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The good, the bad and the ugly in Lisbon

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Lisbon Central School District officials have taken a lot of heat over the last couple of weeks, some of it well deserved and some of it not deserved at all.

We outed its Board of Education last week for breaking the law by holding a closed-door meeting that should have been open to the public. Any heat they get for that is completely and utterly deserved. School board members have a responsibility to operate transparently. That they did not shows they are far more concerned about protecting themselves from the public they are supposed to represent than having an open dialogue with their community. I hope district residents consider that the next time they go to the ballot box.

That being said, the reason behind the closed-door meeting relates to the heat on school officials that is not at all deserved.

The community is mourning the loss of 17-year-old Victor Novosel, whose death is being investigated by state police as an accident.

But before the nature of this tragedy was public knowledge, there was so much wild speculation about what happened and accusations against school officials posted on social media sites like Facebook that the truth was buried under a deep pile of unsubstantiated nonsense. People somehow got it in their heads that Mr. Novosel’s death was not an accident and that the school had failed to protect him from bullies, which contributed to his fate.

We thoroughly investigated that claim, and we have found absolutely nothing to substantiate it.

Nevertheless, in the absence of facts, that speculation gained unstoppable momentum. I read post after post that day from people who introduced their authoritative rants with “I know for a fact that...” but who had no direct connection with either this unfortunate child, his family or the school. The people posting these things were spreading lies and showing a patent disregard for the child’s family, whose grief I cannot imagine. It was an exercise in how damaging social media can be when people hit the post button before they’ve thought about the potential consequences. The lack of empathy was stunning.

From the facts we have gathered, school officials appear to have done everything they should have done. They reached out to Mr. Novosel’s family to offer what condolences they could. They apprised staff of the situation before school started and set up grief counselors to help students come to terms with losing one of their own. They responded quickly and appropriately.

But that’s where the school’s responsible handling this tragedy stopped. Officials were well aware of the damaging rumors flying around and the accusatory rhetoric about the school’s alleged role in what happened. They didn’t arm themselves with the facts at their disposal to tell community members that the rumor mill was wrong.

Instead, they decided that holding a closed-door meeting to talk about all the horrible things people were saying about them on Facebook was the right way to go. It was the worst possible thing they could have done.

I can understand why school board members would want to protect their administrators, especially when they are being accused of things that didn’t happen. But if the social media backlash is strong enough that the board felt it had to meet to talk about it, it should have occurred to board members that involving the public to help get the truth out should also happen.

They have instead made matters much worse for themselves. The appearance of a cover-up is bad enough without school officials fueling that appearance by actually covering up a discussion that should have been held in public.

If school board members don’t want dozens of angry community members demanding answers at their next meeting, they should give some thought to publicly setting the record straight before this out-of-control situation spins beyond their grasp.

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