Sunday, April 5, 2015

Today the Great Falls Tribune printed a story about the Big BB Gun case in Cut Bank. (An amazing shrinking paper -- you know how you train a puppy by getting it to wet a newspaper and then make the newspaper smaller and smaller until finally the puppy has to go out? Well, this newspaper gets smaller and smaller all by itself. Just lost an inch off the sides and increased the font size.) I hadn’t known about this momentuous case until now.

Evidently some students were shooting bb’s, they were caught, and the School Board imposed unknown punishments. The Pioneer Press demanded to know what punishments. The School Board (which is famous for resisting transparency) refused to tell. The Pioneer Press sued to find out. The School Board said the Pioneer Press already knew because of the rumor mill. The Montana Supreme Court ruled that the School Board HAD to tell the Pioneer Press because the newspaper had a “personal interest” in the records (the news) and they were injured by the withholding School Board.

What the major franchise newspapers in the state never “get” is the small town angle of this kind of story. They don’t seem to realize that Leanne Kavanaugh, the editor of the paper, is the wife of the owner of the paper (actually a small franchise chain of its own which they call “the Golden Triangle” since it includes four weekly newspapers in this relatively small wheat-growing area) and the owner of the paper is the coach of the basketball team. Very convenient. My suspicion is that the offending bb shooters were members of whatever team Kavanaugh was coaching and their punishment upset his plans for them. This, of course, to his mind, is not their fault, but the fault of the School Board.

Basketball is more important in this area than scholastic achievement. Success in basketball probably costs the school as much or more than the entire high school science and math program, especially counting those big Bluebird buses that criss-cross this vast state through the season plus the gas for them.

The School Board maintained that the tender psyches of the bb-shooting perps should be protected by secrecy, as though they had committed a felony. I’m guessing that Cut Bank wanted to know who got what punishment because they suspect that there was inequity among the kids -- some were punished more than others with “others” likely being basketball players. That’s a tradition in Cut Bank -- as well as other small towns around here. After all, it’s simply the small town version of the big time athletes getting into drugs and violence and being forgiven by the courts. Everyone wants “our” boys to succeed.

Athletics in this neck of the woods is the lifeblood of the town, the identity of every adult male on the Chamber of Commerce and a high percentage of the women as well. I daresay that no one in the town would consider going to the State Supreme Court to force the release of the academic testing scores of the students, even without names. It would be considered obsessive. (They also might be surprised, due to grade inflation. The parents discovered a long time ago that they can intimidate teachers into giving high grades, but so far they haven’t figured out how to affect national test scores.)

The economy of a small town is not just about money. Secrets are big. Being on the school board or being an administrator is big because then one has trading chips in terms of punishments, exceptions, class transfers, teacher assignments, room assignments, textbook acquisition, and a host of other small adjustments that affect the lives of students and teachers.

Sex used to be a major small town trading item, but now people are so casual about it all that perversion or force would have to be involved. A girl is expected to put out. A boy is expected to want her to. Doubt it? Read Dear Abby for a week. It’s the media-celebrated thing to do.

Of course, besides the coach, the bank or the insurance man has a pretty good hold on businesses, especially ranchers. Then there’s the realtor who can find a buyer for your house, cut you a deal for an upgrade, put you in touch with a compliant assessor. (I knew an assessor once -- wow! The stories HE told!) One hopes that the doctor or the dentist don’t participate in this little underground economy. We had a doctor here for quite a while who would slip you free drugs, which weren’t covered by insurance, but then bill you for a visit even if he only waved hello to you in the waiting room. Visits were coded for insurance.

They say that if you want an honest President of the United States, then be sure you elect an honest local dogcatcher. If you insist on knowing about punishment for bb gunfire, then the army isn’t so liable to lie about “friendly fire” that kills our own heroes. As Saint Francis put it, “Faithfulness in little things is a big thing.”

People around here, even thirty miles from Cut Bank, will be interested in this story, though school elections were just held and school boards have new members. I hope people follow up in the future -- maybe even attend school board meetings, required by law to be open. Too many secret deals, too many exemptions for this one and that one, too many unjust penalties for those who are disliked or don’t fit the pattern. Too much fear of retribution.

I speak from experience, having resigned from Cut Bank High School in 2001 over exactly this issue. The townspeople thought it was because of the antics of the football team, told from the early grades that they were such talented athletes that they couldn’t be disciplined. No other teacher would take the job. The school board never talked to me. The superintendent only yelled at me, standing on the sidewalk. The boys themselves had never understood what was at stake until it was too late. Then they defended me, blocking the School Board’s desire to punish me.

I resigned because I couldn’t tolerate the REAL game-playing which was not a matter of sports, but a matter of status and control. The newspaper, without ever interviewing me, said I resigned “for personal reasons.” If I hadn’t been over sixty, everyone would have assumed I was pregnant. Administrative bullying and blackmail would never cross their minds, not would it cross the minds of the State Supreme Court.

I’ve never forgotten the content of a letter someone smuggled to me that was from the state school board association, addressed to school boards. It was about how to bully and blackmail faculty without being caught.

I got another letter this week: it was from the mother of one of those boys. Six years later they’re doing fine: married, employed, some with children and some with college degrees. None is a professional athlete. The sheriff's report in the weekly paper today includes a complaint about someone shooting bb's.

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