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What happened to civility?

Original post made by Mandy Lowell & Carolyn Tucher, Another Palo Alto neighborhood, on Feb 13, 2007

What kind of a community do we want? If you read Town Square postings on school district issues, would you want to be the new superintendent of the Palo Alto Unified School District? What has happened to civility?

The recent Palo Alto Weekly article, "Immersed in Debate," highlights a parent's observation: "I feel like the community is really suffering. There's a lot of vitriol. There have been a lot of personal attacks." Web Link

Threads on Mandarin immersion are only some of the many online conversations that are ripping the fabric of our community. Recent attacks on school district personnel have been beyond the pale.

If public debate on major issues turns into a food fight on the blogs, Palo Alto will be unable to make the kind of compromises that are at the base of much good public policy. If school district and city staff members are routinely denigrated, talented civil servants will stay far away from job openings in our community.

Palo Alto is paying a price for the nasty, anonymous exchanges.

Public participation in community debate, including Town Square, is an essential part of our democracy. Public officials need citizen input as they consider how to address issues before them. Town Square offers a valuable forum for the community to express opinions and find out what others are thinking and why. But have we no standards?

"Respect for others" is the first requirement of the Weekly's published "Terms of Use" for Town Square. Do those of you who read it feel that the kind of anonymous character defamation one can read there is consistent with the Weekly's stated standards? Does the Weekly have any responsibility for the current tone of debate? Do we?

In the end, we have to answer individually. Are we, in fact, undermining what we love about Palo Alto? Are we still a community that values the richness that comes from broad diversity, lively debate, good compromises and a sense of belonging.

What kind of community do we want? We all need to care.

Mandy Lowell, school board member
Carolyn Tucher, former school board member

Comments (31)

Posted by teresag
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Feb 13, 2007 at 10:14 pm

I agree that some of the Town Square debate has been over the top but I think it's the price we pay for offering as many ways as possible for community members to interact, exchange ideas, flesh out their thinking and stay connected. I would love for it to be more civil but I don't crave that so much that I'd want PA On-line to stifle the debate. I value the open debate more than the civility I guess. Also, after a while, those who do the most "shouting" seem to get ignored.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 13, 2007 at 10:45 pm

If the School Board would seriously consider public input instead of fluffing it off the discourse might be a bit less rancorous. Why did the Board hide the identity of the Engineer who signed off on that mislocated portable? Why does the Board refuse to consider sunsetting Tinsley? Why did the Board have to be threatened with a shutdown to remedy a safety hazard at El Carmelo? Like other Palo Alto politicians they mistake election with ordination.

Posted by SkepticAl
a resident of Ventura
on Feb 13, 2007 at 11:48 pm

During the Mandarin immersion debate and fallout, I launched a similar thread, so I certainly agree that there appears to be a problem. I'd be curious to hear more from board members, city council members, city and PAUSD staff, (or former any-of-the-above) to find out how much impact they really feel from these posts. Are we all just spinning our wheels for a small online audience, or are the effects rippling outward in ways that they didn't before?

Walter - some of those issues you mention above are unfamiliar to me, but your usual pattern seems to be to discount answers you don't like. You don't really want to hear the answer about Tinsley again, because you'll never accept it. You accuse politicians of confusing "election with ordination." Typical - when you don't like the way things go, you negatively characterize the people who disagree, or assume things about them personally. I respectfully suggest that you display your own conflation - you take disagreement as evidence of your opponents' moral or intellectual shortcomings, and as a result, I doubt you've ever won over any of those people. Too bad - you sometimes raise a good point.

Posted by Marvin
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Feb 14, 2007 at 5:58 am

The initial post by Ms Lowell and Tucher are a perfect example of elected PA officiials trying to stifle debate. Any time an elected official in PA does not like what they here they attempt to silence that voice(s) by claiming that the speaker is not being civil.
Yes, maybe some of the posters have gone a bit too far, but if so the staff at PA Weekly has edited those posts. Apparently Ms Lowell and Tucher feel that elected officials and staff should be not subjected to any criticism whatsoever--that criticism is considered to be denigration and character defamation. That appears to be the way officials in PA want criticism to be handled.
Fortunately we live in a free society were you are allowe dto criticize others, anonomously if you want.
Ironically the writers state "Are we still a community that values the richness that comes from broad diversity, lively debate...". The writers want lively debate only if it conforms to their narrow view of what kind of debate should be allowed (genteel PA style debate, apparently, where no criticism of any elected official or staff is condoned).

