SAN FRANCISCO – Did you know a San Francisco elementary school suspended a student for wishing an atheist teacher a merry Christmas?
That’s because it didn’t happen.
But an Internet hoax had people across the country believing it did, resulting in e-mail tirades and more than 75 phone complaints and veiled threats of violence against the fictitious teacher or the actual principal. And taxpayers picked up the tab for beefed-up security and staff time to deal with the scam.
Because of the threats, Argonne elementary school administrators called an emergency teacher meeting to review security procedures and district officials assigned an extra security officer to the campus. In addition, police have increased patrols around the school this week, said district Assistant Superintendent Leticia Salinas.
The rumor originated about six days ago on what appears to be a satirical website called the National Report, which features content designed to look like real news stories.
A story on the site said a fourth-grader at “Argon Elementary” in San Francisco was given a weeklong suspension for saying “merry Christmas” to his homeroom teacher, an atheist. The site later changed the school name to “Anon.”
Neither “Argon” nor “Anon” is a real school in the city.
The story also named the boy, the boy’s mother and the teacher – none of whom exist.
Still, the hoax went viral, with the National Report site garnering about 20,000 likes and shares on Facebook as of Tuesday. Nearly 400 links were made to the original story on Twitter feeds. Dozens of online sites picked up the story, many of them leaning to the political right and each spreading the rumor further afield.
The fake story claimed the incident exemplifies the ongoing “war on Christmas,” a debate that some cable networks and talk show hosts say has taken root in such liberal bastions as San Francisco. That’s despite the 80-foot Christmas fir in Union Square with its 21,000 twinkling lights and the daily bumper-to-bumper downtown traffic caused by shoppers looking for presents to put under their own bedecked trees at home.
Another story on National Report from “Berkley, Calif.,” regarding the expulsion of a “Berkley Elementary” student for saying “merry Christmas” to a Muslim teacher didn’t trigger an outcry similar to the one brought about by the San Francisco story.
The nasty calls and e-mails started to hit the real Argonne elementary on Thursday and have continued this week, district officials said.
“You don’t expect to have to deal with this at this time of year,” Salinas said. “What was mostly upsetting was some of the references of what people should do to the teacher.”
The Argonne school secretary spent hours answering the phone, explaining to irate callers that the story wasn’t true. Most were surprised and simply hung up.
On Monday, the school started sending all incoming calls to an automated message explaining the hoax.