Cancellation of Lancaster Co. Christmas play goes viral

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It wasn't a Jewish family's fault that Ebeneezer Scrooge didn't appear at their child's Lancaster County school, but Fox and Breitbart News spread a story they were to blame.

[Editor's note: This post has been updated to reflect disputed reports.]

It all comes down to use of the word "fled."

What started as a story in the LancasterOnline community paper grew into a national media frenzy story this week with national outlets including Slate, the Washington Post, Breitbart News and Fox News weighing in with sometimes explosive headlines.  Philly.com also reported on the story.

In the middle is a Jewish family in Lancaster County.  A news report Thursday that they were blamed for the cancellation of an elementary school Christmas play left or fled the county after becoming aware of hostile comments on social media and news reports.

Events began last week when the Hempfield School District  originally addressed what was then a budding controversy.  The district said that the fifth-grade production of A Christmas Carol was canceled because the district could not afford the 15 to 20 hours of instructional time outside the classroom, not because of complaints about the line "God bless us, every one!"

The play has been a holiday tradition at the Centerville Elementary School for more than three decades. 

In September, the Jewish parents had asked if their child could be excused from the play, and were told yes. After the decision to cancel the play in November, their child was harassed at school, according to the story on LancasterOnline, despite the district's assertion the child was not the cause of the play's cancellation. 

A reporter for Lancaster Online who spoke with the family wrote that the child had been "harassed by classmates" and that they had temporarily left the county out of concern.

The family could not be reached by the paper either Thursday or Friday for further comment, according to the story.

Philly.com has not been able to determine the identity of the family to reach out to them independently.

When news stories,  which portray the school’s move as part of a “war on Christmas," broke on Fox and Breitbart News Network, the school received more than 200 complaints.

When the parents saw the reader comments to the Breitbart story suggesting their address should be published, they pulled their child from school and temporarily left the area, according to the LancasterOnline story. 

“There’s no way we’re going to take a chance after the pizza incident,” they told the Lancaster reporter.

The reference was to a Dec. 5 incident. Edgar M. Welch of Salisbury, N.C, was arrested after he fired an assault rifle in a pizza restaurant in northwest Washington, D.C, after reading a fake-news story that said suggested Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of the location.

The Anti-Defamation League reached the Lancaster family late Thursday evening and disputed use of the word "fled" in characterizing the family's response after the play's cancellation. Rather, the ADL said the family had left early for a planned vacation.  It denounced media reports.

"News reports alleging that a Jewish family has 'fled' Lancaster County  are untrue and damaging," Nancy Baer, the Anti-Defamation League's regional director, said in a statement. "We spoke with the family, who explained that they went on a previously-planned vacation for the holidays."

When reached Friday by phone, Robin Burstein, associate regional director of the ADL, said that the organization was not taking issue with the Lancaster paper.  Its concern was how the headlines had escalated.

"We wanted to confirm the family did not flee the area," said Burstein. "They did leave on vacation a day early because they were concerned about the backlash but they did not flee the area."

"In a previous interview, the mother of the Centerville student said the family hoped to return their child to the school but that they were waiting to see how the matter played out," the Lancaster paper reported.

“We've seen some really beautiful things from the people in this community,” the mother told the news outlet. 

 Meanwhile, the reporter Heather Stauffer said Friday morning that she stood by her original story.  But, she added to it to reflect the newest developments.

"An earlier version of this story stated the family had fled the county over fears for their child’s safety," said a Lancaster Online story updated Dec. 23. "But the Anti-Defamation League, in a statement posted Thursday, said it had spoken to the family and the family said it was traveling on vacation."