The shadow of the McMartin Preschool fiasco hung over Sacramento law enforcement and media last week.
You likely followed the news of the abrupt closure Monday of a private elementary school in Citrus Heights because of allegations the principal molested students beginning in 1997.
Just as law enforcement learned from the McMartin molestation allegations in the 1980s, and changed its investigative approach in such cases, the media learned to be more skeptical.
Those changes played out last week as authorities announced they were closing Creative Frontiers school. Citrus Heights police said they were pursuing an ongoing criminal investigation and an administrative investigation by the state Department of Social Services into multiple allegations of child molestation. Police said Robert Adams was the focus of the investigation but made clear they were not charging him with any crime or taking him into custody at that time. That was still true Friday.
The fact no charges were filed with such a high profile action stirred significant discussion within The Bee's newsroom. Why shut down a school based on such serious allegations and not bring criminal charges? Should that affect how we cover the story? How do we vet the sensational nature of witness interviews especially given today's intense breaking news environment?
Our questions came with context. Sam Stanton, a veteran Bee reporter, said he could not "recall a similar instance where authorities announced such serious allegations before deciding whether to file charges."
Deb Anderluh, The Bee's senior editor for enterprise and Page A1, brought historical perspective to the discussion. As a beginning reporter at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner in the 1980s, Anderluh covered the McMartin case. Seven people connected to the preschool in Manhattan Beach were charged with multiple acts of child abuse. Yet the highly publicized investigation was badly handled and by 1990 all charges had been dropped.
Anderluh remembers details and nuances of that coverage how reporters dove so deeply into interviews with parents that they failed to look hard at the instigating complaint, how prevailing theories of emotional treatment for abuse didn't allow skepticism. The lessons were clear: A story with potential to damage reputations yet concerning the safety of vulnerable children demands careful, tough reporting.
Stanton obtained a copy of the state's full file on the Creative Frontiers school early on in our coverage to help vet all our reporting, including frank interviews with a witness and others connected to the school. Education reporter Melody Gutierrez dug into Adams' background and discovered he doesn't appear to be credentialed as his résumé indicates or have the master's in education it says he has. Veteran reporter Cynthia Hubert explained to readers how suggestive interviews with children derailed the McMartin case and how local authorities were working to prevent them.
While some Bee readers let us know they thought our reporting was fair, others raised concerns on sacbee.com that Adams was being tried in the media, with no charges or chance to defend himself. One, identified as lespaul1963, wrote: "that's what the prosecution does with a salacious case that is weak on its own merits. 'Let's have a media trial because we know we'll never get a conviction in the courtroom without the media circus first.' "
Media attention doesn't have the power to convict someone in a courtroom, though it certainly can and does affect public opinion. The acquittal of Casey Anthony in the murder trial of her 2-year-old daughter amid a media firestorm demonstrated that.
Yet strong media attention is warranted when such serious allegations arise in our community, with potential to affect many families. The Bee will continue to bring context and perspective to this story, even as we report pieces that go beyond the allegations.