The Call Heard Round the District

By now, things are starting to settle on Fairfax County, VA’s great snow day voicemail saga.  It’s the same old story.  Disgruntled high school student calls school district COO at home.  Leaves message.  COO’s wife returns the call with some choice insults for student.  Said student posts voicemail on the web for all to hear and turn into their favorite ringtone.  Media adds fuel to the fire by giving it prime real estate on the evening news and the front of the metro section.

Over at Municipalist (, they have done a good job of chronicling the saga, as well as examining it from a communications/new media perspective.  This coverage includes thoughts from yours truly, who finds the whole story both interesting and a little frustrating. 

Eduflack’s full post follows, but it is worth the visit to Municipalist to see some interesting commentary.  Of course, I was wrong of one thing.  The student violated school policy (using a cell phone during school hours), and is visiting detention for the violation.  So I have been shown the school policy he violated.  Otherwise, it is still on point, a week after the offense went public.

“Like it or not, we are entering a new frontier in public education.  Parents are now checking assignments and progress on the Web.  Teachers give students their email and IM addresses that are accessible at all hours.  Today’s students process information 24-7, and their engagement knows few boundaries.

One of the greatest challenges our schools face is getting the learning process to match how students communicate and how they interact.  If we don’t get our information from one source, then we simple move on to the next.  And that’s exactly what Dave Kori did.  He wanted his voice heard.  He called the office, but no response.  So he called a listed phone number and gave voice to his concern.  If any of us had access to the home number for Bill Gates, the CEO of US Airways, or the owner of our favorite sports team, we’d probably do the same thing.

As is typical in our 24-7 communication world, the problem was not with the action, but it was with the reaction.  Had Candy Tistadt simply deleted the message or ranted about it to her friends, no big deal.  But she couldn’t let a call from a “snotty-nosed little brat” go.  And her reaction is what got the whole tsunami going. She used the wrong message with the wrong audience, and it is only exacerbated by the fact that she wasn’t even the recipient of Kori’s call in the first place!  She injected herself into a public debate, when she wasn’t even invited to take the podium.

Should the school district punish Kori?  Of course not.  Show me one law or school rule he violated.  He called a public official at a phone number that is both public and easily accessed by anyone who may want it.  And while he may have been overly casual in his language or even addressed the topic inappropriately, immaturity is hardly a crime. 

It’s laughable, though, to think that Kori’s action are, as Fairfax Schools spokesman Paul Regnier suggested, harassment.  Dean Tistadt is a public figure, like it or not.  He got a phone call from a concerned citizen, who identified himself and left his phone number.  That seems to be the sort of responsibility we want high school students to demonstrate, not what they should be reprimanded for.

At the end of the day, the school district would have been wise to have stayed out of the issue altogether. By commenting on the situation and throwing around terms like harassment, the district only raises the temperature of the whole situation.  We need to choose our fights, and this is one that the schools just can’t win.  This boils down to an issue between a teenager and the wife of a public official.  Do we really want Superintendent Jack Dale or his spokesperson to get in the middle of this?  Of course not.  Their attention should be on far more important issues facing the district and the community.

We preach that today’s students need to be responsible and innovative.  They need to solve problems and be resourceful.  They need to stand for what they believe, and they need to advocate for those issues.  Imagine if Kori put his organizational and advocacy skills to work for an issue that mattered.  A snow day is hardly standing up for civil rights or equal education, but it is a start.”

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