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Monday, January 7, 2008

As PTA Groups Move Online, So Does Dissension

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 7, 2008; A01

When Suzanne Weiss left the Parent Teacher Student Association of Cabin John Middle School, the school e-mail list went with her.

Weiss said the list belonged to her. PTSA leaders said the CJCougarEmail list belonged to them. They started a rival mailing group, which competes with Weiss's for Cabin John parents.

Over the past few years, electronic mailing lists have become the main forum for parents across the region to talk about their schools. With just a few keystrokes, the lists offer parents unprecedented power to spread information, to ask a question or answer one, to praise or pillory for an audience of hundreds.

As school e-mail lists multiply in size and reach, they are increasingly becoming ensnared in contests for control of the medium and the message. Principals are accused of trying to silence their discussion-group critics. Parents have allegedly stolen or hijacked e-mail lists. Moderators who step in to halt vitriolic threads are sometimes accused of censorship.

Some of the most contentious school controversies of recent years have played out largely on e-mail lists: reaction over a plan to distribute hip flasks as a senior gift in 2006 at Arlington County's H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program; debate about military recruitment at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda in 2005; and discontent, this winter, with a $50 graduation fee at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring.

"It's the new venue. It's the new community forum," said Pat Elder, a Whitman parent who protested the presence of military recruiters on the Whitcom mailing list. "We're too busy to, you know, meet."

Weiss, of Potomac, started an e-mail list for Cabin John Middle School in 2003, when she was PTSA president. Over time, she expanded it to include information about the larger feeder system and Montgomery schools on the whole, spending more and more time tending the Yahoo group. Then came a new principal, who was less involved in the e-mail list than the last. The school and its e-mail group became, in a way, estranged.

New PTSA leaders found no way to challenge Weiss for control of the list. She was listed as sole owner on the Yahoo Web site.

"Give it back to them? It never belonged to them," Weiss said.
At back-to-school night, someone left a note on every desk instructing parents how to unsubscribe from Weiss's CJCougarEmail list so that they could join the new group. The new one is limping along with 163 subscribers. Weiss's group has 554.

"We've done everything in our power to get parents to join the new listserv," said Carolyn Wallert, the new PTSA president. "That's their job. And if they're not going to do it, they're not going to do it."

Weiss's detractors say she is holding the list hostage. Supporters say she's preserving unfettered communication.
"What she did is free the list, is what I would say," said Janis Sartucci, a parent at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac. "Like something out of the '60s. She liberated the list."

* * *
Battles for the control of an e-mail list -- judging who may post, what may be said and with how much candor -- have raged at schools across the region, particularly in communities with large numbers of inquisitive parents and wireless Internet hot spots. Parents face off against one another or against school administrators, some of whom view e-mail lists as rumor mills on steroids.

Last year, PTA leaders at Glen Haven Elementary School in Silver Spring told members they were thinking of shutting down the school e-mail list, which had fallen into neglect.

Jennifer Richards, a parent, offered to take over. She set up a new e-mail list over the summer and returned to the PTA board in August, only to find that the board had decided to eliminate the list.

Richards did some research and learned that a vote of PTA members could override a decision of the board. At a fall PTA meeting, she forced a vote. It went 10 to 8 in favor of keeping the list.

"It was a rough meeting," said Sandy Patterson, another Glen Haven parent who attended.
Allegations of elitism were directed at the list proponents, whose school serves many low-income and immigrant parents. PTA leaders noted that an inattentive moderator had allowed penile-enlargement spam onto the list.

Richards believes the principal and PTA sought to eliminate the list to muzzle parents. Neither the principal nor the PTA president, who is a paid employee of the school, answered interview requests.

"When parents communicate, they learn from each other," Richards said. "And a principal who wants complete and utter control of her school does not want parents to communicate."

Sartucci, one of the most vocal parent activists in the county, moderates and posts regularly to an e-mail list sponsored by the Parents Coalition of Montgomery County, a political action committee. The Parents Coalition list has come to resemble a forum on Churchill High, Sartucci said, "because we don't have another way of exchanging information."

Churchill's PTSA publishes an e-mail newsletter called Bulldog Blips.
Karin Leszczynski, vice president of the Churchill PTSA, said the group chose not to launch an interactive e-mail list because "people post things, and it's not accurate, and then it can serve to inflame things." She says almost no one but Sartucci has complained.

* * *
E-mail lists vary widely in how closely they are monitored for content that is offensive, legally sensitive or otherwise contrary to "netiquette." Sometimes posts are reviewed before publication, sometimes not.

"There are only the sketchiest of rules about it," said Reid Goldstein, chairman of the Parent Advisory Committee at H-B Woodlawn.

H-B Woodlawn's 425-member e-mail group, normally quiet, exploded with more than 100 comments in 2006 over the hip flasks. Rick Keller, the moderator, chided some parents who sent uncivil comments to one another, not through the group site but in personal e-mails.

"Apologies were made and, I think, we ended with a stronger sense of community than when the issue began," Keller said in an e-mail.

List subscribers tend to recoil at the mere hint of censorship or surveillance by outsiders.
Parents in Fairfax County's gifted-education community gasped when comments from Carol Horn, the county coordinator of gifted education, were posted recently to the e-mail discussion group of the Fairfax County Association for the Gifted. They feared she was monitoring the group, which many parents consider private, although anyone can subscribe, said Louise Epstein, the gifted association's president.

When a parent at Walter Johnson High in Bethesda posted to the school's PTSA list about a vandalism problem last month from her BlackBerry, the device generated a salutation that identified her as an assistant state's attorney. Another parent pounced: "Why," she wrote, "is a county prosecutor monitoring the WJPTSA listserve?"

Many subscribers expect "an element of privacy," said Tom Murphy, PTSA president at Walter Johnson, even though their posts are read by hundreds. "I try to explain to parents, once you hit that send key, you put something into the public domain."

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