What everyone’s getting wrong about the Collingswood ‘brownie’ story

    Collingswood students are shown working with police officers on a community relations project in 2015. (Matt Skoufalos/NJ Pen)

    Collingswood students are shown working with police officers on a community relations project in 2015. (Matt Skoufalos/NJ Pen)

    In the last 48 hours, Collingswood, New Jersey, got a new national identity, thanks to some circus-grade-crazy headlines that have painted it as the kind of place where police are jamming up third-graders for snack-related bias crimes.

    The little South Jersey town of Collingswood has a long history of being a lot of different things to a lot of different people. It was an early landing point for 17th century Irish Quakers, a blue-collar postwar suburb of Camden City, an LGBT haven revived in the late ’90s by BYO restaurants and a movie-quality public park.

    But in the last 48 hours, Collingswood got a new national identity, thanks to some circus-grade-crazy headlines that have painted it as the kind of place where police are jamming up third-graders for snack-related bias crimes.

    And if you believe that’s the whole of it, then, to borrow a phrase, there’s a bridge in Camden that I’d like to sell you.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    Here’s what did happen. At the end of the school year, some families started getting calls from Collingswood police officers instead of Collingswood principals when their kids got into trouble. And the reason why still hasn’t been made entirely clear.

    The school district says the county prosecutor’s office called a meeting at the end of May, and ordered staff to direct all disciplinary infractions to the police. Anything that happened in the school that could result in criminal charges was not to be handled internally; no school investigations, no calls home to parents, no talking to kids directly. The authority for this act was grounded in a statewide memorandum of agreement, a 71-page boilerplate to which every public school district in New Jersey is bound. Any police investigations that rose beyond the level of an information report also were referred to the local child services agency.

    The district complied, but never formally communicated this change in policy to parents. As the incidents started stacking up, people started asking questions. “Why did this happen?” “What are my kid’s rights?” “Why did nobody tell me?”

    Making sense of a complicated story

    I run an independent local news website called NJ Pen. We cover Collingswood, and we broke this story last week after talking with representatives from the Collingswood community, schools, police, and government. Open letters from the school board, prosecutor, and police chief didn’t clear up all that much, so we asked some more questions that led to the mayor and the prosecutor announcing a policy “reset” on Wednesday — a return to the way things were before.

    It was a move meant to reassure parents — except in the meantime, those parents had gotten plenty riled up. And because none of the parties involved seemed to agree on exactly what had happened — whether the whole experience was a new directive or a misinterpretation of existing rules, and what, if anything, had precipitated it — the story only got bigger.

    But those details are confusing and complicated, and that’s why my version of events didn’t become the viral sensation that landed Collingswood on the home pages of Snopes.com, Philly.com, The National Review, and every content aggregation site across the country.

    Trying to help your readers make sense of a convoluted story while treating them with sensitivity and compassion is hard. It’s certainly a lot harder than leading them to believe that police were dispatched to shake down a kid for “racist brownies.” It’s harder still if you want to report fairly while keeping a professional relationship with the people whose perspectives you’re diminishing to a punch line.

    That’s another hang-up the new wire service of content aggregation doesn’t have. It overlooks that every news story comes from an actual place and involves actual humans who may actually deserve to be treated as more than a collection of perspectives to be mocked or manipulated. For an organization like mine, which is infinitely smaller and entirely dependent upon the support of that local audience for survival, it’s frustrating to watch.

    But for the past week, I have done just that: watched, as an important discussion about the levers of power and the consequences of using children as cannon fodder in the turf wars of competing authorities was reduced to old saws about free speech and the nanny state. A story about policy communication, discipline, and the role of school culture in shaping community life has instead become nationally famous in the simplest terms and at the lowest common denominator. And in the meantime, it’s really shown the sharp divide between media outlets that live and work in the communities they serve and aggregation-driven web services that are consumed by revenue models tied to pageviews.

    Better information makes us better citizens

    Clickbait headlines are great for driving traffic because they’re handy mechanisms for outrage, sympathy, and snark. But pathos isn’t a pathway to dialogue, and clickbait isn’t a pathway to change. It’s the difference between hanging a shame sign on your dog and putting his picture on the Internet, and properly training and caring for your pet. The image will get a lot of looks, likes, and shares, and it won’t stop him from destroying your couch again the next time you leave the house — but that’s okay, because the people who are looking, liking, and sharing don’t live there.

    As Collingswood watches its institutions of education, government, and public safety become the stuff of late-night comedy monologues, its families are still gritting their teeth, demanding public accountability, and keeping a weather eye on the September calendar in the July heat. Parents here aren’t worried that anyone is going to prosecute their kids for politically incorrect jokes; they’re worried that an unrealistic discipline standard means they’re not going to have the opportunity to help their children learn from such mistakes.

    But that nuance doesn’t matter to people in places where the anonymous details of a story like this are used to confirm their own hunches about big institutions like schools, law, and government. Tabloid headlines and talk-radio teasers don’t change anyone’s mind about parenting or child safety. They don’t provide a blueprint to improving public policy, and they don’t help the people who are frightened by these underlying concerns to get closure on what’s at stake for their families.

    To journalists, nuance is empowering. Better information should make us better custodians of the community. If I do my job right, I can empower people with that information, help them make better choices, and connect with one another. Bending nuance to the task of sensationalism doesn’t leave you with anything to build from. It only consumes the details of people’s lives in a quick, hot burn, and disposes of them as bitter ash. What’s more frustrating is how ready and willing everyone is to throw more bodies on the pile.

    To those families who are caught in the middle of these institutions and their decisions — the people who will have to dig in and fix this — nuance matters a great deal. To the people who see one another on the playground, at the supermarket, in real life and not just on social media, it matters that their concerns and their kids aren’t just packaged up to peddle outrage and web traffic. To those people, it’s very much about the reality of their very personal, very individual world; of their Collingswood.

    I know Collingswood. I know the kids who live there and their parents. I know the educators who teach them and the cops who protect them. I know the elected officials who keep the place running. And I know the things that keep them all up at night, because they matter to me, too.

    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal