Friday, March 17, 2006

The Continuing Saga of Brokeback West Linn High

Down in the bedroom peninsula community of West Linn, at a big eastward bend of the Willamette on its way to the Mighty Columbia, some trouble's been a-brewing. We're now at the point where conflicting accounts threaten to muddy the waters of truth, but let's try to piece together the story anyway...

Following Brian's lead at Gay Rights Watch--my most trusted source for matters of interest to the gay community--I checked out the website of WL High senior Brandon Flyte. Flyte is a self-described straight student who made a film for his English class that echoes the latest cultural touchstone, Brokeback Mountain. The film was well received, and he was subsequently asked to show it in another one of his classes--Marine Biology. (I guess they have lots of free time for films irrelevant to marine life in that class). Flyte plays one of the characters himself, and from the stills and clips it looks like he did a very nice job technically speaking. But of course his cinematography was not at issue with WLH administrators:
Now before I showed Brokeback High to my English class, I was required by the administration to edit out a scene of the two lead male characters snuggling together shirtless in bed. When I showed my Marine Biology class the film, the snuggle scene --which I might add was very tastefully done-- was left in. Apparently the administration thought that this was a big enough violation to warrant an expulsion. Only, it’s not being called an expulsion. It’s basically a ‘mandatory transfer’ to the local community college. I have no choice in it. West Linn High says they’ll pay for me to finish up my last 2 months of high school at Clackamas Community College, and I'll be able to walk with my high school class at graduation and attend Prom as a guest, "depending on behavior this spring related to West Linn High School."

Near as I can tell, the above version is in fact what happened: Flyte was not-so-politely asked to finish his college prep at a community college, which the school would pay for. What seems to have started the trouble is Flyte's reference to being "expelled." Of course, he's fairly clear what he means by that above, and does refer to it once more in that posting in quotes. That's just on his own blog, though. He admits placing the news on other sites where he thought it would be of interest, and also acknowledges several national and local media interviews in which his words aren't immediately available. It's certainly possible that in discussing the incident he used the word "expulsion" without a full disclaimer as to what he really meant by it.

What IS true, however, is that he's clear about what he means in his own words, on his own site--and anyone reporting the story should have made Flyte's page their first stop. Which is what makes the indignation from a chunk of the gay blogosphere a little hollow to me. Not to pick on Towleroad as indicative, but their evolution of the story seems fairly typical:
As news about Brandon Flyte's expulsion over his film project Brokeback High spread across the internet at lightning speed, a larger problem developed for the student. His claims weren't true.

He did create the film Brokeback High, and did receive high marks for it in his English class, and did show it to his marine biology class with the "snuggle scene" in it. He was punished for that, but not expelled.

However, now the teens claims of expulsion have thrown the school into chaos because of the resulting anger generated by Flyte's false claims. The school has been faced with threats of arson and violence. The school superintendent Roger Woehl says he received 10,000 emails. Woehl: "He has disrupted the school. This is clearly a behavior we don't find acceptable."

On his website, Flyte appears proud of the coverage his story has received, even leading readers to the Oregonian, which today revealed the student's hoax.

I include that last paragraph because it refers to a reliance on the Oregonian for information on "the real story," a source who put the word "lie" in their headline. (Not to get off on too much of a tangent, but how many years and chances has The O had to consider using the word in reference to the Bush administration, and they just can't bring themselves to it? But a high school kid you can toss the word around with, I guess.)

This strikes me as another example of authority-parroting we see in the national media's response to official statements and releases: whatever they say is sold at face value in the media reports. At the local level, this is the paper accepting the district's version without evaluating the claim being made. Not only did Flyte disclaim that he was officially expelled (and thus can't have lied), The O accepts what did happen from the district wholesale. The response in fact can be entirely consistent with Flyte's version, except for the part about it not being mandatory--which Flyte calls an outright lie in the paper's account. Otherwise, they agree that the administration told him to finish school at the community college, and they would pay.

They would pay. If Flyte were agreeing to the transfer (thus showing it to be voluntary perhaps), why would the district pay for his education elsewhere? You only pay if your actions are responsible for the student finishing elsewhere, or if you are generally responsible for the student regardless of where they attend. The district was willing to pay to get rid of Flyte. And Flyte is correct that the spokesperson does not (cannot) refer to disturbances other than attendance issues prior to the current school year. So the paper also accepts unchallenged that the "transfer" is based on performance rather than insubordination, apparently without any review of that performance.

So if MSNBC or The Advocate or any of the blogs like Pam's House Blend want to claim to have been burned--essentially to spread the word that Flyte's claims are a hoax--they have to have ignored Flyte's commentary, and/or an analysis of the competing accounts to see where the truth lay. One blog I saw even said, "See, this is why I wait on stories before I blog them, to get the truth," before accepting the hoax story.

To the credit of some sites--like GRW--they have subsequently returned to Flyte's site and now do see a conflict of accounts that they want to learn more about. Blogs that update and correct themselves are very good things, but often the damage is done and the spillover effect splashes into comments and down the blogging chain. And the national media may never follow up on the story, leaving it in a frozen state from the first day or two of the story forever.

Some are seeing Flyte's eventual reinstatement as the fact that proves Flyte's expulsion a lie, but the reinstatement was a week later, after his initial claim. I think the reinstatement actually bolsters the case that the district's action wasn't about attendance.

More to come if it warrants.