How a parent’s Facebook post sent a Boynton charter into damage control

With help from two prominent websites, a parent’s unverified claim about the school went viral. 

A popular parenting website called a Boynton Beach-area charter school’s new bathroom policy “truly absurd.” A Yahoo news article said the school’s move raised questions about potential “child abuse.”

The problem: Franklin Academy says both articles were inaccurate and based on an erroneous claim that a mother made on Facebook.

With the help of social media, the school west of Boynton Beach says that what started as a parent’s misunderstanding of its new hall-pass rules blew up into a media event, prompting a swirl of misinformation that forced the school into damage control.

It started when a mother posted on Facebook on Monday, claiming that a new school policy limited the number of times a student could be excused to go to the bathroom each year.

“They are only allowed to use the restroom 50 times the entire year!” the mother wrote in a Facebook parenting group “Is that crazy, or is it me?”

Even worse, the mother said, students who go to the bathroom more than 50 times would have to pay $5 each for the right to have additional bathroom passes. The parent did not respond to messages seeking comment.

A school administrator said the parent had misunderstood the policy. Students have no limitations on the number of bathroom trips they can make, he said, and the $5 fee is only for when a student loses a hall-pass log and needs to replace it.

After 50 hall passes, he said, students receive a new hall-pass log at no charge.

But on Facebook, other parents began chiming in to the mother’s claims, most of them expressing outrage about what they saw as draconian rules. What about students with health problems, some wondered. What about girls who are menstruating, others asked.

Soon the post drew the attention of Kayt Molina, a freelance writer who lives in Homestead.

Molina, a mother herself, was shocked by the claims being made online.

She said that she interacted with at least two parents from the school who appeared to confirm that a policy limiting free trips to the bathroom was in effect at the school. One parent gave her permission to use a photo of the new hall-pass sheet.

She wrote up an article based on the parents’ allegations and submitted it to Scary Mommy, a popular parenting website. The site published it Thursday under the headline: “You Won’t Believe This School’s Ridiculous Bathroom Policy.”

“Franklin Academy K-8 in Boynton Beach, Florida, has a truly absurd bathroom policy,” the article’s lead-in said. The article accepted as fact the claims but didn’t make clear where the claims had come from.

“I can’t believe this needs to be said,” Molina wrote, “but seeing as how this isn’t the only school with these absurd impositions on students: using the bathroom is a right, not a privilege. Let the kids go pee.”

In an interview, Molina admitted that she didn’t reach out to the school or attempt to independently verify the parents’ claims before publishing.

If she had, she said, she doubted the school would have spoken to her, particularly since parents on Facebook were already promising to pepper the school with complaints.

“I’m not an investigative journalist,” she said. “I just write about things that interest me and catch my attention.”

The article quickly made the rounds on social media in local parenting and education circles, with people weighing in to express their shock at the school’s purported new rules.

The same day, Yahoo published its own article about the rules. The headline: “Parents are calling this school bathroom policy ‘abuse.’ ”

The article quoted no parents and did not make clear the source of its information. Like the article on Scary Mommy, there was no indication that the writer attempted to contact the school or verify the claims.

Reached Friday, the author, Chicago-based freelance writer Krista Thurrott, said her article was based on the Scary Mommy article. Her editor, Hilary Hagerman, did not respond to a message seeking comment.

(Update: After being contacted by The Palm Beach Post for comment, Yahoo updated its article to list as the source of its information and to say that the school disputed the report.)

By Friday morning, the school had received a barrage of calls and messages from confused and worried parents.

Scott Sznitken, executive director of Franklin Academy’s six campuses in Broward and Palm Beach counties, said it was all based on a misunderstanding.

The school was not limiting bathroom trips, he said in an interview. It was simply asking students to keep a running log of the times they are excused from class, whether for bathroom trips, visits to the school nurse or the principal’s office.

Doing so will help staff determine if certain students are abusing the privilege, he said. But there are no limitations on how often students can be excused.

Each log sheet has 50 entries, but when those 50 are used up students will receive a new sheet at no charge, he said.

“The school has put out multiple emails to the families trying to clear up the confusion,” he said. “Unfortunately I believe this has grown in a way we didn’t expect.”

To counter the misconceptions, the school turned to Facebook as well. On the school’s Facebook page, it posted a long message encouraging parents to contact the school directly with future questions.

“We would greatly appreciate the opportunity to clear up any confusion in direct communication with our families,” it said, “and before the confusion has the opportunity to become distorted in erroneous stories passed among our families or posted on the internet.”

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