Friday, March 7, 2014
Call it a request for calm before the storm.
"Unfortunately, at this point in time, we find ourselves dealing with negative publicity generated by the presence of an alleged prostitution ring within our town," wrote Regional School Unit 21 Superintendent Andrew Dolloff in a memo last week to teachers and staff in schools throughout Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Arundel.
"In recent days, we have been told that the names of the accused participants will be released to the media," Dolloff continued. "We are not clear that this is a factual statement, but nonetheless, we must consider how the release of such information will impact our students."
Dolloff is correct -- on every count.
For months, all of southern Maine has buzzed with speculation, anticipation and more than a little titillation about "the list" -- those 100-plus names, some reportedly prominent, some not so much, of men who allegedly paid for the sexual services of Alexis Wright behind the facade of her "dance studio" in Kennebunk.
For most of us, it's been a modern-day parlor game: Who's on the list? Any bets how long before their jobs/careers go up in smoke? Will they show up in court or, more likely, dispatch their attorneys to enter their pleas and pay their fines?
But then, just over a week ago, someone threw a very cold, very wet blanket over the overheating gossip mill.
We don't know her name. She posted on the Portland Press Herald website only as "Pebble in a pond" in the reader comments below a story headlined "Clients on alleged Kennebunk prostitution list likely to be charged."
"All around southern Maine the last weeks of August hearts were broken and families were torn apart as those men, knowing their names might be publicized, told their partners the sad smarmy truth," she wrote. "I know this because I'm one of those wives."
She went on, with remarkable eloquence, to note that release of the names "would give lots of people great fun watching the public humiliation and would provide fabulous fodder for those who thrive on mean-spirited gossip."
But at the same time, she reminded us, it looms as the worst of nightmares for the wives and children of those charged as they try to go on with life under a cloud of "humiliation and despair."
"I can't imagine, if the names are published, how I will ever even leave the house knowing what whispers would follow me everywhere," she wrote. "The idea that my beautiful innocent children will inevitably be teased by schoolyard bullies literally makes me sick to my stomach."
Yes, the woman noted, her husband "did a horrible, unconscionable thing. He is completely humiliated. He contemplates suicide. Trust me when I tell you he is suffering, since that seems to be what folks are hungry for."
And finally, "I pray with all my heart that the list is never made public."
Her prayer will not be answered. This week, Kennebunk police are expected to begin releasing the names of those charged and yes, they will show up in print.
Editors at both the York County Coast Star and the Biddeford Journal Tribune told me late last week that they plan to publish all of the names -- just as they do those of anyone else whose arrest shows up on the local police log.
Here at the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, deliberations continue on whether to publish all of the names or just those considered publicly prominent -- and, should our editors go with the latter, where to draw that line.
That said, such decisions these days are hardly limited to local news organizations.
Kelly McBride, who specializes in media ethics for the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., noted in an interview Friday that "mainstream journalists are no longer the gatekeepers for who can see this information."
Rather, Twitter and Facebook are at least as likely to serve as conduits for "the list" within hours (if not minutes) of its release.
For the johns, of course, that's simply a matter of getting what you paid for -- and then some.
While some might argue that their looming punishment in the public square far outweighs a Class E misdemeanor committed behind closed doors, this is hardly the time to claim that they somehow have become the victims here.
But what about all those wives and children? Devastating as this might be inside homes throughout Kennebunk and beyond, is there any way to mitigate the misery they'll experience this week as they head for the workplace, the supermarket, the church or, worst of all, the school bus?
Much to his credit, Superintendent Dolloff spent last week doing what he could to limit the fallout.
In addition to the one-page memo he wrote to all RSU 21 employees, Dolloff asked his principals to meet with their staffs and convey two basic messages.
First, he instructed, principals and/or guidance counselors should quietly and confidentially reach out to any kids they know to be affected by the scandal and determine, within 24 hours or less, what school-based support is needed.
Second, Dolloff prohibited any list-related teasing or bullying by other students, as well as any idle discussion of the prostitution case whatsoever among teachers and staff.
"Jokes and rumors are easily communicated in matters such as this," Dolloff wrote in his memo. "But we do not necessarily know who may be within earshot, or who may be impacted in an unfortunate manner."
Nor, for that matter, do any of us.
As Poynter's McBride noted, "Yes, there will be prominent people on the list -- and there will be people nobody cares about who are on the list."
But either way, she added, "the release of this list is going to have significant impact for everybody who's on it and everybody in their circle, however big that is."
Or, pity the poor children, however small.
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: