Wednesday, October 5, 2016

At the Forum

A funny thing happened last night at the forum--the Public Forum at the Board of Education meeting. And by funny I don't mean humorous, but rather, strange and thought-provoking. I have received permission to share four of the public statements made last night to give you an idea of what happened.

Why is it important for you to know what is happening at the public forum? When community members take the time to come out and speak before the Board, on a cause that is important to them, it very often speaks to larger concerns within the school system. And the way that Board reacts to the speakers sends a clear message on what they think of the community.

With the exception of Board Members Bess Altwerger and Cindy Vaillancourt, clearly the Board doesn't think much of this community at all. During the Public Forum their demeanor is lacking in the most basic respect. They talk, pass notes, look away, rarely focus on the speaker. Their behavior sends the message that they may be required to hold a Public Forum, but no one can make them actually listen.

These are elected officials whose job is community service. If you watched this on video, you'd hardy know it.

Corey Andrews
Howard County is one of the most progressive in the nation. Many HCPSS students and staff are members of the LGBT community, and we make many efforts to encourage tolerance and acceptance among our school communities. However, as a county and as a nation, there is more that we need to be doing to ensure that everyone feels safe and accommodated in our schools. And there are challenges that we still need to overcome. This is a human rights issue.

Too often, we leave out the rights of transgender students when discussing protections for the LGBT community. Trans students still endure regular bullying and intimidation not only in Howard County but across the nation. Additionally, trans students endure many other forms of mistreatment. For example, there have been cases of “deadnaming,” the practice of either intentionally or unintentionally referring to a transgender student by their name given at birth, sometimes still their legal name, instead of the name they now prefer to go by. This “outs” the student and can humiliate them in front of their peers. In many of these cases, it’s committed unintentionally by substitute teachers or other staff.

Let’s make the day-to-day changes necessary to accommodate the needs of these students so they can feel comfortable in the classroom. Let’s include gender identity as a protected category in HCPSS Policy 1010 and 1020. Additionally, let’s make sure we’re teaching our students about LGBT issues, the importance of tolerance and acceptance, and the consequences of bullying and sexual harassment.
All students have the right to feel safe and welcome in their schools every day.

Bonnie Bricker
Good evening, my name is Bonnie Bricker, and thank you for this opportunity to speak at this Public Forum. As we head into the fall, with school well underway this year, I’d like us to pause and consider our mission as a public school system.

Our public schools are key to our children’s development of basic democratic and ethical ideals. Outside of the home, they are the single most important vehicle for imparting what many think of as our basic American values: integrity, inclusivity, anti-discrimination, justice, honesty, fairness and a respect for the facts-not innuendo. At a time when many Americans feel that these basic ethical values are being eroded, it is more important than ever that the schools hold the bar for our ethical behavior at the highest level possible. In order to provide our students with the education needed to absorb these values, it is essential that our school officials model these ideals and live them loudly in public.

On September 22 of this year, there was a gross failure to do that in this room.
Using words such as “I am led to wonder”; “papers suggest to me”, “I suspect”, “If that is true” and so on, a speaker was allowed to defame a member of the board of education, in direct opposition to the board’s own policy of disallowing testimony about personnel. As a matter of fact, he was allowed to go beyond his three minute allotment.

I am not a lawyer, so I’ll posit no remarks about the legality of testimony intended to defame this member. But truth matters. Integrity matters. And the attempt to insinuate a mental health issue mightily offended many in this community who have fought for anti-discrimination policies for those who are affected by this health issue, many of whom work at the highest professional levels in our county.

As we prepare to see new members of this board sworn in at the end of this year, I urge those of you who will remain on this board to begin to redeem the reputation of this board by standing up and speaking out in favor of the values we hope to see our young Howard Countians using when they lead us in the next generation.

We can wait no longer to see a better board.

On September 20, the system tweeted: “Great Schools Make Great Communities.” We can’t be great if we fail to stand up against those who diminish their public responsibilities by allowing such unprincipled and dishonorable behavior.

Thank you for allowing me this opportunity to speak.

Colleen Morris
Good Evening Mrs. O’Connor and members of the Board.

My name is Colleen Morris. I am a teacher at Guilford Elementary, a member of the Howard County Education Association’s Board of Directors, and a tax paying citizen of Howard County. I am here to call your attention to what I believe were several serious errors in judgment from your previous meeting.

At your meeting on September 22, 2016, you allowed public forum to be hijacked by a failed candidate for the Board of Education that was attempting to smear one of your colleagues. This failed 
candidate, Mike Smith, is well known to you, as he was the running mate of the current Board Chair, and was vocally supported by Ms. DeLacy.

The chair, and by extension, all of you, allowed Mr. Smith to make a series of unsubstantiated allegations, attacking the character, integrity, and even the mental health of a Board member. There was no pretense made of bringing any actual business or testimony of interest to the Board. He was allowed to continue well beyond the normal time limit, until Dr. Altwerger’s strenuous objections finally brought an end to the abuse that lasted for 4 minutes and 24 seconds.

THANK YOU, Dr. Altwerger, for exemplifying what we teach students here in Howard County – we teach our kids to stand up. We stand up not only for our friends, but for anyone who needs assistance, and in this way we turn bystanders into protectors and up-standers.

Failing to intervene, however, creates the public perception that the Board condoned or even participated in the abuse of its public forum. Mr. Smith did not find this information on his own, was told about it by a member (or members) of this Board, and that is reprehensible. Imagine ifthis were done to you or your family. Think about how you would feel, and about how you would respond.
While you cannot predict what someone at public forum will say, you alone hold the responsibility to be fair and consistent with your rules and time limits. You alone can stop discourse that has gone beyond civility and decency. Most importantly, only you can reflect on this incident and change your behavior in the time you have left on the Board of Education.

Thank you.

Daniel Mackey
Good evening Board Members and Dr. Foose. My name is Danny Mackey. I have criticized this Board before and I continue to hope that things will improve. However, what happened at the last public forum sunk to a new and disappointing low. At the last meeting, Mike Smith was allowed to speak for four minutes and twenty-eight seconds during which he speculated and made outrageous assumptions regarding Mrs. Vaillancourt's lawsuit against her private disability insurance provider. This testimony was a violation of several Board policies and the equivalent of slander and should have been stopped by the Chair.

I didn't come to talk today about how unprofessional it was for Mike Smith, an attorney, to use his occupation to comment on a lawsuit in which he is completely uninvolved, though unprofessional it was. I did not come to call into question the process by which Mr. Smith was made aware of the lawsuit, though I do have questions on that topic. I did not come to discuss at length the connections Mr. Smith has to the Chair of this Board, though when I email you Mr. Smith and Mrs. O'Connor's campaign statements from 2014 to my written testimony; you will find they are identical.

I wish I didn't have to keep coming here and publicizing your mistakes and inappropriate behavior on the record. But just as it was Chairwoman O'Connor's duty to stop Mike Smith's disgraceful testimony last meeting, I feel it is my duty to hold this body accountable on behalf of the people of Howard County. Perhaps the most horrifying aspect of Mr. Smith's testimony was toward the end, when he insinuated that because Mrs. Vaillancourt appeared healthy, she may be mentally ill, calling into question her judgment and the safety of Howard County students. This claim should have been struck down immediately by the Chair and leads me to why I came today: to speak about mental health.

In an educational environment that becomes more stressful year after year, and where bullying is still a prevalent problem leading to depression and anxiety in our students, the importance of mental health awareness is paramount. How many students may have seen that testimony and been driven further away from help for fear of judgment from peers or school system employees? As I finish the rest of my roughly four and a half minute testimony I would like to speak to anyone watching from home: anyone of any age, but particularly those who know that they are struggling mentally and are afraid to seek help.

It's the 21st century: we need to start talking about mental health like any other illness: a broken bone, a torn ACL, ADHD, anxiety, depression. None of these are any less legitimate than another and anyone telling you otherwise is wrong. For every one person who may judge you for having a mental illness, there are tens, likely hundreds or maybe thousands, who will be relieved you have sought help and be supportive of whatever your recovery process may be.

Less than one year ago, and less than one month before my first testimony to this Board, I was suffering from crippling anxiety and depression for several months. The scariest part? Nobody knew. Seeking help for mental health seems scary, like you're admitting there is something wrong with you. I may have never sought help myself had it not been for loved ones eventually noticing as they detected gaps in my armor of acting like everything was fine. Eight months later, I thank God I got help in therapy, in prayer, and in talking to family members and friends about their own struggles with mental health, realizing that many of us struggle, hardly shocking when you look at the stresses of today's world. I still struggle and probably always will. But coping mechanisms taught through therapy can go a long way and though I have not needed medication, these can be life changing in battling mental illness. There is a right method of help for every person.

Students and community members, you can tell if you aren't as happy as you're supposed to be. Life is supposed to be fun, rewarding, and even sometimes relaxing - especially during the exciting years of your educational career. You're the first to notice any tendencies toward anxiety and depression, and the first to feel the pain of being mentally ill. To any and all who know what I am talking about and are afraid to seek help know that you have a friend not only in me, but in your friends, family, and community. Take care of your mind; it is your most valuable asset. If your homework has you stressed to your breaking point, speak up! If you are constantly feeling down because of a bully at school or for any reason at all, please say something. Resources exist to help you get better.
I look forward to continuing to advocate for mental health awareness with a Board of Education that understands the gravity of our collective fight. Thank you and God Bless you.

As I finish the rest of my roughly four and a half minute testimony...

At the three minute-mark Board Chair Christine O'Connor cut him off. A voice from the room is heard to say, "Let him finish, you let Mr. Smith finish."
Mr. Mackey used his opportunity to speak not only on mental health issues but also show quite clearly the double standard used by Ms. O'Connor as she cuts off some while allowing others to go over their time. It's on video tape if you'd like to see it. I'll post as many links tomorrow as I can find.
There were many stand-out moments last night. The sentence that has stayed in my head is this one from Bonnie Bricker:

We can wait no longer to see a better board.

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