It started with nothing more than a Halloween display made by a parent for an elementary school fair in Massachusetts, a fake graveyard, with joke names and scary motifs on the tombstones: “Seymour Butts,” “Ben Ded,” and “Your name here.”
Dubbed “Haunted Happenings,” the after-school event on Friday was supposed to be a night of games, costumes and a haunted house, for fifth-graders at the West Parish school, in Gloucester.
But at least one parent was upset by the name on one of the tombstones: “Don Trump.”
A photo was sent to a town Republican official, who promptly posted it along with a heated message on her Facebook page, tagging two local media outlets. And with that angry missive sent out into the void, the swift apparatus of a modern media cycle began to kick into gear.
By Monday that story had been splashed across the pages of Boston’s newspapers and picked up by news outlets all over the country. It blared from the pages of conservative sites like Fox News, Breitbart, InfoWars and the Drudge Report.
For the fishing town of about 30,000, which usually avoids the national media glare with the exception of a monster lobster or two each year, the unwanted attention has left some city officials jarred by angry calls and a flood of social media posts.
The story began small, with a complaint sent to Amanda Orlando Kesterson, the chairwoman of Gloucester’s Republican City Committee and the sister of Joe Orlando Jr., a city councilor in the midst of a reelection push. Kesterson posted a photo someone had snapped of the tombstone to Facebook on Saturday and tagged local news outlets in Boston.
“I find it absolutely despicable that the PTO of one of our local elementary schools would bring this political agenda before our children,” she wrote. “Donald Trump is our president and he deserves respect. We should teach our children that the office of the president ALWAYS deserves respect.”
By Monday, the story had been picked up by the local Fox and CBS affiliates affiliate, Boston 25 News, spreading eventually to the Boston Globe, the New York Post and conservative sites. The Boston Herald, the city’s main tabloid, ran the story as the lead on its front page — “DEAD WRONG,” it read — allotting it more real estate than that given to the region’s beloved New England Patriots.
But it wasn’t until Monday afternoon, by the time the story had fully crested on more partisan media sites, that the angry calls started pouring in, officials said.
Christopher Sicuranza, director of communications and constituent services for the town’s mayor, Sefatia Romeo Theken, said the office has been receiving calls from people in states like North Carolina, Texas, Indiana and Pennsylvania and social media traffic from around the world. And some of this unwanted attention has included vague threats, he said, and indications that some of the callers had researched the private lives of city officials.
“We’ve been trying to keep a coolness and integrity in our office, but it’s an unfortunate situation that went bigger than us,” Sicuranza said in a phone interview.
The school’s principal, Telena S. Imel, apologized in a letter to parents on Sunday, saying that the display had been brought by a parent, who told her it was intended to be humorous. Theken, the city’s mayor, released a statement on Monday that said that Gloucester does not condone political messaging in its schools.
“Despite the media buzz trying to pull our community apart, Gloucester remains an amazing and resilient place,” she wrote in a follow-up message on Facebook, calling the episode an “overblown controversy.”
But the apologies have done little to quell the reaction. Officials said they have been conducting extra police patrols at and around West Parish Elementary, a school of 360 students and 70 teachers. The town’s interim police chief, John McCarthy, described the patrols as a precautionary measure, as the police had not received any reports of credible threats.
Local consternation has grown as the media aperture widened and news crews descended on the town.
James Dowd, the co-founder of a brand consulting agency in town, posted a live video on his Facebook where he warned about the economic consequences to Gloucester that the negative attention could bring. He stood in front of some biotechnology laboratories in Cambridge.
“We could have that kind of thing in Gloucester,” he said. “But you know why we don’t have this stuff? Because people from Gloucester keep making us look like idiots on TV and in the news.”
A blogger on the website the Gloucester Clam explored the political ramifications of the debate.
“I was told becoming massively offended about a tiny thing was what ‘liberal snowflakes’ do, but I guess it’s more bipartisan than they’d care to admit,” KT Toomey wrote. “Was it in bad taste? Probably not the best taste, but there’s some serious melodrama about how terrible and disgusting it was from the same people who ‘hate PC culture.’”
Toomey wrote that Kesterson’s predecessor as chairwoman of the local GOP committee had photos of Barack Obama dressed as Osama bin Laden in front of her house in 2008.
Kesterson did not return a phone request for comment.
The school’s superintendent is looking into the issue, which was against the district’s rules about political displays, according to The Gloucester Times.
“I do worry about the children seeing increased police now, and the media swarming about, for a one and done issue,” said Sicuranza, the mayor’s spokesman.