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 14, 2007 at 7:16 am

Some of the issues are unfamiliar because they are considered unimportant to the board that swept them away. I consider absorbing a cost that should have been covered by E&O insurance or refusing to acknowledge a report of illegal construction to be substantive failures.
As for Tinsley, I, and the rest of Palo Alto lost because of some weird willingness to atone even when there was no sin. That is a failure to husband the resources of the district.
Unrepresentive, crony government is never in the interest of the people. Government more concerned with providing employee perks than serving the public, possibly in return for political support, is also poor government. Newspapers reticent to criticize government and hazard ad income and access is poor policy.
Outside of that I am pussycat.

Posted by John L
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 14, 2007 at 8:41 am

I understand the concerns that Mandy and Carolyn are expressing, but I think they need to reflect on why citizens might become so frustrated that it leads to the occassional disrespectful comment.

More important, I think if Mandy and the other school board members and city council members participated in relevant Town Square forums there would not be a sense that they are above having a dialogue that they can't control. The beauty of a forum like Town Square is that everyone is one is on a dais looking down on people using up their 3 minutes of time. Calm voices almost always drown out the fringe posters, so Mandy and others should jump in and help to make this forum even better. The disrespectful people are out there, and they will stir up people whereever they go. The way to deal with them is to demonstrate another way to communicate.

Posted by curious
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 14, 2007 at 8:47 am

In Palo Alto, it's easier to say "NO", especially when there are loud voices shouting. The elected officials don't have the leadership skills to deal with it.

Disecting the recent Madarin Immersion decision is an excellent example. The school board set out a specific process for the making a decision on this program. The backers had to raise over $60,000 for a study; the entire process took over 4 years to complete. When it came time for school board to make a decision, they made their decision not on the basis of the study, but because there was a loud set of voices in the community against the program.

In the most Machevellian view, one could suppose that the board was giving the Madarin Immersion backers tasks that they thought they could never complete, and that the idea would just go away...

Instead the backers completed the task list, and the school board used a whole different set of criteria to make their decision.

Posted by PA Resident
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 14, 2007 at 8:58 am

A bit off point, but I do think PAUSD should never have accepted annonymous donations for the feasibility study in the first place. There should have been a process in place for implementing new programs that avoids private donations. This resulted in a lose lose situation, whereby if the program gets the green light, conflict of interest comes into play, or if the program gets voted down, views such as curious's above come into play.

Hopefully the BoE can discuss a more impartial and systematic way to implement new programs.

Posted by A.J.
a resident of Green Acres
on Feb 14, 2007 at 11:46 am

I have long thought that our world would benefit if we taught our kids diplomacy and negotiating skills. I have noticed through life that a large percentage of stress and strife in ordinary life could be avoided if people were better equipped with good diplomatic and communication skills. (Ethics, too.) Perhaps we should look for this focus in our new superintendant -- s/he might bring a special asset to the district rather than being frightened by past discourse which is in (sad to say) more civil than many online confrontations.

Posted by Doubly Curious
a resident of another community
on Feb 14, 2007 at 12:07 pm

Following up on Curious' comments, I find it curious that the Board hasn't come under more fire than it has from both sides of the MI issue.

After all, as Curious points out, the Board agreed to an established process with the pro-MI's: complete a self-paid-for feasibility study. Such an approval has a clear implication: go out and make the program "feasible" (i.e., cost the district little or no money and have sufficient student/parent interest to make it worthwhile) and we'll put it in place.

And it sure seems to me that that's exactly what the pro-MIers provided; the debate ended up turning on issues other than "feasibility" (servicing a small population of students, other competing priorities, etc.).

Thus, the pro-MIers should be furious that, after completing the "hoops" laid out for them by the Board (which included spending a significant amount of money for the study), they were denied on other grounds. That's called unfairly changing the rules at the end.

On the other hand, the anti-MI folks should be furious at the Board for giving that initial approval in the first place. Those folks ended up spending a lot of time and effort (including, no doubt, spending some money out of their own pockets as well) opposing MI when I'm sure they all had better things to do.

In fact, as an ironic twist, perhaps what would bring the two groups together is uniting to oust those Board members who gave that initial approval in the first place!

Just a thought from an outside observer.

