Wichmer the attorney, Pokin the journalist, and the old game Telephone

When I decided to write this particular post, I wanted to make sure enough time had passed from what happened to discussing what happened. I did this in hopes that the reader would be able to see the main point I’m making with my story, not seeing the example that sets up the main point.

What is the example? The example used involved Springfield’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Ordinance and restrooms.

What is the main point I want to make with the example? That point is how the media can lose track of the truth through their trust of previous reports. Further, in doing so it can make them look like they are playing “loosey goosey” with the facts.

But let’s start by going back a long time to get started off on a good note.

When I was a kid, I lived in Las Cruces, New Mexico. I went to some of my elementary school years there in the southern New Mexico city. When I wasn’t in school, I would be at Little Playmates. It was a daycare that provided my parents with summer care for me and my brother.

While there we would play many games, inside and out, and it was a pretty good time.

There was one game I really liked. It was called “Telephone”. This was a game where all the kids would get in a circle. At one end of the circle a kid would start by whispering in the ear of the child beside him. He would whisper anything. For instance, he could say, “The goat wore a blue coat to the store.” The second child would whisper the same to the third, and this would happen until all the kids whispered what they heard to the next kid.

By the end, “The goat wore a blue coat to the store,” may have become, “I wore a blue coat to school.”

I loved it! How the initial statement made 20 children ago could get distorted little by little, and by the end you had something being said that was little, sometimes nothing, like what was initially stated.

Now, let’s fast forward to 2015. In Springfield, Missouri, we had a vote on April 7th to decide whether or not to keep a law in place that was very controversial – in part – because of the “restroom issue”. This issue was one brought up by opponents. Their concern was that by passing this law, along with other concerns, the city government would now leave the business owner unable to ask a male to leave a female’s restroom, or a female to leave a male’s restroom.

This was such a contentious topic that the city council even had whispers of amending the bill before it was initially passed to prevent this from happening. However, in the end they didn’t amend anything – just passed the law.

So, as it stood, the public was with the impression that when the law passed any male could go in to any female restroom, and vice versa. Because of the law being passed, business owners would be “discriminating” if they asked the person to remove theirself from the “wrong” restroom. In my mind, this is one of the reasons the law was repealed through the petition and voting process by the citizens of Springfield.

With this being the understanding, you can imagine my shock when I read a Springfield News-Leader editorial board article stating the following: “And the use of bathrooms? It’s already legal to enter a men’s or women’s restroom, regardless of gender, according to City Attorney Dan Wichmer in a previous News-Leader story.”

The position the board was taking was no shock. They had, for months, been very vocal and bias in their reporting on the issue. They made no effort to refute the fact that, for this particular issue, they had become commentators and not journalists.

But this particular comment caught my eye. It’s already legal to use the opposite gender’s restroom in Springfield? My first thought was that the comment made no sense. If that was the case, why was it such a big deal and why – in the course of the debate – did not one person say, “Hey, this is already legal.”

So, the first thing I did was look for the article they were referencing. I found it. Steve Pokin, a journalist who does “Pokin Around”, a regular report he does after investigating a particular issue, did a piece on the SOGI Law: Gender Identity and the Bathroom Debate.

In the article, Pokin states the following: “Is it currently against Springfield law to use a public restroom designated for the opposite sex? City Attorney Dan Wichmer says no. It’s already legal in Springfield for men to use women’s public restrooms, and vice versa.”

Now this is where I was completely confused. Again, if this is the case, why was this not brought up for years during the debate about this law. Not until his article comes out right before the vote does this concept even make an appearance.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. So I wrote Dan Wichmer. I asked, “Dan, Is it correct when the News-Leader asserts I can walk in to and use a women’s public restroom in Springfield and it’s not illegal? (Or at least that’s what they said you said.)”

His response reminded me of the Dan Wichmer I knew when on City Council. Very detailed in response, and if you’re not paying attention or even “want” to hear a certain thing, you can misunderstand his closely chosen words. His response: “Well, they are not correct.”

