About two months ago, students took to Twitter with barbed virtual tongues when Montgomery County Public Schools decided not to close after area temperatures dipped to unusual lows.
Some students tweeted directly at Superintendent Joshua P. Starr and included angry, sarcastic and even threatening messages that prompted Starr to release an open letter sharing his concern over their behavior.
Now Montgomery County Public Schools has formed a task force focused on “cybercivility” and is seeking applications from parents, students, staff members and community members to fill its ranks.
Task force members will be charged with developing ways to raise awareness of the need for more polite online communication as well as guides for students, parents and others to talk about the issue.
The group will meet once a month from March to August and those interested have until 5 p.m. Feb. 24 to submit an application.
Starr said in a Feb. 10 school system release that he hopes the task force’s work will fuel conversations about how students and others can use social media “in positive and productive ways.”
Starr said in a Dec. 13 letter to the school system community that students contacted him on Twitter with “offensive and disturbing” messages related to the decision on whether to close schools due to the cold weather.
“We not only have to teach our kids how to handle new technologies appropriately, but we also have to model that behavior in our own communications on social media and email,” he said in the letter.
County school board Vice President Patricia O’Neill (Dist. 3) of Bethesda said in her 15 years as a school board member, she has seen that both adults and children have lost a sense of civility.
There’s a difference, she said, between the current virtual modes of communication and a handwritten letter that involves a delay and opportunities for revision, or a phone call that carries a more “human tone.”
O’Neill said there are “no easy answers” but hopes the task force can help put civility back in society.
“There is a fine line, we are a free speech society,” she said. “But I really believe that even if you disagree with me, or disagree with the board, there is a civil approach to discourse.”
School board member Michael Durso (Dist. 5) of Silver Spring said the issue transcends the school system and online civility is “probably more of a local and a parental issue.”
“It’s not new that sometimes our young people, you know, say things a little more graphically or a little more candidly than we like,” he said.
The changes in communication are “a sign of the times,” Durso said, citing language seen on television and in publications that would not have been said or written in the past but have “kind of creeped into acceptance now.”
He said he also think it’s behavior that is difficult to police.
“I hope we’re not just spinning our wheels,” he said.
Therese Gibson — president of the parent, teacher and student association at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring — said she doesn’t think the county school system needs a task force to address the issue.
“I think there’s a lot of excellent teaching materials out there already,” she said.
Gibson said she is on a listserv with other county PTA leaders where members exchange recommendations for programs and materials related to cybercivility.
“We’re pretty active on this,” she said. “I would just encourage Dr. Starr to keep focusing in on academic achievement.”
Robyn Posner Solomon — president of the parent, teacher and student association at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac — said she doesn’t think cybercivility has been a problem at Churchill and that the issue goes beyond schools and includes adults.
“I just think it’s parents’ responsibility to talk to their children,” she said.
Solomon said she has talked to her children “ad nauseam” about being careful in how they behave on social media sites including Facebook.
“This whole generation needs to be careful in how they say things,” she said.
Silvia Vargas, a professor who teaches cybersecurity at Montgomery College, said she thinks the task force is a great way for the school system to develop resources to raise awareness.
“I believe that awareness is definitely needed and from that we can have policies and procedures to be able to drive a better civil communication over the Internet,” she said.
Vargas said she thinks there are a lot of parents who might not know what their kids are doing online.
Materials addressing cybercivility exist online, she said, but some parents might not be able to access them and would benefit from other forms of outreach such as fliers or meetings.
Cyberbullying seems to be more prevalent nowadays, she said, and children are surrounded by technology.
“If you think about it, there are many children, even in elementary school, who already have an iPad or a [Kindle] Fire or an [iPod Touch],” she said. “They’re just fully connected.”