Statements uttered and produced by official types in Surry County — school administrators and in the sheriff’s office — were vague and lacked key information.

And because they contained one name, it shouldn’t require the services of a detective to know that the dueling statements were going to be divisive.

A student at North Surry High, in a school-approved improvisational performance Wednesday, made some kind of crack about President Trump which led deputies to conclude that a full-on investigation was warranted.

“Regrettably, the performance included an inappropriate joke about the President,” reads a statement put together by the pros in the Surry County Schools administration.

Perhaps even more regrettably, school officials and investigators left things vague.

By doing so, they left a steaming pile of controversy in the virtual town square for the community to step in — an adolescent prank about to go really bad.

Words, or the lack thereof, matter.

Trolls, start your keyboards

A story about the situation ran Friday morning deep inside the newspaper. It was played just above everybody’s favorite — local crime briefs.

Many days, it would have been easy to miss. But since I had the pleasure of using a good portion of the day sitting in doctors’ offices with my mother and brother, I had both the time and opportunity to find and digest

Television screens were tuned to the impeachment hearings, a useful and appropriate backdrop for reading.

“Student joke about Trump prompts investigation by Surry sheriff’s office,” the headline read.

In 13 paragraphs, we learned that about 45 students at North Surry were in the school’s media center for an improv sketch about jobs in the White House. Improv, of course, means not rehearsed. Off the cuff. On the fly.

With just the tiniest bit of foresight, perhaps someone in the school might have seen where that could quickly go south. But that’s beside the point now.

Anyhow, one of the students proceeded to make a joke so bad and so offensive that it required police intervention. School officials refused to reveal what the kid had said, describing the comment only as being “in poor taste.”

One of the moderators of the Improv Club yelled “Freeze,” a signal for the activity to stop in place.

By then, it was too late.

“Several” complaints, including one from the proverbial “concerned parent,” were lodged with the sheriff’s office. “We’re still doing interviews, speaking with students, learning what was said and the context of the comment,” said Capt. Scott Hudson.

And so it began. Statements were made that lacked substance and sufficient detail. Internet trolls, start your engines.

Snowflakes. Jack-booted thugs. Even the Queen Mother of all political insults (Nazis) started piling up in dark corners of the Internet, comment threads and social media posts.

All over a few off-the-cuff, ill-advised words of a high-school kid.

Take a lesson

A teacher at North Surry, James Moore, had it about right in a comment included in the school’s initial statement.

“As a school counselor and sponsor of the club, it is important to me that we use this performance as a teaching moment for all,” Moore was quoted as saying.

Truer words were never uttered.

But officials, as we’ve mentioned, left the key bits to imagination and supposition, a sure formula for misinformation, innuendo and rising temperatures from adults who long ago forfeited the right to be described as “should know better.”

So what exactly could a kid say to prompt such a response?

A joke about Trump’s girth, comportment or pay-offs to a porn star is one thing. A threat to harm the president, in a high school, no matter how “joking,” is quite another.

We live in an age when schools are shot up with sickening regularity. The threat of violence particularly when modern politics are stirred in, lurks just around every corner.

Uttering a threat, no matter how juvenile, has to be taken seriously. Try making a crack about a bomb while standing in line at the airport or yelling “Fire” in a crowded movie theater.

And that, to me, was a line of demarcation. The Internet commentariat couldn’t wait to start hurling insults comparing deputies to “jack-booted thugs” and those who complained to “snowflakes” too easily offended.

Superintendent Travis Reeves of the Surry County Schools told a colleague Friday that “the social media rumor mill is rampant” but added no other useful contextual details. Hudson was off Friday, so nothing helpful from the sheriff was forthcoming, either.

The sad part is, much of the vitriol could have been avoided had officialdom provided some. Either say, “It was a crude joke and not worthy of police attention” or “All threats, joking or not, must be investigated and reported properly.”

Surry officials could have taken a lesson from their counterparts in Forsyth County who, when confronted by a fast-moving story about a school board member trading in a racist text message about an acting superintendent, opted instead to hide, obfuscate and dither.

Instead of being forthright immediately after that text became known, fearful school officials turned a one-day story into a three-week scandal until some anonymous souls let it be known that the now former board member had accidentally forwarded a crude meme comparing the acting super to a Cosby character.

(Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools officials still haven’t responded to a public-information request made in September about the text and any legal cases or settlements which likely resulted. How public money may have been spent, to put a fine point on the request.)

Words — and images — matter. So, too, does the way we respond to them.

ssexton@wsjournal.com

336-727-7481

@scottsextonwsj

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