Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Internet doesn't serve enough crow

If you've been online in the past week or so, have checked out any online news sites, social media sites, or messageboards of any sort, you are no doubt aware of the the name Patrick McLaw. The name is that of a Maryland teacher who also happens to be a self-published author. About ten days ago, this teacher--who had been at Mace's Lane Middle School for a year--was apparently spirited away by armed men in black helicopters in the middle of the night. Why? Apparently for writing a book about a school shooting. That's it, nothing more.

Think I'm overstating things? Well, go back and check your Twitter feed from a few days ago. Look at some of the comments about this incident on Facebook or Google+. Hell, look at the coverage of it in the media. Here's the original story--from WBOC16 in Delmarva--that seems to have ignited the firestorm. From it:
Early last week the school board was alerted that one of its eighth grade language arts teachers at Mace's Lane Middle School had several aliases. Police said that under those names, he wrote two fictional books about the largest school shooting in the country's history set in the future. Now, Patrick McLaw is placed on leave.

Dr. K.S. Voltaer is better known by some in Dorchester County as Patrick McLaw, or even Patrick Beale. Not only was he a teacher at Mace's Lane Middle School in Cambridge, but according to Dorchester Sheriff James Phillips, McLaw is also the author of two books: "The Insurrectionist" and its sequel, "Lillith's Heir."

Those books are what caught the attention of police and school board officials in Dorchester County. "The Insurrectionist" is about two school shootings set in the future, the largest in the country's history.

Phillips said McLaw was taken in for an emergency medical evaluation. The sheriff would not disclose where McLaw is now, but he did say that he is not on the Eastern Shore. The same day that McLaw was taken in for an evaluation, police swept Mace's Lane Middle School for bombs and guns, coming up empty.
The accusation--that the authorities (or "the Man") took this teacher into custody and were holding him at some undisclosed location for simply writing stories, works of fiction, struck a chord. Big time. The tale spread like wildfire through the 'net, passed on breathlessly by all sorts of people from the far left to the far right, many of whom summoned up terms like "thought crime" and "thought police" to describe this horrible situation, this shameful example of the government putting its jackboot down on the neck of Freedom. Hard.

And make no mistake, the tale worked it's way up the food chain, even finding purchase in the upper echelon of thought-provoking journalism. Here it is at The Atlantic. In this piece of questionable journalism, Jeffrey Goldberg (that's right, I'm not redacting all of the names in this tale) opens with the following:
From the Dept. of Insane and Dangerous Overreactions to Fictional Threats:

A 23-year-old teacher at a Cambridge, Maryland, middle school has been placed on leave and—in the words of a local news report—"taken in for an emergency medical evaluation" for publishing, under a pseudonym, a novel about a school shooting.
The title of the piece even compares the actions of the authorities here to the Soviets of the not-so-distant-past. And based on what? Well, the same assumption that was presented as fact in the WBOC piece (which Goldberg actually calls "law enforcement-friendly"), that the teacher was taken in to custody because of what was in a novel he wrote (by the way, that novel was published in 2011).

And of course, the story also found its way to Change.org, that bastion of dimwitted activism, in the form of a petition demanding a "full and public apology" to the teacher for the way he was treated. As of now, the petition has 1,963 supporters. Here is the description of the incident given there:
Patrick McLaw, a Maryland teacher recently nominated for First Class Teacher of the Year, has been suspended and banned from school property, has had his home searched, and has been prohibited from traveling, simply because he wrote a science fiction story set 900 years in the future in which there happens to be a school shooting.

This superstitious demonizing of literature strikes at the heart of our most fundamental liberties - the freedom to exercise our imaginations to explore the very things we fear.
Now maybe some of you--reading this--are out of the loop, are wondering why I am mocking these stories and the people who shared them. Well, it turns out that these stories are all wrong, wholly and completely. The teacher was not put on leave and taken into custody for what was in his book at all. Rather, there were other specific issues that lead to these actions. From the LA Times yesterday:
Concerns about McLaw were raised after he sent a four-page letter to officials in Dorchester County. Those concerns brought together authorities from multiple jurisdictions, including health authorities. 
McLaw's attorney, David Moore, tells The Times that his client was taken in for a mental health evaluation. "He is receiving treatment," Moore said.
From MyEasternShoreMD:
The prosecutor explained the sequence of events that led to the Aug. 19 meeting: 
Officials received a harassment complaint Aug. 15 from a teacher in the Delmar school district; two days later, an administrator informed the Delmar police chief of a possible inappropriate relationship between McLaw and a minor, who was not McLaw’s student, Maciarello said. Both complaints remain under investigation; in the latter case, police are trying to determine if the minor was 15 or 16 years old when the relationship began (the age of consent is 16). A subsequent report that McLaw was building models of Wicomico County school buildings also was received, the prosecutor said, and McLaw sent a letter to a Dorchester County school administrator that raised concerns. As a result, Maciarello brought the law enforcement and health officials together to share information and discuss the case. 
Health officials were brought in because of concerns that it was more a “mental health matter,” Maciarello said. “Nobody was overreacting,” the prosecutor said of that meeting. “Everyone was acting calmly,” with safety and due process for McLaw the primary concerns.
Oops. A big oops, in fact. The actions of authorities here were based on a number of things. And some of those things--like an harassment complaint and the potential inappropriate relationship with a student--don't make the teacher look so good. Yet, the authorities in Cambridge clearly believed there was a mental health issue to consider and rather than going public with accusations, they acted in what can only be seen as the best interests of the teacher, a point that the teacher's lawyer seems to recognize and agree with in full. The teacher's secondary career as a novelist is ultimately insignificant here, as is the content of the novels he has published.