BALLSTON SPA — A two-part school assembly on teenage social media use ended abruptly Wednesday, but school district officials and the keynote speaker are giving contrasting accounts of why the event was called short.
Both sides claim they were treated disrespectfully.
Vanity Fair writer and New York Times best-selling author Nancy Jo Sales was scheduled to make two presentations to Ballston Spa High School students, but she made only one before leaving abruptly.
In an email sent to parents after the assembly, district officials said Sales’ second address was canceled after she behaved disrespectfully toward students in the first session.
"I am very proud of how our students responded to an adult who did not model respect, and I appreciate their courage to bring something to my attention when they feel it did not represent the standards by which we hold ourselves accountable," high school principal Kristi K. Jensen wrote in her email to parents.
Sales gave a dramatically different account of the assembly. In a lengthy and detailed email to The Daily Gazette, Sales said the students were rowdy and that districts officials didn't appear to make any efforts to quiet them.
"It was a very tense atmosphere," Sales wrote in her email. "They were not settling down. The teachers and other adults who were there were not helping me quiet them down. Usually when I give a talk, if the kids get rowdy, the principal or somebody will stand up and say something. But they did not."
Sales said she became stern with the audience when one student became disruptive.
"I heard one kid — I could not see who it was in the sea of faces — making a lot of noise, and I said, 'Look, I've come a long way to talk to you all, and if you can't be quiet then I'm going to have to ask you to leave.' I didn't know at the time — didn't know until after my talk, because no one told me — that this was a girl with special needs."
Before the assembly, Sales said, she was informed by a school administrator that the district had recently encountered a case of cyberbullying of a transgender student. Additionally, Sales said, she was made aware of an incident last week in which four males were arrested in connection with an alleged online shooting threat that was made against the district.
"She said that there were serious problems with meanness and bullying and cyberbullying in the school and that I should be 'tough' on the kids when I spoke to them, because they 'needed to hear it,'" Sales said.
Sales disputed the district’s claim that school officials made the decision to cancel the event after the first talk.
“After the talk, when I was told this by some students, I asked to be taken to the girl (with special needs) so that I could apologize to her for asking her to leave the room,” Sales wrote. “I said, 'If I can't apologize to the girl, I am going to leave.' They insisted I speak, saying we had a contract — which we did. I said that's OK, you can keep my fee. I told them I was uncomfortable with the way they had mishandled the event, and I was leaving, so I did. I was not asked to leave, and the talk was not 'canceled'" by anyone — except by me.”
This screenshot was provided to The Gazette by Nancy Jo Sales.
In the aftermath of the assembly, Sales said, she received messages through multiple social media platforms, and even at her personal phone number -- some violent, some containing crude language-- condemning her for what occurred at the assembly.
“I think the saddest thing about this whole thing is not what it means for me, but what it means for other students in this school who have to try and get an education and have a happy high school life in this atmosphere, a potentially dangerous atmosphere, in which a child brought a gun to school over cyberbullying of a student,” Sales added in her statement. “This school had this problem before I arrived, and I'm truly hoping they deal with it for the sake of every student in the school.”
District officials maintained Thursday that they don't condone any type of cyberbullying.
Sales’ Wikipedia page had even been edited to read that she “died in 2017 after disrespecting students at Ballston Spa High School,” but the edit was removed from the page by Thursday evening.
Sales noted her publishers advised her to go to the police, but as of Thursday afternoon, Sales said that she had not contacted any police department.
Assistant principal Nicole Holehan, when reached by phone Thursday afternoon, expressed concerns over Sales’ version of events.
Holehan said that, while she did speak with Sales about possible presentation topics prior to the assembly, she never indicated that school leaders wanted her to be tough on the kids.
“I did not ever tell her to be tough on our students,” she said.
Holehan acknowledged she told Sales about last week’s arrest, but that was only for context. Holehan said she spoke with Sales about addressing topics such as media literacy and online awareness.
She stressed that the district does not believe any insult to the special education student was intentional. She also confirmed that Sales did say she would have never reacted the way she did to the outburst, had she known the girl was a special-needs student. Holehan added that Sales never offered to apologize.
“Never, ever did she ask to apologize to the student,” she said.
The fact that Sales reacted so negatively to the student so quickly, Holehan said, was also cause for concern.
Sales, Holehan said, began to engage students during the presentation with various questions. But from Holehan's perspective, students became upset when Sales dismissed their answers if they didn’t seem to fall in line with her own perspective, Holehan said. They started booing, she said, and some of them got up to leave.
Holehan argued that she and the building principal ultimately made the decision to cancel the second presentation, and when they pulled Sales aside to inform her, she became defensive and informed them that she had made the decision to leave anyway.