Wow! Hold the phone! What did he just say?? They are not correct?!

He went on to say that Springfield has an ordinance that allows “a business or public place to designate a facility as single sex.” In that same email, he went as far as to say that he interprets the law based on behavior because, if strictly enforced, my wife taking my newborn son in to a ladies restroom violates the letter of the law.

Where did this game of Telephone go so very wrong as to say that something that is illegal be reported as being legal?

Well, first we have to understand the law. From what I can gather, if a business owner owns a place with a restroom, until he marks the restroom as gender specific, either gender can use any of the restrooms. As soon as he marks it for a specific gender, it is only lawful for that gender to use that restroom… so far as to go that Dan Wichmer himself recognizes that Susy can’t take her one-year-old in the ladies room without violating the letter of the law.

That should lead us to recognize that the response from Wichmer said the law “allows”, but doesn’t force a business to create gender specific restrooms.

So, in the course of reporting, what in the world happened?!

Here is what I can come up with.

To begin, I don’t think Pokin or the News-Leader editorial board did anything nefarious. I do, however, believe they wanted to put something to rest that was a valid argument, thought they heard an answer they wanted to hear, and ran with it. Pokin in particular; the editorial board simply followed his lead without checking his facts.

The point to be made is this: even the media can get it wrong.

We are supposed to be able to trust the news sources we read, watch, and hear. However, the media are made up of people and just like the rest of us and they are imperfect.

Suffice to say that when we read, read with an open mind, recalling previous knowledge, and always being willing to trust but verify.


After the single shot at Central High: To train or not to train

In October, I will have the opportunity to attend a certification program and will become what is called a “Peer Support Specialist”. This opportunity, afforded to me by the Veteran’s Administration and the Springfield Veteran’s Center, is essentially my chance to forward the knowledge and foresight I have gained through three years of better understanding some very difficult times in my life, how they have affected me, and how I can keep from allowing my experiences from interfering with my life in a negative capacity. In short, I have been told I’m far enough along in my “recovery” to help others who have been through many of the same experiences I have been through – namely war, but I may also have the opportunity to help with those who have dealt with chemical dependency, unexpected death, and other traumatic events that do in fact alter the way one views life. I have had a rough run in life, but hopefully my desire to better understand and deal with it will be able to benefit not only me, but others.

One of the benefits an organization has by using a Peer Support Specialist is that they are using people to counsel that have actually experienced traumatic events. These may be people that have become educated institutionally since (or before), but have in fact gone beyond the scholarly articles, research, and other academic instruction; they have walked the walk.

While I look forward to the opportunity, I do realize the difference in impact one can have when they have done the walk. With that as a backdrop, I want to share an experience that I don’t hide, however, it’s not something I share unless there is purpose.

On the night of September 16, 2005, I was serving as a Vehicle Commander for a US Marines Unit that was charged with convoy security in Iraq. On the mission I am going to discuss, I was a commander for the vehicle that carried our Corpsman (medic). Our mission on this particular night was to go from Fallujah to Al Asad – from one American Base to another – and pick up a few Marines in our unit that had been temporarily assigned to work with another unit.

This was our next to last month in Iraq, and after 40+ missions I had personally been on, we had come under fire about a dozen times. All of them were very quick occurrences and ones that there wasn’t too much time to think about what was going on until after the fact. As well, up and to this time, I had absolutely grown exhausted from training… training, training, training. I would think, “This is lame – we know what we’re doing and we will do it if and when the time comes.”

This particular September night the issue of “things happening fast” would change.

While on our way to Al Asad, we came into contact with an Army convoy that was going the opposite direction on the very narrow road we were on. Custom had it that we would make contact with them and discuss any threat or concern from where each of us had come from since we were going where they had been and vice versa.

