I interviewed Ravenna Schools Superintendent Jon VanLoon about the criminal case of former student and infamous YouTube personality, Evan Emory. VanLoon shared with me what really happened between Emory and the school kids he recorded for his now-infamous YouTube video, which has resulted in formal charges of criminal sexual abuse. VanLoon also talks about the growing problems for schools with some kids on YouTube, and the "teachable moment" he hopes to bring about for his school community.
First, A Recap on the Evan Emory Criminal Case…
Evan Emory is a 21-year old man out of Fruitport, Michigan who recently was arrested, jailed, and arraigned in a Michigan court in Muskegon County on charges of criminal sexual abuse. His alleged crime: Dubbing footage of first-grade students he video recorded at a classroom at Ravenna's Beechnau Elementary in Muskegon County in Michigan; for lewd sexual song he posted on YouTube on Jan 12th of this year.
The Muskegon Chronicle originally broke the story that Emory has been formally charged with a felony by the Muskegon County Prosecutor. The charge, manufacturing child abusive material — which is essentially, under law, making child porn — carries a possible maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. If convicted, Emory would also have to register as a sex-offender.
Evan Emory told the The Muskegon Chronicle that he didn't exercise good judgment in producing the video and gave a heartfelt apology, but is not a "sick criminal," as he says he's been made out by parents and the prosecutor's office, and some of the national media coverage.
How the YouTube Video Was Brought To The School's Attention
Ravenna Public Schools Superintendent John VanLoon explained to me how he says it all happened: A community member (he wasn't sure if it was a parent) discovered Emory's video on You Tube, who then contacted the teacher in the district, who then contacted him.
"When the young man [Emory] was here, he performed a little jingle thing for just a few minutes and it was very, very appropriate; and the kids had a fun time with it, and they sang along and he was very animated – all the while not knowing he was looking into doing something totally different with the video." Said VanLoon.
What Really Happened Between Evan Emory and the School Kids
Some angry parents still seem to believe that the YouTube video posted by Emory (which was taken down from YouTube and unavailable for public viewing) was of him actually singing a sexually explicit song to their children, and video recording to their reactions to that explicit song. Concerned about potential accusations that these kids had been left without proper supervision, VanLoon posted a press release on behalf of the district schools to the parents, explaining what he says really happened. (That press release is currently available on the home page of the Ravenna Public Schools website.)
"The thing that I can't emphasize enough is at no time were the kids ever exposed to what came out on YouTube." Said VanLoon. "They were never exposed to those lyrics.”
VanLoon was equally emphatic in stressing that those students had been supervised by their teachers the entire time of Evan's video recording. "There were two teachers in the classroom at all times with the students, which we always have anyway. Whenever we have an outside speaker come in and talk to the kids, it's full of administrators, and teachers, and everything with the students. We don't leave them alone.”
"[Emory] came in, played his little song; and an accomplice of his videotaped the kids while they played it, and then they walked out. It was nothing more then that.”
VanLoon wanted parents and everyone else to understand that it was a second appearance by Emory to the classroom at a later date, where he shot the explicit footage of himself (singing the sexually explicit song), and edit everything to make it appear as though the kids were listening to the horrendous song that he made up – "a derogatory, sexually explicit song that he made up and they were reacting to it." Said VanLoon. "It was all an edited thing, that happened on a computer somewhere, with green screens and whatever; and it's just very, very unfortunate.”
Ravenna School's Opt-Out Policy on Video Recording Students
One of the big questions our audience has been waiting to find out is: Were the parents of these kids made aware beforehand that they were going to be video recorded; and did the school get signed permission forms (i.e., a waiver) from the parents?
VanLoon explained to me that Ravenna Schools has its own "op-out policy" via an Emergency Information Record form. He said it is provided to all parents at the start of every school year; and an individual parent is required to fill it out for every child they have attending their schools. VanLoon had a copy of this form sent to me and highlighted the relevant areas, which I have copied verbatim below.
Right before where parents are supposed to sign, is the following statement:
I grant permission for the school, in whole or in part, to use photographs, written extractions, and voice recordings of my student(s) for the purpose of marketing and publications unless otherwise notified in writing.”
On a second page or back page of the same form, there is a section under "STUDENT PICTURES FOR PUBLICATION," which reads as follows:
During the course of the school year, occasions may arise when photographs of students will be taken for newspapers, school publications or other media. Usually the student is identified in these pictures. Parents are to provide written indication of any objections to their child's picture being published in this fashion at the beginning of each school year."
Download a copy of the Ravenna Schools "Emergency Information Record" form (language highlighted by Ravenna Schools)
How Evan Emory Became a Problem for Ravenna School's Policy
According to the Ravenna Schools attorney, the district provides release forms for parents to sign at the beginning of the school year, which allows for the use of images of students — photos and videos taken by news organizations or the district.
Evan Emory, however, was neither part of any news organization, nor did he have any affiliation with the district school or any other part of its local government. I was informed by the Online Editor for the Muskegon Chronicle, Lee Lupo, that via information from one of their own reporters, that the incident with Emory will likely result in the school's policy on video recordings being reviewed, and likely result in the issuing of waiver forms for each video being made; and obviously, the policy about who is allowed in school buildings also will be reviewed.
What Situations Allow Students to Be Recorded on School Campus?
VanLoon explained to me that sometimes teachers may do projects with the students, which they'll video record and show their students participating in some project-related activity. "We let parents be aware of that fact beforehand – where we were at and what we were doing, and if we were going to publicize anything. We need them to be aware so they can say to us, 'Well, no I don't want my child to be involved (and not have them video recorded),' and we grant their request." He said.
