When accepting the position of Communications Director for Connect-Bridgeport earlier this year, I was doing more than being the person responsible for the content that ends up on the Web site on a daily basis. As an individual sharing information with the public on matters from entertaining, interesting and fun to serious and tragic, I was also assuming the public trust.
Before you think you’re about to take part in the first-ever Jeff Toquinto cliché fest, understand that matters involving the public trust are to be taken seriously. And by public trust, I’m not referring to a trust created for charitable or educational purposes. Rather, I refer to the public trust one encompasses when placed in positions such as that of an elected official, doctors, law enforcement, lawyers and, as mentioned above, members of the media among others. These are positions where individuals from the public put their faith – their trust – in those individuals to do the right thing.
I bring that up in this forum because the public trust has allegedly been breached here in Bridgeport. News that the Bridgeport Detachment of the West Virginia State Police was investigating the loss of what one Harrison County Board of Education official said is more than $31,000 from the coffers of the Johnson Elementary PTA is both a sad day in Bridgeport and one that is even more disgusting.
It is sad that because of the alleged actions of some or perhaps one, the name of PTAs in Bridgeport in general and Johnson Elementary School in particular will be forever tarnished in the minds of the narrow minded no matter the wonderful deeds done in the past and those to be done in the future. That type of reality being laid at the feet of a football field full of giving people isn’t just sad, it’s damn near criminal.
Understand that those who toil for hours each week for their local PTA may occasionally do so going in for the purposes of benefitting their own children, but by doing so benefit all children to a degree that can’t be accurately measured. How much is it worth to bring joy to a child by providing funds for a trip, for a class party or a show after school? Would anyone be foolish enough to put a cap on the value of a young child’s smile? I would hope not.
As I looked over the names of those involved with the PTA at Johnson Elementary School, many popped out. There were several whom I know personally; including some I went to school with and, without sounding melodramatic, my heart sank knowing I had to report this.
There were good people whose name I saw; caring people. There were individuals who have freely given of themselves, and continue to do so, to the school and do many tasks and chores the often overworked and understaffed educational staff simply cannot get to. They handle the fundraising chores that are necessary and often thankless at the same time. They do things most never know of unless they, too, get involved. Yet, they go on because it’s the right thing to do.
And it should be noted many of those impacted directly by our reporting of this situation not only were gracious of why things were being reported, they understood. I would have understood if they were angry, but instead of offering anger they offered kindness and provided comfort to the messenger. I can assure you in all of my years of writing this was an unprecedented surprise; and a refreshing one. It will not be forgotten.
As sad as this whole situation is, it is even more disgusting on more than one level. First, there are those who have suggested we turn a blind eye to this; and not because they’re involved. Rather through phone calls, conversation and even social media components, more than one person believed it reflected poorly on the school, certain individuals and even the city and due to that we should drop the matter. By not reporting on this alleged breach of the public trust would have been a breach of the public trust itself.
Incredibly, as mentioned above, key people who were included in our initial story knew they and their entire PTA organization was going to be put through an unnecessary grind, and understood. And then there were those worried about one or a few and couldn’t understand why a wink and a nod wasn’t acceptable.
Looking away isn’t doing anyone a favor, regardless of what some may think. In fact, I found it personally insulting more than one individual felt that all or parts of the story shouldn’t be reported even though the horse had not only left the barn, but was out in the field grazing. While we may have had the most detail of any media outlet, we certainly weren’t the first to report it.
Here's the thing. By the time my first call was made to a public official for additional information, our phone was already ringing. My cell phone was ringing. People at public places I had been to that morning were talking. Social media was providing me with information on the matter. Most of it was extremely unflattering and a lot of it was speculation as to ulterior motives and straight up name dropping as to who was involved. By reporting facts from officials, it quelled a lot of that. By leaving it alone would have simply let the rumor mill churn up another level; and believe me the rumors didn't paint certain folks and organizations in a positive way. I'm certain, though, that by doing our job we helped those who felt the story was a non-issue and you could force feed those same people - and there were several - truth serum and they still would tell you silence was the golden rule to follow here.
If anyone can argue against the logic put forth to this point please explain it to me – like I’m a first grader. And before you explain to me why my logic is flawed, consider this: Money raised through the sweat of volunteers and the graciousness of the public wasn’t just stolen from a checking or savings account, it was stolen from children. That is disgusting.
Think about that for a second. Many of those impacted by these alleged misdeeds can’t even comprehend what’s taken place. No matter how anyone wants to slice this, this is a crime against children.
Did the person or persons allegedly involved have some type of issue where they were so challenged by a condition that they had to do this? If so, and that can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, then maybe when the matter is adjudicated forgiveness will be a much quicker conclusion. That said, it's certainly an unlikely (but at the same time a possibility) scenario but one we know is a consideration.
Even with that in mind, you can forget about sweeping it under the rug. Forget about protecting others. I’ll back what Board of Education member Mike Queen said on his own Facebook page – and I’m paraphrasing here – and that is I don’t care whose toes are stepped on in this process to make sure the perpetrator or perpetrators involved are made to not only provide financial restitution, but to provide some sort of emotional restitution to the dozens of adults who are victims here.
As for the ultimate victims - the students of Johnson Elementary - there is no restitution. They are unknowing victims of an alleged crime that they may never fully understand. They have been failed due to a breach in the public trust. In the end, that’s the ultimate crime.