An award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author abruptly departed from Ballston Spa High School yesterday after a morning assembly with students about social media and cyber-bullying.
Nancy Jo Sales says she has spoken at 50 or more schools, just this year, and has had all good experiences. In addition to her credentials posted on her website, she was recommended as a speaker to the Ballston Spa School District according to high school principal, Kris Jensen.
Details of a potential problem with the presentation and speaker, attended by approximately 700 students and 40 faculty, began surfacing on social media, from students, around 3 p.m.
Jensen sent an email to parents just after 4 p.m. that said “At one of our assembly sessions today, we selected a nationally renowned speaker who came highly recommended from area administrators after presenting at their school to speak on the topic of teenage social media use. Unfortunately, this speaker was disrespectful to students in the first assembly and did not meet our expectations in terms of developing a rapport with students that would lead to a successful presentation.. As a result, the second assembly session was cancelled. 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. ”
Sales indicated she caught off guard and unprepared by a few issues during her brief experience at the school. She said she was told about the previous week’s online bullying and gun threat by Assistant Principal Nicole Holchan as she was entering the auditorium to do her presentation, and says she was told not to speak on the subject.
Jensen denies withholding any information and said Sales “was made aware of last week’s incident because it is still a sensitive topic. She was NEVER told not to discuss it since, after all, she was speaking about social media.”
Once inside the auditorium, Sales alleges the teens were “rowdy” and gave several prompts to “settle down” in order to start the presentation. She was not able to identify how many, if any, other teachers or faculty were in the room and did not hear or see any specific prompts by school officials to control the noise or activity levels.
“The material she presented was relevant but lacked consistency or a clear message. My understanding is the speaker encouraged participation through her questions but then she was rude to students when they responded with an answer she did not like. I can tell you by walking into the auditorium to students booing and leaving, that she had definitely lost the crowd,” said Jensen.
Community Relations Coordinator for the district, Stuart Williams, says he was in attendance at the beginning of the first session also said Sales “was not clear and was rude to students.”
During the presentation, a student was making loud noises to which Sales said she responded “if you are going to keep screaming, just leave.” Sales said school officials failed to inform her of special needs students in the audience and she was refused an opportunity to apologize to the student once advised.
Jensen responded “we have many students with special needs in our school and they would have access and opportunity like any other student to attend an assembly. This particular student made a noise and, by student and adult accounts, the presenter overreacted and quickly launched. We think she made the assumption that our students were being disrespectful. We do not believe the speaker had an awareness of the student’s special needs but no educator would have responded negatively so quickly.”
Accused of vulgarity, Sales adamently denied initiating conversations with foul language. She did admit to paraphrasing a student who claimed her peers were “pieces of s—,” and said she repeated back “if you are pieces of s—, be kind.”
“I can confirm that she repeated a phrase a student used in a response to her question but other students did not hear that student. They heard the presenter use that phrase and within minutes use the “F” word and that is when the assembly came to an abrupt end,” said Jensen.
Overall, Sales says her presentations are about kindness, respect and looking at your own behavior.
Sales said she left by choice after being pulled behind a curtain by Holchan and Jensen stating she was “not comfortable”, and after being confronted by students upset by the dismissal of the impaired student from the auditorium. She also said she would waive the fee for her day’s travel and services, the contract would be voided.
A detail the school confirms as accurate.
An anonymous submission, signed BSHS student, to the Ballston Journal, with an audio clip of Jensen apologizing to the students, said:
“Today was PSAT day at the high school, and at the end of the day the administration had a guest speaker, Nancy Jo Sales. There were 2 presentations, first was for 11th & 12th, and second one was for 9th & 10th. During the first presentation, Sales was using very vulgar language and attacking teens for using social media. At one point, a disabled student made involuntary noises and the she told the student to leave and she did. At the end, she said “F–k it”. This led to the second presentation being cancelled. I recorded the principal’s announcement after she apologized. The 9th & 10th graders had already gone to the auditorium but were sent back to their regular classrooms, then this announcement was made. Parents got an email from principal. Feel free to quote me or use the audio file.”
“It’s ironic and sad to be cyberbullied, in a school where there’s a problem,” said Sales about the Twitter storm. “I feel for the kids and am sorry the school culture is this way right now. It’s too bad the school is not doing more and not being transparent.”
“The administration [BSCSD] is out of it,” Sales concluded.
Since the incident, Sales has been in direct communication with several BSpa parents defending herself, telling her side of the story and has taken to social media posting the high school lockdown coverage from last week.
“I am very concerned with her portrayal of what occurred and how she is currently handling this situation,” concluded Jensen.
Nancy Jo Sales is the author of “American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers”.
The high school has no immediate plans for an assembly on the topic of social media at this time.