Posted by curious
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 14, 2007 at 1:00 pm

Doubly curious - Two of the board members were new, so I can't fault them for their decisions (Barb, Dana). One followed through on the process (Camille). The other two decided for their own reasons decided not to follow their own process - these I won't support in any future elections for that reason.

Posted by Doubly Curious
a resident of another community
on Feb 14, 2007 at 1:33 pm

Curious: Thanks for the clarifying info on the Board members actions.

I can't help but note that the person who started this thread on "civility" - Mandy Lowell - is evidently one of the two board members who did not follow their own process and thus contributed to creating this mess. No wonder she is calling for "civility" now.

Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 14, 2007 at 3:11 pm

I have to say that Gail Price was consistent, and did NOT vote to accept the money and start the feasibility study in this way. So, in defense of Gail, she was following what she thought was right from the beginning.

Whether or not you agree with her, you can not accuse her of not following her process.


Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 14, 2007 at 3:18 pm

Oops, hit the enter button instead of the delete button.

I am sorry, Pauline, I was going to say something you and I talked about about, but then I realized I had written your name. I went to hit the backspace to get rid of your name, and hit enter instead.

Sorry. I will call you so you know who I am.

Lesson...don't fill in the verification code until you are ready to send it.

Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 14, 2007 at 3:46 pm

I agree with Marvin and other posters. I found the MI debate remarkably civil for the most part. I've heard more "vitriol" in corporate boardrooms.

It seemed that the nastiness started AFTER the school board voted MI down. Because of "racial overtones" reported in the Mercury, the Weekly and the NY Times, we saw letters and postings charging racism. Even school board members said that any comments that could be construed as racist were few and far between.

I also agree that real honest debate in Palo Alto is hard to come by. Civic "leaders" are afraid of anything that has the slightest whiff of confrontation. I recall several years ago being astounded to see then-Mayor Jim Burch shut down Aram James for "attacking the city manager" at a council meeting. James was voicing an opinion and speaking rationally. It was Burch who went ballistic.

Seems like there's more focus on having everyone "play nice" than get the issues out on the table, even if the issues are messy. Disagreement doesn't equate to disrespect.

Posted by Daunna
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Feb 14, 2007 at 7:05 pm

Palo Altans are pretty conscientious about using pooper scoopers when walking their dogs in their own neighborhoods, so it's surprising that so many otherwise upright citizens feel free to take off their dogtags and leave their own poop all over TownSquare. Really, Palo Alto, let's get ourselves potty-trained!

Posted by Marvin
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Feb 14, 2007 at 8:07 pm

It is most unfortunate that a citizen of our city would equate one of our most cherished rights--the right of free speech with her/his dog defecating on the streets.
Free speech may not always be pretty but it is policed pretty well on this forum, and even though it is not considered, by some, proper in Palo A;to to criticize elected officials or staff, there are many more that i am sure are offended by Daunna's analogy as I am.

Posted by Daunna
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Feb 14, 2007 at 9:19 pm

Free speech is about content, and yes, it even allows for nastiness in expression. There's been a lot of uncensored nastiness in this forum: personal attacks, hatefulness, belittling words or tone, etc. When venom pours from our lips (or comes from our fingertips), the message is clear, and it sounds like war, not just on the idea or action but on the person.

I really liked what A.J. said: "... a large percentage of stress and strife in ordinary life could be avoided if people were better equipped with good diplomatic and communication skills." This doesn't mean stifling debate. On the contrary, such skills encourage debate and help keep minds open.

Posted by another observer
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Feb 14, 2007 at 9:19 pm

Sorry Marvin,

I agree with Daunna. The right of free speech should be carefully guarded (or policed) from offensive vitriol. Of course, it's subjective to say what I think is offensive vs. what you think is offensive.

So, there are a number of us who feel that TownSquare has NOT BEEN complying with it's preamble to be respectful and truthful even in the non-removed postings.

My opinion differs from yours.

Posted by thankful voter
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 14, 2007 at 9:23 pm

We are not all always going to love all the decisions that are taken by our elected officials. But in respect for the democratic process and for the people who serve us, I would like to thank the school board for doing the best they possibly can to make the difficult decisions that serve the best interests of our diverse community of children.

The MI debate has shown just how deeply felt are issues that affect our schools. As the passions die down and cooler heads prevail I hope that MI can be discussed and understood and evaluated carefully by the broader schools community. Only then can it be judged on its real merits rather than based on the sound bites that have been flying around.

In the mean time, I want to thank our school board for serving. Regardless of their position on this emotional issue, I learned from this process how thoughtful our school board is and how much time and energy they put into guiding our schools. It's got to be a terribly hard job when they are asked to make close judgement calls such as on the MI issue where there is no clear right or wrong -- just strongly heald opinions -- to guide them.

Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 14, 2007 at 9:58 pm

another observer"
You say, "The right of free speech should be carefully guarded (or policed) from offensive vitriol."

Will speech be free if it's policed? And who will do the policing? Who will decide what's "offensive vitriol"?

You then say that offensiveness is subjective, and that's a key point. We each have different comfort levels in converstations, debates, online postings. Some families yell at each other, but that's their normal, loving way of communicating. Some people can have loud and emotional debates at work, then go off arm in arm to lunch.

Let's be very careful about "policing," lest we get what we wish for.

Posted by confused
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 14, 2007 at 10:01 pm

Can someone please explain the racism charges in the MI debate? Connect the dots for me here: who are the racists? Are the Pro-MI people racist because they want to build a Chinese school, or are the Anti-MI people racist because they want everyone to kum-bye-ya together in the neighborhood schools regardless of race? Is it possible that some of the Anti-MI sentiment came from people who were wondering about the wisdom of creating a separate-but-equal-schools thing here in Palo Alto; didn't we decide that this approach doesn't work toward achieve the greater goals of a multi-ethinic society?
Posted by confused, a resident of the Barron Park neighborhood, 0 minutes ago

Posted by another observer
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Feb 14, 2007 at 10:06 pm

Let's open the debate on whether calling out "fire!" in a theatre is free speech or not.

Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 15, 2007 at 12:32 am

First of all, I salute Mandy, as a public official, for posting in this forum. That doesn't strike me as arrogant or nonresonsive. I think that's an elected official who's taking her job seriously.

I think the PA Weekly does a reasonable job of zapping personal attacks. I've seen complaints from both people who think the eds aren't doing enough and from those who are *furious* that they were *CENSORED*. Debate continues here without degenerating into endless flame wars. I'd say the eds, then, are doing a decent job.

Why so much strong emotion? It's a subject that matters to a lot of people (our kids! our schools!) and for which there's a real split and no consensus at this time.

The pro-MI folks seem to feel betrayed. I think they assumed that if they did the right thing they'd get what they wanted--I think of it as the good-student-mentality--and didn't and still don't get the political aspects of this.

The anti-MI folks, on the other hand, seem very aware of the political aspects of MI. The process struck us as rushed and a little hush-hush.

Very different conceptions of what seems fair and due process.

Posted by JR
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 15, 2007 at 5:39 am

Double Curious,
I agree 100% with you. Both sides should be furious.
The problem is that Mandy Lowell and Carolyn Tucher don't seem to understand the dynamics.
I all my humbleness, my question to them is the same as their post asks - what kind of a coummunity do we want. Please board, step back and see how YOU behaved.
Triple Curious.

Posted by Another Perspective
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Feb 15, 2007 at 8:26 am

Here we go again!!

What no one has mentioned in all this yet is the well known phenomenen of written dialog being unable to show emotion. Yes, debates in this forum get heated, but without being able to see the expressions on the faces of those "speaking", without being able to see body language, tone of voice, spacing between thoughts, and all the other ways we can read people's emotions, all we have to go on is words. We can put smiley faces, question marks, exclamation marks, and other punctuation for effect, but still the reader is uncertain as to how the post should be taken. When we get upset or angry at something someone has posted, our response often comes across differently to what we expect. At the same time, some of these posts written quickly by someone who hasn't put enough thought into what they want to say, comes across as confusing babble, or even worse. Yes, there are some posters who do let their fingers say things which they would never dream of saying in a face to face debate, with nasty comments and name calling, but I think the majority of us try to put our points across in a business like manner.

Posted by Concerned Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Feb 15, 2007 at 12:41 pm

I find it curious that Mandy Lowell is reprimanding Palo Alto residents for behavior that she believes rises to the level of "character defamation". I would like to remind Ms. Lowell that many in our community are tired of the lack of leadership on the part of Superintendent Callan and the School Board. Many in our community have brought issues before the School Board, important issues that deal with a student's right to a full and fair education, only to be ignored by the Board. Many members of our community are frustrated and rightfully so. For example, it would have been civil for you and the other members of the School Board to at least reprimand a hispanic teacher at Palo Alto High School for telling a student that he is "just another white kid that doesn't want to learn Spanish". [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.] Please stop preaching to us about civility until you demand it of personnel within the district you supervise. What you see here or experienced at the MI debates are not examples of character defamation. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 15, 2007 at 2:11 pm

I suspect that everyone would be a lot more civil in "anonymous" ways if they felt heard and respected by our elected officials.

