The “Oklahoma teacher fired for praying during tornado” hoax

It’s truly fascinating how quickly hoaxes can go viral in the Internet era, if they’re written carefully enough to make the initial, widely-quoted paragraphs seem plausible.  This one popped up in my social media lists quite a bit over the Memorial Day weekend: “Teacher Fired for Praying in School During Oklahoma Tornado.”  It originated at a parody news site called The Palookaville Post:

Friday a teacher working at an Oklahoma school hit hard by a devastating tornado this week was fired after admitting she had prayed out loud during the horrific event, and that a complaint was filed by an atheist family of a kindergarten student who was offended by the Christian prayer.

Paulina Trumble, 52, a twenty three year veteran educator at Briarwood Elementary School in Moore, Oklahoma knew she was in trouble the moment the cyclone passed after realizing she had uttered out loud a prayer to the Almighty, violating  strict separation of church and state laws.

“In a moment when I believed we were all going to die I naturally sought comfort from the only place I knew,” said Trumble.

“I know prayer is strictly forbidden in classrooms, and the students know that too, but I’m only human and in the face of such terror I did break the rules. I’m sorry if I offended anyone or violated their civil rights.”

Besides the name of the source – which tends to get omitted from viral emails, particularly when they only quote the first paragraphs of a Web post – the other early indicator of absurdity is the allegedly near-instantaneous firing of the teacher.  It doesn’t work that way, not even in school districts that aren’t busy struggling with the aftermath of a horrible tragedy.

Another clue to the satirical nature of the piece could be found a few paragraphs further along, where the family’s ACLU-provided lawyer is said to be named “Donald Ambulachasky.”

According to a report in the Oklahomanthis hoax got enough traction to generate a threatening email, prompting the school district to issue an official denial:

Moore Superintendent Susan Pierce said school officials are getting emotional messages from across the country from people who believed the story, including one email that included a specific threat against Briarwood Elementary Principal Shelley Jaques-McMillin.

Pierce said that email was turned over to police. The story has been particularly hurtful because it came as two children from Plaza Towers Elementary School were buried and as the district tried to celebrate the graduation of its seniors in the aftermath of the tornado.

“That is such a mean-spirited and disrespectful action,” Pierce said. “I was heartsick.”

The hoax started on a parody website but was picked up by bloggers and spread on social media. It cited the firing of a 52-year-old teacher named Paulina Trumble from Briarwood Elementary. No one by that name has ever been employed by the school, and the entire story is fictional, Pierce said.

It’s too bad our culture has almost completely neutralized the concept of “shame,” or I would tell the people who launched this incredibly stupid and tasteless hoax to be ashamed of themselves.  I’ll settle for instructing them to… no, I can’t say that either, this is a family-friendly website.

The people of Moore, Oklahoma do not deserve to be used as the butt of jokes.  On the contrary, in addition to our sympathy in this time of devastation and loss, they deserve our deep and sincere respect for their many acts of courage and compassion, during and after the tornadoes.  May we all be fortunate enough to find ourselves surrounded by such neighbors in troubled times.