It’s been a week now since volunteers found the body of 17-year-old Bryan Glenn in a wooded area just outside Fairfax City. But the Fairfax County police have been silent ever since, while waiting for the medical examiner to issue a ruling on the manner and cause of death. The medical examiner has requested toxicology tests on Glenn’s blood, so it will likely be weeks before we hear anything official on this case.
It’s a terrible tragedy for Glenn’s parents, his friends, his community and his schoolmates at W.T. Woodson High School, where Glenn was a senior.
Meanwhile, the anxiety level in the Fairfax area continues to rise — it is a constant source of conversation and nervous tension among many parents worried that Glenn was murdered. So here are some key facts: Bryan Glenn likely committed suicide by hanging himself, according to numerous officials familiar with the case. When he was found on Monday, Oct. 8, it was clear his body had been there for some time. However, to be sure that he didn’t die first of a drug overdose, the medical examiner asked for more tests. The police cannot declare a death a homicide, suicide, or anything else; only the medical examiner does that. Thus, the current delay, though Fairfax investigators have found no indication of foul play, and feel certain that Glenn died of suicide, probably on the morning of Oct. 1, not long after he was last seen.
Still, the official silence has left much of the public wondering several things: Why didn’t the police find Glenn sooner? Why haven’t the police released more information? And did the media, in particular The Washington Post, mishandle the coverage of the case?
Now you know why the police haven’t released more info — because they’re waiting for the medical examiner. For answers to the other two questions, continue after the jump.
The basic chronology is well known by now. Bryan Glenn, a 17-year-old student at W.T. Woodson High School, disappeared from school on Monday, Oct. 1. His car was found in Thaiss Park, a complex of Little League fields in Fairfax City, early on Oct. 2. A receipt in the car led police to the nearby Dunkin Donuts, where Glenn apparently made some purchases around 8 a.m. on Oct. 1.
There were no signs of foul play. Fairfax County police took over the case, since Glenn lived in the county, and investigated it as a missing — not runaway -- teenager. No press release was issued. Many teens go missing, usually of their own volition. They run away because they’ve done something their parents won’t like, or they’re on a lark with a friend or relative. The news media typically are not interested in teenage runaway stories.
But Glenn’s family and friends used social media to alert the news media that Glenn was missing. They said it was out of character of him to suddenly vanish, and sought help finding him. The Post chose not to publish a story on this, though reporters monitored developments. Teens go missing in all of the counties around D.C., not just Fairfax. Usually, they turn up soon, somewhere.
Local TV and radio news stations, however, picked up the case and ran with it. Their reasons were many: It was every parent’s worst nightmare; he was from wealthy Fairfax County; something horrible may have happened to him; or he may be found safe and a happy ending is written for everyone.
Though many teens go missing, the Fairfax County police brought out plenty of resources to search for Glenn, including blood hounds, the helicopter and bike teams. All were used to search both Thaiss Park and the long trail leading east into Mantua Park in Fairfax County.
So why didn’t they find him? Several reasons, none of which the county police are offering as excuses. They feel badly that they missed him. But on Oct. 2, the rain poured down for most of the day, and this probably greatly diminished any scent for the bloodhounds. The park is not densely wooded, but it is very large, and doing a grid search would have required a lot of time and manpower for a missing teenager, when there was no evidence of a crime. A grid search was not done.
And then he was found on Oct. 8, in the woods about three-quarters of a mile from his car, by a volunteer search party arranged by his family’s friends. It had all the indications of a suicide.
For many years, the mainstream news media have had an unwritten but widely respected rule: We do not cover suicides unless they involve a particularly noteworthy person or happen in a very public way. We do not want to glorify or encourage suicide, and also there are a surprisingly large number of them. In Virginia in 2010, there were 41 suicides of kids ages 10-19, and another 63 suicides by people ages 20-24. In Fairfax County alone, from 1996 to 2005, there were 107 suicides of people ages 10-24, or nearly 11 per year.
But when Bryan Glenn was found, the cameras and reporters were already in Thaiss Park covering the search. At that point, what do the news media do about their rule on covering suicides?
They couldn’t very well ignore it. So they reported the discovery, the searchers saying it was Glenn, and police saying they hadn’t confirmed anything yet. Police later confirmed his identity, but not how he died.
The Post was inclined not to report anything. A teenager had committed suicide. It was not in a public place. He was not a public figure. Reporting the suicide would violate the long held rule.
But the TV and radio news outfits were reporting it. Post editors decided to run a short story, sticking to the facts released by the police and the school system. Readers strongly denounced the way The Post handled the story.
“Encourage people to post their disgust with WaPo’s coverage of this incident,” one commenter wrote. Another: “I too am disgusted that the Washington Post ignored this story all week.”
The family and friends of Glenn tried everything they could think of to find him. Who wouldn’t? As a parent, the whole scenario evokes enormous sympathy. But kids run away in D.C., in Montgomery County, in Loudoun County, everywhere. How does a media outlet decide which missing child to spotlight, and which ones to ignore? In general, the media ignore them all. There are too many to cover, and nearly all of them turn up alive and well, with a friend or relative. That was the desperate hope of everyone involved in the Glenn case: that he had hopped in someone’s car and taken off for a few days.
The facts are that there were, and still are, no signs of foul play. Bryan Glenn was, in fact, a runaway. .
The police didn’t find Glenn. Discovering him on Oct. 2, the same day his car was found, would have perhaps saved his family from six days of anxious agony, but only plunged them more quickly into another, permanent devastation.
Could anything have been done before Glenn went missing? Maybe. School officials everywhere wrestle with that issue, all the time. We write about that. The suicide of another Woodson teen, Nick Stuban, was not reported when it happened. It made the paper only later when his parents spoke publicly about their belief the schools had played a role in their son’s fatal depression.
But when faced with a teenage disappearance, followed by a teenage suicide, how should the news media respond? And the police?
Your comments welcome.