I have noticed Barb Mitchell and Gail Price are quite good at this. They may not vote the way I like sometimes, but they give clear indication of actually paying attention and trying to understand and respond to all sides in a public discussion, and are careful to acknowledge all sides. Dana Tom is also becoming quite good at this.

However, it doesn't do an area any good to have any of it's citizens' views ignored, dismissed or made fun of by any public official. It certainly does no good to "chastise" one group publicly, as has been the case. Even to chastise all groups equally would be an abuse of the power of the board chair and disrespectful to everyone on all sides who worked so hard.

Unfortunately, there was a lot of that from you, Ms. Lowell, and Ms. Townsend, and from our Supt and Asst Supt over the last few months, and I think the impotent rage against such disrespect came out as anonymous anger on the blogs. And, I think there was a natural and equal reaction back.

I don't think that chastising this city AGAIN is helpful. It would be better to look inside and see what you, Ms. Lowell, did to help bring about the anger you saw, so that you can prevent it again.

A good start would be to, next time there is a very emotional and highly divisive issue, fully acknowledge all the people on all sides of an issue who work so hard.

It would help to validate that the "opposition" is as big, valid and valuable as the side you favor.

It would help to make sure you understand a particular point before you misrepresent it in public, and it would help if you were humble enough to acknowledge that perhaps you don't understand a particular point when you are called on it and call the person who made it to ask for explanation.

It would help if you assume the best intentions of all people on all sides of an issue. It would be best to assume that if there is anything "nasty" that you perceive, you should address it privately and personally first to make sure you really understood it correctly before going public and misrepresenting what you heard or read.

It will also help, the next time you have to make a vote that is against the very people you know well and like and helped support to get to that point, would help if you simply stuck to the reasons you are voting against them, rather than going down a list of "other" reasons that you misrepresent and dismiss as invalid. You made no supporters that night trying to walk both sides.

And, aligning yourself against the big, bad opposition emotionally while voting in their favor is a dangerous political game to play, and I suspect this won't be forgotten if you run for anything else. You did this by not only dismissing all the reasons to oppose MI as "not valid" except yours, you also echoed the "tyranny of the majority" argument.

You said that you don't believe in the "tyranny of the majority", but that in this case you still have to vote against MI. You insulted all the opponents of MI with that sentence. You, and we, know that this is in reference to a majority decision which overturns the RIGHTS of a minority or an individual. This program was not a right, but a requested privilege.

In stating you don't believe that the majority of PA should be able to decide what kind of school district they want, you are saying that the majority who voted for you also have invalid voices. Very powerful and unforgettable words coming from an attorney who, of all people, should know how insulting it is to call a group a "tryannical majority".

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by anonymous parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Feb 15, 2007 at 5:31 pm

well said, Resident.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 15, 2007 at 5:43 pm

And as long as the district shows Michael Moore and Al Gore movies with no countervailing opinions, abuses recruiters and allows silly Grannies access, they will be deserving of whatever criticism they receive. Remember, Our kids make them look good.

Posted by Anna
a resident of South of Midtown
on Feb 18, 2007 at 1:03 pm

Palo Alto's school system suffers from a congenital flaw - i.e. "decision-making from perfect inclusion and consensus". There is simply no "there" there, when it comes to adaptation, expression of cohesive vision, and the execution of vision.

Incidentally, this is NOT an indictment of the BOA or our good citizens - we all mean well.

The BOA is populated by good people (albeit, with differences that some of us may disagree with). Rather, it's an indictment of a STRUCTURE that needs to be changed. The BOA, and our community, are "caught" inside this congenital problem. We need to deconstruct THAT before we're able to move forward.

Many other American school systems (in fact, most of them) suffer from this congenital problem. (It's more apparent here because of the level of open debate - but still mostly remains hidden from view, as we're all part of the inherent dysfunctionality of the system).

It keeps them - and us - from being able to adapt, execute long range plans that better adapt us and our kids to fluid changes in our world community , and manage education in a way that eschews the 1950's style management and elected board representative structures that we have today.

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