Saratoga County

Author responds to social media backlash

School: Student body does not have widespread behavioral, bullying issues
Nancy Jo Sales, a writer for Vanity Fair.
Nancy Jo Sales, a writer for Vanity Fair.

BALLSTON SPA — Fallout from the abrupt cancellation Wednesday of a high school assembly about respect and teenage social media use continued through social media Friday.

Vanity Fair writer and New York Times best-selling author Nancy Jo Sales was scheduled to make two presentations to students, but she made only one before leaving abruptly. Later, both Sales and the students who attended the aborted assembly claimed they were treated with disrespect during the event.

Sales’ visit was paid for with funds from the Capital Region BOCES Arts and Enrichment Program, which helps area schools host speakers from across the country. Sales’ fee was $3,000 for the two speeches, but the contract was voided when Sales left early, said Ballston Spa public information officer Stuart Williams.

When selecting people to speak at school events, Williams said, the district looks for presenters who are relevant and who will be able to touch on modern topics that are relevant to high schoolers. The recommendation to have Sales speak, he said, came from Troy Middle School, where she gave a speech in May that was well-received in that school.

[Was Ballston Spa guest speaker asked to leave? Sides tell different stories]

But in Ballston Spa, students’ angst over Sales’ speech didn’t end with her departure. She received a flood of online comments and messages over the following two days — some positive, but most negative.

One such comment came from Martha Frankel, executive director of the Woodstock Bookfest, in Ulster County, where Sales spoke last year. Frankel recalled an incident similar to what happened in Ballston Spa, where sales was accused of being verbally abusive to students, and vice versa.

“The woman on stage was fighting with her audience,” Frankel said of the Bookfest incident. During the presentation, Ava Ratcliff, a young girl who was volunteering at the event, stood to express a point of view that was contrary to something Sales had said, according to Frankel, who spoke to The Daily Gazette on Friday. The ensuing confrontation with Sales left Ratcliff upset, Frankel said. 

Ratcliff, reached by phone Friday afternoon, said Sales had characterized nude photos as degrading. Ratcliff disagreed and said she wanted to express her view because she felt that Sales was saying things about teenagers that were inaccurate.

While Ratcliff said she does agree with Sales’ point that the sexualization of teens is unacceptable, she said she was taken aback by what was, in her opinion, Sales’ refusal to acknowledge an opposing point of view. 

Sales’ books contain interviews with teenagers and their social media habits, but Ratcliff noted she would have liked to have seen a teenager up on stage with Sales during the Bookfest event.

“I don’t regret what I did,” Ratcliff said.

As with reaction to the Ballston Spa assembly, multiple news articles were written about the Woodstock incident, some in support of Ratcliff and some in support of Sales.

Sales’ book publicist, Jennifer Marshall, organizes tours for Sales and pointed out that reactions to Sales’ presentations sometimes stem from the fact that she isn’t afraid to bring up issues that are emotional for teenagers, including sexting and online harassment.

“She’s out there doing really important work,” Marshall said.

But, Marshall said, she was shocked by feedback from the Ballston Spa event.

“I’ve never seen her be rude, ever,” Marshall said.

Sales has indicated that, in her view, the Ballston Spa high school student body has clear cyberbullying and behavioral issues. 

In a statement to The Daily Gazette, she pointed out an Instagram video that features an anonymous male making a threat against students for insulting his boyfriend and an incident last week in which the district went into lockdown after getting an online shooting threat. Both, she said, prove her point about problems in the high school.

Stuart said it is untrue that the school has a rampant cyberbullying problem. While he confirmed the Instagram video was uncovered during the investigation into the lockdown last week, the video itself was not what caused the lockdown, he said. The lockdown was called, he said, due to reports of a weapon on campus. 

The Instagram video — which was the act of one person — was not necessarily indicative of a trend within the district, he added.

The result of Sales’ event will not change the policy the district utilizes in selecting speakers, he added.

“We’re ready to move on,” Williams said.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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