Superintendent’s DUI is a lesson for Carmel High journalism students.
Thursday, May 21, 2009
On a recent Monday afternoon, the reporters for Carmel High School’s biweekly newspaper, The Sandpiper, lean into their laptops. Two girls sit shoulder-to-shoulder and answer questions in unison. A boy in an oversized hoodie slumps against a wall and quotes a gag T-shirt he finds online: “Jesus hates the Yankees.”
But one student, dressed in a polo shirt, khakis and lace-up loafers, sits alone at the teacher’s desk, expounding on his biggest scoop yet: the DUI arrest of Carmel Unified School District Superintendent Marvin Biasotti.
“We found out about it and knew right away we had to write it,” says senior Andrew Leach, the newspaper’s editor. “This was definitely the closest we’ve gotten to a real news story all year.”
Biasotti has framed his arrest as a “teachable moment” about the consequences of driving drunk. But for the teens of this class, it’s also a lesson in news reporting.
The teacher, Carmel High alum Mike Palshaw, calls a brief discussion about how the story relates to some of the stickiest issues in journalism: fair coverage, free-speech protections and fallout from upset readers.
“When there are more controversial stories, there’s a lot more talk about the paper, a lot more interest,” student Alexis Disario says.
Lesson one: Scandal sells.
Biasotti was arrested for driving under the influence after attending a party affiliated with a Carmel Middle School fundraiser on April 25. During the field sobriety test he blew a blood alcohol level of .12 percent, well above the legal limit of .08. (Biasotti has pleaded not guilty pending the more reliable blood test results.)
A few days later, acting on several confidential tips, Leach confirmed the DUI charge with the sheriff’s department. During the April 29 school board meeting, he listened for whether Biasotti would address his arrest.
He didn’t, at least not in public. But unbeknownst to Leach, he held a private meeting about the incident with school officials and began working on a written public statement. (It was originally planned as a video, but Biasotti worried students would remix it into a parody on YouTube.)
The next morning Leach e-mailed Biasotti, asking for comment. They traded phone messages, and Biasotti agreed to get back to him. Within a few hours, he e-mailed Leach a lawyer-approved statement of admission and apology.
It wasn’t the in-person interview Leach had hoped for – he wanted to play hardball, with questions about how many drinks he’d had and what he thought his punishment should be – but it was, at least, a scoop.
A little past noon, the same ruminative statement appeared on the district website. “[T]he choices we make are teachable moments that test our character,” Biasotti wrote. “I’d like to hold myself up as an example of the serious consequences that can happen if you drink and drive.”
The timing of the statement caused speculation over whether the student newspaper had prompted Biasotti to come clean. Not at all, Biasotti claims: He’d already drafted the statement and was editing it by the time Leach contacted him. “The fact of the matter is that I was at the school the day before, trying to figure out how to make the message public.”
On May 1, reports of Biasotti’s arrest appeared in both The Sandpiper and The Monterey County Herald.
“We broke it concurrently with the Herald, which was kinda cool,” Palshaw says. “It’s been a learning experience for [Leach], and the students in the class have seen that reporting matters.”
Lesson two: Media is power.
Biasotti’s legal hangover will likely amount to the DUI standards: a fine, probation, alcohol ed classes and community service. The district’s punishment is lighter. On May 8, the school board voted to issue Biasotti a letter of reprimand and a warning that he’ll be fired if it happens again.
“I respect the way they handled it and reached a fair conclusion,” Biasotti says.
But some parents and students view the light punishment as a double standard in a district with a zero-tolerance alcohol and drug policy. Even a swill of mouthwash before a dance, where teens submit to breathalyzers on the way in, can get a student suspended for five days. A second offense triggers one-year expulsion.
“If we pick up anything, .001 percent, they’re suspended,” Carmel High School Principal Karl Pallastrini says. “Adults are a different story.”
Despite the calls for a harsher reprimand, School Board President Dan Hightower – who was at the district event the night of Biasotti’s DUI and describes him as a friend – says the board’s decision is final.
“We deliberated for six hours,” he says. “We’d like to consider the matter closed.”
The school board unanimously agreed not to fire the superintendent. But board member Marcy Rustad, who cast the lone dissenting vote on the letter of reprimand, says the board could have placed Biasotti on unpaid suspension or paid administrative leave, or reevaluated his car allowance of roughly $900 per month.
“I would have felt more comfortable if we had made a clearer statement,” she says. “A superintendent of schools is not the same as an average citizen. You are a role model for an entire community, including very impressionable teens and young adults. The teachable moment would have been if there had been more serious consequences.”