As it turns out, all it takes to thrust a suburban high school into the national spotlight of right-wing hatred is a football game.
On Sept. 13, 2021, Eastlake High School awoke to conservative media outlets like Fox News and Breitbart accusing staff of unpatriotically banning American flag colors from being worn at a school football game on the eve of 9/11.
Readers across the nation called in and posted social media threats to school staff, vandalized staff property, and forced my school into a partial lockdown.
What really occurred was far more innocuous: the red, white, and blue spirit theme intended for the game was changed at the last minute. Students were not banned from wearing the colors; they were encouraged to don school spirit gear instead. However, in the 48 hours that had elapsed since the game in question, a combination of administrative opacity, irresponsible journalism, and hyperpolarized politics caused misinformation to swirl out of control.
Aside from endangering Eastlake community members, the coverage irrevocably damaged the relationship between students and staff.
As a young journalist and former community editor for the Sammamish Independent, I have seen the potential of stories to create beneficial change, whether by challenging stereotypes, diversifying city councils, or exposing corruption. However, this incident reminds us of the dangers of abusing this power.
To ethically cover education stories, media watchdogs must ensure staff and student safety while pursuing accountability in schools. Journalists ought to contextualize their reporting to evaluate whether the story has a broad public interest that significantly outweighs the rights of staff and students to privacy and safety. As the Education Writers Association code of ethics states, journalists are not “restaurant or art critics expected to grade different aspects of a school’s performance; and nor are they charged with picking away at every mistake or imperfection.”
In this case, the theme decision was an isolated incident that did not warrant the ongoing community fracturing that media coverage resulted in.
According to an interview with students, an Eastlake leadership class selected the red, white and blue game theme by majority vote. Students and staff expressed concerns about preserving the solemnity of a 9/11 commemoration at a football game. Some were reportedly concerned about the impacts on Muslim students in the context of post-9/11 backlash and hate crimes.
As a result, some staff members decided to switch the theme to Eastlake colors, which are red and silver. Unfortunately, this decision was broadcast briefly and without explanation on the Friday morning announcements before the game that afternoon.
“While there was no ill-intent behind the decision for Eastlake High School to change their plan for a themed event, we acknowledge the impact this has caused,” Lake Washington School District Superintendent Jon Holmen wrote in a Sept. 13 message to the district community.
The lack of clarification for the sudden change frustrated some students and parents who considered the flag theme to be a manner of demonstrating unity in the face of hardship. Facebook groups pieced together a mangled distortion of the truth that quickly spread through the community. They brought the matter to the attention of a local conservative radio host, whose narrative was picked up by mainstream conservative news outlets and commentators.
School administrators addressed the theme change in a memo and staff meeting, but some teachers said the explanation lacked clarity.
Darin Fisher teaches AP U.S. Government and Politics at Eastlake. She said that little explanation was provided to teachers at the time of the incident or in the following months.
“A lot of what I have heard [since September] has been unconfirmed, kind of rumor-type stuff,” said Fisher.
Douglas Ward has taught finance and English classes at Eastlake for 16 years, after serving as a Senate aide and working on George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign.
“This was an example of the media having a story in mind and trying to mold the facts to fit it,” said Ward. “As a teacher, if I had somebody come up to me from the general media, I’m going to be a lot more suspicious than I would have ever been before.”
Other teachers, like Fisher, felt that the coverage did not affect their teaching.
“I felt like it was one more opportunity where the current news was allowing me to cover the curriculum that I need to cover,” said Fisher, who used the incident to discuss the First Amendment.
Coverage of the patriotic-theme incident and other allegations of Eastlake’s “leftism” has named specific students and teachers. Especially when reporting on hot-button topics, journalists should think first before naming individuals because it can invite harassment.
Months after the game, many teachers and students were reluctant to be interviewed due to concerns about the repercussions of news coverage.
“I do think more about what the ramifications are going to be outside of the walls of my classroom a lot more now than I did 16 years ago,” said Ward.
A climate of fear is unconducive for learning; students must be able to trust school staff and vice versa. Teachers and students should feel protected enough to openly discuss even controversial issues, without fear that their statements will be taken out of context. It is hard to say whether anything can be done to reestablish this trust so long as the current trend of partisan sensationalism endures.
Although there was much that school administrators could have done differently to communicate decisions regarding the game’s theme, irresponsible journalism is also at fault. If journalists continue to ignore these ethical concerns, we may well see more schools fall victim to the popular polarizing sentiments that painted a bull’s-eye on Eastlake.