Holehan added that she apologized to Sales on the way out.
Despite the turn of events, Holehan said, the district is moving forward to focus on positive things. Since Wednesday’s events, the angriest students, she said, agreed to stop any negative social media posts about the assembly.
And despite the fact that some students were angry, Holehan pointed out, others were able to see the validity to some points Sales made during her presentation.
She also acknowledged that the some students moved quickly on social media to express their anger at the situation without using personal insults or bad language.
“It brought the kids together,” she said.
Full statement from Nancy Jo Sales
When I went to the school yesterday, the assistant principal, Nicole, told me about the cyberbullying of a trans student that had happened and the gun incident that occurred last week. She said that there were serious problems with meanness and bullying and cyberbullying in the school and that I should be "tough" on the kids when I spoke to them, because they "needed to hear it."
When I went into the auditorium, the kids were very rowdy. It was a very tense atmosphere. They were not settling down. The teachers and other adults who were there were not helping me quiet them down. Usually when I give a talk, if the kids get rowdy, the principal or somebody will stand up and say something. But they did not. I heard one kid — I could not see who it was in the sea of faces — making a lot of noise and I said, look, I've come a long way to talk to you all, and if you can't be quiet then I'm going to have to ask you to leave. I didn't know at the time — didn't know until after my talk, because no one told me — that this was a girl with special needs.
After the talk, when I was told this by some students, I asked to be taken to the girl so that I could apologize to her for asking her to leave the room. But the assistant principal, Nicole, said no. She — and now the principal was there — took me behind a curtain on the stage and said that I had to talk to the eighth- and ninth-graders immediately, as they were filing into the auditorium — but they said that I had to "tone it down." (More on that in a minute.) I said, if I can't apologize to the girl, I am going to leave. They insisted I speak, saying we had a contract — which we did. I said that's OK, you can keep my fee. I told them I was uncomfortable with the way they had mishandled the event, and I was leaving, so I did. I was not asked to leave, and the talk was not "canceled" by anyone — except by me.
The assistant principal, Nicole, is well aware of all of this, as she had a conversation with my publisher about it directly after the event. In that conversation, Nicole admitted to a representative from my publisher that she knew that I was unaware that this girl was a special-needs student. And yet, soon after this, the school sent out an email to parents saying that my talk had been "canceled" because I was "disrespectful" to students. This is a misrepresentation.
As for "toning down" my talk: My entire talk had been about kindness and respect. I told the kids that we should *all* be nicer to each other on social media and emulate people like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Colin Kaepernick, who stand up for those who are mistreated and bullied. During the talk, one of the girls in the audience raised her hand and said, to paraphrase, "We have a problem in this school with racism, sexism and homophobia and that's what no one is talking about." When she said this, I told the kids that I thought that these remarks should be applauded. What she said is exactly the message of my book. But her comment seemed to rile some students up. The kids started arguing with each other, making more noise, and no adults in the room ever stepped up to quiet them.
I think this school has a serious problem with bullying and cyberbullying, as the assistant principal told me herself and as was seen in the gun incident at the school last week. Since I appeared at the school, I have been continuously cyberbullied on all my social media accounts by students at the school, almost all boys, with vulgar, sexist and pro-Trump comments.
One such message says, "Girls don't need feminism they need d--k." ("Girls need feminism" is a quote from my book at the top of my Instagram page.) A little while ago, my publisher sent an email to the school with some of these screenshots, asking that the school talk to the kids about this, and also that they also correct the record with the parents and the kids about the fact that I did not know that the girl in the audience was a special needs student. The school has not responded that I am aware of at this time.
Since yesterday, kids have also been FaceTiming me, screaming obscenities, such as "B---h" (I passed out my card to a girl who asked me, after the talk, if I would take a look at her college essay, which I said I would be happy to do, as well as some other kids who said they really enjoyed my talk, and I guess my number somehow got around.)
In the aftermath of all this, some students seem to be re-writing what actually happened, pushing their version of events on my social media accounts. This does not surprise me, as the culture of social media is very often toxic and often cares little about the truth. One comment that was made by a girl in the room said that the problem at the school is that (again to paraphrase) it is "cliquey, and everyone goes along with one clique." Typically in schools, the clique that is feared are bullies, and no one counters them because no one wants to be further bullied by speaking out against them. I have also seen some tweets, though, thanking me for coming.
I think the saddest thing about this whole thing is not what it means for me, but what it means for other students in this school who have to try and get an education and have a happy high school life in this atmosphere, a potentially dangerous atmosphere, in which a child brought a gun to school over cyberbullying of a student. This school had this problem before I arrived, and I'm truly hoping they deal with it for the sake of every student in the school."
Editor's note: The statement has been edited for style.