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Schools Monday: Watch Your Language

Whether it's a Fairfax high school student whose tangle with the wife of a top administrator ends up as a nationwide debate over phone and web etiquette or a D.C. weekly newspaper that publishes the email traffic between a Washington Post reporter and the mayor's press aide, it's clear that we live in a time when no one quite knows which conversations may go public.

Now, a Fairfax parent's decision to file a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain a school board member's email that calls another parent "vile and toxic" is once again reminding us of the essential difference between email and the telephone: What you type can go anywhere, anytime.

School board vice chairman Kathy Smith wrote a one-line email in January to a parent who had been involved in the county school system's recent controversy over shifting school boundaries--an always-volatile topic. "Sorry that you had to put up with this," Smith wrote to parent Jennifer Campbell. "She is so vile and toxic."

The maligned party was another parent, Pam Jones, who had written to Campbell, the president of Westfield High's PTA, after Campbell was quoted in the local Connection newspaper saying that the school is overcrowded--lending support to the idea that the school's population could stand to be decreased.

In the boundaries debate, parents whose kids attend the same school were often propelled into sharply different positions, based mainly on where they live. Jones wrote an email to Campbell taking her to task for speaking out in the press about crowded conditions at Westfield. "I guess you're one of the lucky ones that don't have to go through all this," Jones wrote. "Our neighborhood is being subjected to our 3rd high school in 7 years and our 8th redistricting change in 9 years." She went on to say that "If you choose to represent yourself as the Westfield PTA president, then you should present views of the entire Westfield PTA. Better yet, you would serve us best by not speaking at all."

Board member Smith, who supported the redistricting plan, wrote her exasperated response in support of Campbell without a thought that the email--sent from her personal account, not her county email address--would become public. But parent activists got unusually riled up by the redistricting controversy, and as is the fashion these days, took advantage of public record laws. Now the "vile and toxic" comment is the subject of discussion on neighborhood and parent message boards around the county.

"This was an anomaly for me," Smith tells me. "I thought I was writing back to Jennifer. It was embarrassing. I called Pam Jones and apologized to her profusely."

Smith says she won't stop emailing after this incident, but she has been reminded why she generally prefers the phone. "I've always been more of a talker than a writer," she says. "A lot of times when people write, you can't hear the intent or the tone. I find you end up in a richer place by talking directly to someone."

Emotions certainly were running high at the peak of the redistricting debate in the first two months of this year. "The email Pam wrote to Jennifer was very emotional," Smith says. "I was trying to sympathize with Jennifer Campbell."

While politicians are often keenly aware that every word they write in emails is likely to be forwarded and republished in any number of forums, "I don't think the public who emails us realizes that their words may become public," Smith notes.

Janet Otersen, the parent who requested the emails from the school system, says Smith's "word choices are despicable" and demonstrate that some school board members "act as if they are not accountable to all of the residents in their district."

These days, any politician who doesn't realize that newly empowered citizens stand ready to use the tools made available by public information laws and the digital revolution is going to face the music. I'm betting that Kathy Smith's emails become a whole lot tamer--which isn't necessarily good for anyone. A more cautious public conversation is not by any means a more productive or honest one.

By Marc Fisher |  March 24, 2008; 8:25 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

While it wasn't the nicest thing to say I would not consider it profane.

I don't think that you can expect that emotions will run high on only side in these disputes.

Posted by: RoseG | March 24, 2008 9:35 AM

I completely, agree, Rose. That email is unkind and petty, but - surprise! - she's a human being and reacting emotionally in what she considered a private conversation. What is embarassing is that we all continue to expect each other to be so bland and perfect. She was hardly out of line and to be reprimanded and embarassed publically seems so excessive. Aren't there real things to get so exercised about?

Posted by: Drone | March 24, 2008 9:44 AM

How dare a public official express an opinion in a private e-mail!!! Get the torches and pitchforks!!!!!!!

Sorry, I must have been channeling Janet Otersen there for a minute. Go ahead, Janet, subpoena the IP logs for this post, as apparently you have nothing better to do. Then you can call in the Wickershams.

Posted by: The Cosmic Avenger | March 24, 2008 10:57 AM

I think what bugs me the most about this story is the hypocrisy of this school system. They are always telling parents to get involved in their child's school, and when they do, like Pam Jones, they are attacked personally by a school board member. "Vile and toxic" is woefully inappropriate language to address a parent who is merely advocating for her child. I though Kathy Smith's apology was inadequate.

Posted by: FCPS parent | March 24, 2008 11:28 AM

Wow, I can't believe people are this sensitive over words. The folks of my great-great grandmother's generation must be laughing as they see how petty and ridiculous their descendants behave. The problem is that in America, many of our lives are so comfortable and yet so bothersome that we've been reduced to crying over nothing. Would you catch a mid-East war victim getting upset over such things? Probably not. Would a Russian who is fighting to feed his family be upset over such nonsense? Not likely.
This kind of petty, whitebread arguing is one of the many reasons why no one outside of our own borders can tolerate us.

