BENNINGTON - Armed with the power of internet, their own artistic talents and a healthy supply of perseverance, a group of students from Mount Anthony Union High School's Quantum Leap program are on a mission to rescue the reputation of their school.
In early March, the New York Times featured Bennington in a story about opiate abuse, which included a quote from state trooper Wayne Godfrey, who said police had found baggies of heroin in hallways of the high school. After students and school officials challenged this claim, Col. Thomas J. L'Esperance, director of the Vermont State Police, released an open letter saying "It was learned that Trooper Godfrey has no firsthand knowledge nor has he ever seen bags of heroin in any high school within Bennington County. These comments were careless and inappropriate."
In response to the controversy, the students of MAU's Quantum Leap exhibit program, which is designed for students who struggled to engage in middle school or need academic challenge, wrote a letter defending the school and asking the New York Times to correct the story, particularly the "inappropriate" quote from Trooper Godfrey.
Although the students still have not received a response from the New York Times, they have not let up in their fight to save the reputation of their school.
Attached to their letter to the New York Times, the Quantum Leap students sent the Banner a CD labeled "Heroin Rap, Written and Performed by Austin Bourn" that contained a polished, bitter hip-hop song detailing one student's perspective on how heroin abuse has affected his hometown and falsely defamed his high school.
Produced by Bennington College student Alex Mendez, the song was shared online and became a small viral sensation around town, attracting the attention of local video marketing expert Jeff Grimshaw, who offered to help the students produce a music video to go with the song, hoping it would attract attention and help set the record straight about MAU's reputation. Grimshaw said he was moved to help the students after participating in several meetings that followed Bennington's unflattering appearance in the national media spotlight.
"It came to pass that the town just wanted to wait it out," Grimshaw said about his experience in the meetings. The students of MAUHS weren't satisfied with this solution, however, fearing that their school's newly-tarnished reputation would factor into their college application processes. Bourn addresses this problem head-on in his lyrics.
"The New York Times was misinformed by an officer in uniform, in MAU addicts don't swarm and heroin bags aren't all on the floor," he says in his song. "Untrue facts have made the task of applying to colleges harder fast for the vast amount of students who actually try in class." Posted to YouTube on Thursday, the class-made music video entitled "Heroes & Heroin in Bennington, Vermont" focuses on the students who have become the victims of this situation, showing their faces and asking viewers to consider the injustice in how they were portrayed.
To make the video, Grimshaw contributed his experience as a former on-air marketing executive for Turner Broadcasting. He also spent 20 years running a boutique video marketing firm that helped launch popular channels like the Travel Channel and National Geographic Channel. However, he said the students themselves came up with all the ideas and really did most of the work on the video.
"I was very pleasantly surprised about how professional the kids were," Grimshaw said. "They weren't familiar with production going in, but I was very surprised by how creative they were, how intellectually curious they were, and how committed to the project they were. The kids rose to the challenge."
With a makeshift studio set up in the corner of a classroom - complete with a bare-bones lighting rig - Grimshaw used his TV experience to give the kids a taste of professional video production.
The video includes b-roll footage that the class shot and gathered from various sources, including photos from the Banner and a graphic depiction of a man injecting himself with a syringe, which the class sourced from a local television news report. Grimshaw said the students insisted on including that image to underscore "the harsh realities of the situation."
Although the video follows Bourn's song, it doesn't have the feel of a typical music video, as it only contains brief clips of Bourn rapping. Grimshaw explains that the class decided to focus the video on the whole school's story, rather than the song's creator. He praised Bourn's selflessness and maturity in agreeing to give up the spotlight in the video for his own song.
"If I were dealing with a 25- or 30-year-old, I would have said he's a real pro" Grimshaw said, praising Bourn, "so for a 16-year-old to take one for the team like that, I thought it was pretty amazing."
Although they ended up being cut from the final version, the class filmed scenes for the video in recognizable locations like the Bennington Police Station, the Bennington Battle Monument and Lake Paran. Grimshaw said they have saved this footage for Bourn to make his own "director's cut" music video sometime in the future.
While the Quantum Leap class still hopes to attract enough attention with the video that the New York Times will correct their story, Grimshaw explains that just making this video will help clear up the false information still lingering on the internet.
"Regrettably, [this story] is the hideous gift that keeps on giving. It sits out there on search results pages," he said. "It's not like the old world of print media where ... it ultimately goes away. In the new media world it just sits there."
However, he says the kids understand that creating online content, like this music video, could help displace the misinformed story in online search results.
Now that the video has been completed, Grimshaw is helping the students formulate a plan for promoting the video to local, regional, and potentially even national media outlets. In the meantime, however,the students hope to raise awareness of their fight with the New York Times by sharing the video with everyone they know in hopes that it will be passed on. View the video yourself by searching "Heroes and Heroin in Bennington" on youtube or at youtube.com/watch?v=80kRzrc-7CA.
Jack McManus can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @Banner_Arts.