This past March Bennington was the subject of a New York Times story that generated quite a bit of anger in town. The headline read, “Heroin Scourge Overtakes a ‘Quaint’ Vermont Town.”
The article quoted a state trooper saying that heroin baggies could be found in the halls of Bennington’s Mount Anthony Union High School. The principal and some students say that’s just not true. One group of MAU students decided to respond to the New York Times with a rap song written by 15-year-old Auzzy Bourn.
“Everyone was all angry about [the newspaper article] because there were some things said in there that were completely untrue,” says Bourn. “They didn’t ask regular citizens of Bennington. They went straight to where they thought the addicts would be,” he says.
So Bourn did what he often does when he’s trying to sort things out -- he wrote a rap song about it. He calls rap music “poetry to a beat.”
Bourn has lived his whole life in Bennington. He knows the town has a heroin problem. A few years ago he witnessed a drug raid from his own back yard. “I was in seventh grade and my neighbors got drug-busted,” he recalls. “And there’s cops coming through my backyard with shot guns.” That moment is captured in the rap with the lyrics, “My realization, this is how it is across the nation.”
But even though heroin is a problem in town, Bourn says it doesn’t define Bennington. “My opinion is the problem is bad but it’s not any worse than anywhere else.”
At Mount Anthony Union High School, Bourn is part of a program called Quantum Leap, which gets students interested in learning by pursuing projects that capture their interests. Danielle Crosier directs the program along with her husband Ric. Crosier says her students were frustrated, angry and confused by the Times story. “They did not see their school in the way it was portrayed in the New York Times,” Crosier says. “And so we started looking for the facts -- is this fact correct? Let’s do some digging.”
Fearing the story would hurt their chances for admission to competitive colleges, the students wrote a letter to the Times rebutting the article and asking for an online correction. Crosier says the Times never responded to the students’ letter, or to any of the school’s attempts to reach the paper.
Mount Anthony Union Principal Sue Maguire says it was important to everyone to set the record straight. “Because once something is in print, especially from a place like the New York Times, people tend to believe it,” says Maguire. “I knew what was printed was totally untrue, what they said about our school.”
Jeff Grimshaw of Bennington is a former media marketing expert from Turner Broadcasting. He stepped forward and offered to help the kids turn the rap into a video. He calls the situation a
David-versus-Goliath story. “You have a small band of students standing up for their hometown, standing up for themselves, against this mega news media corporation that is perceived as infallible,” says Grimshaw.
The school did receive a letter from the director of the state police, calling the trooper’s alleged comments “careless and inaccurate.” It said the Times hadn’t checked its information with the state police. Crosier says students in her program are taught to be accountable for their mistakes. She says the class is hoping the New York Times will do the same.
VPR wrote to the New York Times to ask for its take on this story. Spokesperson Eileen Murphy told us that the Times reporter responded to people who reached out to her personally, but that the New York Times was not aware of any letter from the school: “We have, in fact, published two letters to the editor that were follow-ups to this story, but we have no record of any formal request for corrections or any other interactions with our editors.” Murphy also told VPR that Trooper Godfrey spoke to the reporter “on the record during the duration of their time together, as had been arranged by the state police.”