Posted by: Indie-pen-dant | March 24, 2008 11:35 AM

This whole process was corrupt and lacked integrity. Kathy Smith's comments were just the icing on the cake. Schools teach the kids to respect authority and the SB demands that parents are respectful in dealing with school administrators and SB members. I guess they don't practice what they preach. They demand respect but when a parent disagrees with them they attack her. Parents should be encouraged to participate in the process even if their viewpoints are different. Shame on this SB member-she does not deserve to serve in this role.

Posted by: redistricting nightmare | March 24, 2008 11:43 AM

Summary of FCPS students and parents:

Students are snot nosed brats-Candy Tistadt

Parents are vile and toxic-Kathy Smith

Do other school districts refer to their constituents this way? It makes you wonder who the schools belong to?

Posted by: I guess we are scum | March 24, 2008 11:54 AM

I believe the FCPS school board has done a very poor job over the last ten years when it comes to redistricting students from one school to another. They now have students in schools that are over capacity and students in ten schools that are under capacity with empty seats.

The real crime is the school board does not care what the parents/students want, they only care about their self interest.

Every parent must get involved it what the FCPS school board does and what it does not do.

Make sure we hold them accountable for their actions and if need be, SEND IN FREEDOM OF INFORMATION REQUESTS.

Kathy Smiths comments are unacceptable to any taxpayer of Fairfax County.

Posted by: RD PARENT | March 24, 2008 12:32 PM

Which hurt the most? The words? Or the fact that they are true?

Uh, oh. Now they will be coming after me. No wait, I am not an elected official so I have the right to privacy. Hah! You can't touch me, you vile and toxic people.

Posted by: SoMD | March 24, 2008 1:02 PM

Maybe SoMD is an elected official and is hiding behind this blog?

Either way, Kathy Smith needs to resign because she is an elected official.

Words count.

Posted by: SoMD 2 | March 24, 2008 1:23 PM

SoMD 2: OK, I thought I was putting the funniest msg on the blog, but you win fair and square. Me, an elected official ... that is hilarious.

As far as your statement - "Words count":

I am reminded of "it all depends on what your definition of the word is, is".

After that one, how much do words count?

Posted by: SoMD | March 24, 2008 2:06 PM

Would I be wrong to say that lawsuit was petty and vile...or just stupid. People talk about other people in their private conversations...there must be very little going on in their world where this is an issue. M****O***R***O***N***I***C

Posted by: scrappyc20001 | March 24, 2008 4:56 PM

If you want to know if words count, just ask rev. Wright, Obama or Clinton.

Posted by: WORDS | March 24, 2008 7:17 PM

If you have absolutely no sins to cast, then you can cry foul at what was done. But, mark my word, karma will get you.

Posted by: Just me | March 24, 2008 8:50 PM

This is not about if people sin, we all do.
This is about a corrupt and contemptible FCPS school board member who thinks she can do and say what ever she wants.
Remember what she did hurt thousands of students and parents both today and in the near future.

Posted by: UPSET | March 25, 2008 5:31 AM

Why or why are we so determined to squash honest expression? I would much prefer to know what public officials are really thinking and what they really believe than to listen to the canned, vapid, vanilla, politically correct blah blah blah they currently spew because it's all we allow them to spew. Is it possible for anyone to see the value in NOT persecuting people for speaking their opinion and allowing people to have private lives, no matter how public a figure they may also be? In any case, Ms. Smith is entitled to her private opinion about whether someone is vile and toxic. She expressed it privately, it should have remained private, no matter how much I agree that the school system treats parents and kids disgracefully.

Posted by: I don't get it | March 25, 2008 10:21 AM

There's much more value to be found in expressing outrage about a particular opinion than in expressing outrage at a person for expressing the opinion. The first leads to clarity and growth (and meaningful values); the second leads to suppression and double speak. Which would you prefer?

Posted by: oh and another thing | March 25, 2008 10:27 AM

For clarification, the email that SB member Kathy Smith sent calling an ative parent vile and toxic was accidentally sent to the person she was insulting-big woops. She meant to send it to the PTA President at Westfield. Any communication between a SB member and a PTA President in no way qualifies as private. Smith cowardly used her personal email address probably thinking that she could fly under the FOIA radar. These people are elected officials and should act professionally at all times-looks like Smith didn't get that memo.You have to wonder about her character and what she is made of.

Posted by: just the facts | March 25, 2008 3:25 PM

Really, what is the big deal here? She called someone a name. Whoa! Armageddon is upon us.

You may not like her opinion(s) but she's entitled to them. And, her position doesn't mean otherwise.

The calls for resignation, the use of words like corrupt are ridiculous.

People need to grow thicker skins.

Posted by: So what? | March 25, 2008 4:22 PM

Nappy headed ...time for her to resign?

Posted by: Shil | March 27, 2008 7:09 AM

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