What is our primary responsibility as teachers and parents? Well, hopefully we teach our children well. There is nothing more important in the three towns of Poland, Minot and Mechanic Falls, in this state, country and world today than that we teach our children well — and part of that education is to show our children appropriate ways to disagree well — to engage in civil discourse.
Community members and staff who are part of the ongoing three-month social media storm attacking the superintendent, school board, and now the athletic director and football coach in our RSU16 school district, are modeling the worst behaviors for our children. The disgruntled “Make RSU 16 Great Again” circulated a petition riddled with inaccuracies to 200-plus RSU 16 employees in the late spring and continued to promote those inaccuracies, despite information to the contrary from the RSU 16 Teachers’ Association. It demanded the dismissal of the RSU superintendent and the recall or resignation of a school board member and the school board chair. Now a group calling itself “Concerned Parents for our PHS (should be PRHS) Football Program” has surfaced, adopting the same methods of social media character assassination in an attempt to remove the RSU16 athletic director and head football coach. Sadly, the channels these two groups have chosen to use promote divisiveness and derision.
Each of these groups is functioning with the intent to exact change — they feel there is a wrong and wish to make things better. I applaud that. However, instead of having face-to-face meetings, individuals in these groups use social media to whip up chaos.
A member of the school board has been pursued at his place of work in an effort to disrupt his business. School board members have been threatened at meetings. The “Concerned Parents” Facebook posts at 12:02 a.m. are filled with personal attacks such as “We pay his salary and his job performance is horrible … pitiful.”
Opposition to these two groups is met with more personal attacks. A member of “Make RSU 16 Great” announced at the school committee meeting on Aug. 14 that the student who wrote an opposing response on the Facebook page was incapable of penning the words himself. Because I chose to speak in support of the School Board and superintendent at the same meeting, a Facebook post between members of “Make RSU 16 Great” asserted that I was “a plant by the superintendent as a PR move. She [the superintendent] went around asking folks to defend her.”
There have been no attempts by those two groups to compromise or to seek solutions beyond their destructive demands. Undoubtedly, none of those who are acting in those ways would want to be on the receiving end of their own tactics.
Many organizations today operate under the assumption of “good intent.” People expect that everyone is genuine and willing to work collaboratively on the issues. We try to instill good intent into the mediations and restorative circles used when we work with our students in RSU 16 to help them resolve conflicts with a student/teacher. Unfortunately, this assumption seems glaringly absent from the The “Make RSU 16 Great…” and “Concerned Parents…” groups.
Instead, people arrive to School Board meetings hostile, aggressive, abrasive and armed for combat. They shred people on Facebook while smiling and saying hello to them at games. These methods represent exactly the opposite of what we teach our students and are counterproductive to their actual purpose. Our children need better models than ultimatums and threats that rarely move things forward.
Civil discourse is hard. It requires that you listen and hear the position of others and assumes an honest willingness to understand. You need to treat others as you want to be treated in the midst of disagreeing — just when you feel most passionate about something. It is messy and unsettling, but it yields far better results.
Having taught for the past 32 years, 20 of those in the RSU 16 school district, and parenting two children attending PRHS, it is embarrassing and disheartening to witness the current climate in RSU 16. There is a high price to pay for being obstinate, partisan and vengeful. Students in RSU 16 are paying that price as our district swirls amid negativity that lacks good intent and saps positive energy.
Now is the time to teach our children well.
Laurie Sevigny is Humanities I and AP World History teacher at Poland Regional High School. She lives in Auburn.