As this happened a roadside bomb detonated. Immediately someone came on the radio frantic and needing assistance – medical assistance. I was better positioned to access the downed vehicle than was the other unit’s medic so we made it known we would be there as soon as possible.

Shortly after, we made contact with the downed vehicle. As I got out of the vehicle I noticed one soldier from the Army Unit holding another. I asked if they needed assistance and was told, “No, she’s just scared.” The Corpsman and I then made our way around to what was left of the downed vehicle… to the passenger side. What was in that Humvee was something I won’t describe, but let’s say it altered how I would look at life for the rest of my life. The sights and smells that actually exist can’t be fully understood until experienced.

The Corpsman began helping the individual in the vehicle, though the help would not bear fruit in the end. As he ordered me to do the small tasks that I could, the time came where the orders stopped and I realized I could be of better use helping another Sergeant mark the Landing Zone and land the Med-Evac (helicopter).  We did exactly that, loaded the injured Soldier on the bird (helicopter), and they left.

Now I want to back up and discuss a brief moment that seemed to be an eternity between the time I helped the Corpsman and helped with the landing zone.

I will never forget taking a gravitating mental note that while my unit was helping this Army Unit evacuate their wounded, setting perimeter security, making contact with the base closest to our position, and landing a helicopter in the middle of the dark desert, not a single Marine had to be told what their assignment was; because of the training I had always disliked, we were a fine group of United States Marines that didn’t have to be told what to do… not one of us. It was the most impressive moment I remember having as a Marine.

I never again complained about training.

Fast forward to 2014 – the location is Springfield, Missouri. In the August 31 edition of the Springfield News-Leader, an opinion was posted from a professor and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors. The title? Schools are safe: Nix the scary drills. In this article the professor, who I can only assume has never been in a school shooting or hostile situation where he was under fire, states that the drills in schools to train students how to react in a shooter situation are too scary and traumatizing. He says schools are safe and that we as a nation need to “nix” the drills.

Ironically, less than a week later at Central High School (again, Springfield, Missouri), a single shot rang out when one student was passing to another a backpack and the backpack was dropped; that backpack contained a gun that was loaded and obviously ready to fire.

Now, as I’m sure the rest of the community agrees, we are all very thankful and feel blessed that this wasn’t an actual school shooting – the type we have witnessed from afar and across the nation over the past many years. But what I want to concentrate on here is the reaction of the school staff.

There was never a lock down. At least one parent who called seven minutes after her child texted her was initially told by the school nurse that the nurse wasn’t aware of any shooting. The same mother called back and was told by another staff member, “Oh no, there has been no shooting, nothing has gone on here.”

There are two very big questions and the Springfield community should expect answers:

  1. Was school staff ordered to tell mistruths about what happened if/when parents called or was there was actually staff in the building who, seven minutes after the shot was fired, didn’t know there was a potential security hazard? Logically, one of those two have to be the answer.
  2. As a veteran, I submit as common knowledge that when shootings happen, they begin and end in a relatively short period of time. With that in mind, how long from the shot being fired was the command decision made that there was not a threat and that a school lockdown was not necessary? After all, seven minutes after the shot being fired two different staff members denied any knowledge of what had happened.

Beyond that, I am curious if the News-Leader Editorial Board who opted to publish the “nix the drills” article feels that our schools are as safe as they alluded to a week ago when they chose to publish the article.

Lastly, the article itself submits that by training our kids how to act in an emergency situation we are traumatizing them. As somebody who is not in to the academics and institutional aspect as much as I’m in to the reality of it, I would be curious if we are more comfortable with training our children to react automatically or having them actually traumatized if a situation like Columbine or Sandy Hook happens. Without preparing them they’re not trained, and if they make it out alive of a real shooting, they are truly traumatized because the lives that could have been saved were not due to our lack of desire “to hurt their feelings and sensitivities” by training them.

Maybe I’m a Marine in the minority, but I vote to hope for the best, prepare for the worst, and be real with our children about the threats that exist.