a pastor.
Those admissions standards reflect arguably the most controversial aspect of Indiana’s voucher program, also known as school choice scholarships. The GOP-driven program allows religious schools to receive public funds. At the same time, those private schools can reject students who don't affirm certain religious precepts — and impose religious requirements on those who are accepted.

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