"We're a learning institution so we do have things like student-teachers for colleges come here; and there supervising teacher will videotape them so that they can critique, they go back later and they sit down the two of them." Said VanLoon.
VanLoon said that all of the parents in the classroom in question did turn in signed permission forms to the school (the Emergency Card). He also informed me that even after this incident, they still only have two parents throughout the entire district that have signed the opt-out clause. He attributes that to, he says, them never had an incident like this happen in their school district before.
How Did The School Not Know About It?
"The one unfortunate thing with this particular incident is, you know, we had a young man who was a former student here and he was under the rouse to us of going into the school of ED (Education); and said he just wanted to play a song in front of the students." Said VanLoon. "Well he did, and everything that he did here was appropriate. But when he took it home and edited a whole bunch of stuff in, that's when it became inappropriate.”
"I don't know how you would ever stop something like that, unless you just said to every single person: You can't come in the school and you can't observe kids, and you can't take pictures and you can't video; and you can't do anything. We're not prepared to do that yet." Said VanLoon.
Is YouTube Part of a Serious, Growing Problem for Schools?
VanLoon calls the incident with Evan Emory "extremely unique;" yet he also believes it's part of a larger problem with how kids in schools today are using video and YouTube to spread thoughtless, harmful behavior – which gets magnified in it's intensity from being able to get to a large audience so quickly, and adding humiliation for the victims.
"I hear of studies or reports of kids beating other kids; and they've even videotaped [it], and then they put it up on You Tube." Said VanLoon. "We've had in across the nation; I'm not talking about our school district. But we've had across the nation, where teachers have done something in a previous life and it's gotten out on YouTube – whether there strippers or they're at a party drinking or, you know…”
"Do I see that some of the stuff could potentially become a huge issue? Yeah it really could. You try to explain to young kids that the stuff you put out isn't just seen by your friends; it's seen by the whole world. That's why they call it the World Wide Web. The whole world grabs onto this stuff and picks it up; not just, you know, your personal friends and only right here in your secluded little community.”
"But I've really not seen or heard of anything this specific where they've utilized little kids in such a destructive manner… [Emory] even admitted to the press that, well of course he didn't ask the school, because if they would have known what I was going to do with it, they would have said no. Well yeah, no kidding… But no, I have not seen or heard of anything as specific to this, especially with small children.”
"But I could see a potential. Again, I'm not saying anything specific to our district, but across the nation – kids do stuff in locker rooms with cell phones now, that have cameras or video cameras in them, which is totally inappropriate and they get nailed for a lot of different things. So we're going to have to somehow inform and teach, and hopefully kids with understand that, you know, there's a difference between right and wrong; and there's definitely a difference between poor taste and stuff that values need to really be reexamined when we start doing some things like this.”
How Will This Change School Policy on Video of Students?
"So some of the things that we're going to do as far as beefing up our policy is, whenever we have anything that is within the school system but is going to leave the school system, we are going to need to first get an individual parent 'OK' via a parent permission slip." Said VanLoon. "Again, it isn't that we have hundreds of those a year; we only have a handful. But whenever we do from here on out were going to have to make sure that the parents are aware, we can look in the background as to what there going to use it for, etcetera. So that's what the changes are that were talking about as far as our policy.”
Is There a "Teachable Moment" Here?
I asked VanLoon, since he mentioned the need to inform and teach about these type of incidents, what he thought his own school's role in this teachable moment should be? Would he consider being at the forefront of turning this negative incident into something positive and educational? Even perhaps, offer some means of redemption for Emory, who already has seriously ruined his reputation and reportedly lost his job; and could be facing serious jail time?
I continued with my question: Could Emory, who was part of the school's problem, be considered as part of the solution? Such as, volunteering to go to schools (with full school supervision), express his apology, and sharing what he learned? Maybe, serve as an example for other students who might have these same ideas with online video?
"I think that any point in time, especially coming from an educational institution you're hoping that you can learn from this, absolutely… So yeah, you want to try and turn it into a positive, hopefully." He said.
"It's like talking to kids about being invincible when there's a tragic accident due to alcohol or there's a car load of kids, you know. I've dealt with those before. We use that as a teachable moment to say, do you see how serious drinking and driving is, and all the consequences, and all the people that it affects?”
"This stuff will follow [Evan] forever, I mean, there will always be somebody out there who downloaded this thing and kept it somewhere; it will follow him no matter what. As soon as you type in his name, you know any employer types in his name they're going to bring up all this information because it really never leaves the Web.”
"It's very similar in this situation [with Emory]. Do you see you know what doing this thinking that it was funny, thinking it was going to be some kind of Ceridian comedy type routine that was going to launch him into, you know, stardom how it is so backwards because it's just something that society does not see as funny or value in any way. And now it's going to affect him for the rest of his life, I mean, it's that simple.”
Will There Be Sympathy for Muskegon's "Video Devil?”
VanLoon does appear to be open to the idea of some kind of educational program coming out of all this to benefit the school community. However, he appeared to me to be very hesitant to offer any statement on the ongoing criminal case with Emory, or say whether or not he considered Emory to be deserving of the criminal charges of sexual abuse to children for his actions at the school, or even offer any form of redemption that could be made.
If there is a teachable moment for Ravenna schools and the community of Muskegon from this infamous YouTube incident that much of the country know nows about, the question still remains, are the people and authorities in Muskegon County willing to include Emory as part of that solution, or have him made into a pariah?
It will remain to be seen if the Ravenna School's opportunity for a "teachable moment" includes redemption for those spiraling into the negative side of a YouTube culture taking more and more students like Evan Emory, and putting them back into the community; or finding it more convenient to have them imprisoned and treat them as outcasts for life.
The above video was taken from Evan Emory's own YouTube Channel, EvanEmoryMusic.