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.
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