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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Joel Aune and Tim Garchow: It’s time to restore civility to our schools

By Joel Aune and Tim Garchow

By Joel Aune and Tim Garchow

The current state of the world has drastically altered the course of our collective lives in big and small ways. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed literally everything we do, requiring advanced planning for the simplest of tasks.

As educators, and as the leaders of the state’s school superintendents and school board directors associations, we can tell you the first priority of our members always has been, and always will be, the safe operation of public schools. This is perhaps why we are so concerned with increasingly hostile, combative, and aggressive behaviors at public meetings, through online discussions, and in person-to-person exchanges that are interfering with the business of managing our schools while ensuring the safety of staff and students.

COVID-19 has presented enormous challenges to our schools, districts, and communities, but one of the most concerning trends is the erosion of civility in many communities where interactions with school district leaders and school board members have turned ugly.

School superintendents and board members are doing their best to safely operate schools for in-person learning, and serve students based on the guidance of health policy experts and requirements set forth by the state. Unfortunately, many individuals in the community are politicizing the state requirements – which fall outside of local control – to the point where the act of simply holding a public meeting to conduct district business draws verbal abuse, profanity, aggression, intimidation, and threats of violence.

This kind of behavior has no place in our schools or communities, and is particularly counterproductive to the work needing to be done to help students recover, learn, and grow during this difficult time. It is imperative that the adults in our communities model the kind of behavior we ask of our students. Right now, this is not happening in a consistent fashion across our state. The students are watching, and what they see in all too many instances is in conflict with the kindness, civility, and decency we expect of them.

Decisions being made right now undoubtedly have a big impact on students, staff, and families. Some of those decisions can be made locally by school boards, but many of them are made at the state level and beyond the authority of individual districts. It is important for families and community members to share their concerns with their school district. It is important for families to have their voices heard. However, it is equally important to do so in a way that sets an example for students of how to advocate in a civil and respectful manner.

School directors and superintendents are working incredibly hard to address and meet the demands of their local community, while complying with state law and federal regulations. Our

school leaders are doing everything they can to deliver a meaningful and rich learning experience for students while maintaining the safe operation of schools in the face of a constantly changing virus. Putting all of this together is, indeed, a tall order.

The fact that children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible for a vaccine makes dialog between schools, districts, families and the communities that much more important. The process of conducting the business of a school district has never been more vital. When it comes down to it, we all want many of the same things. We want to be able to keep our schools open, our children safe, our staff employed, and a return to normalcy as soon as possible. However, when passions degrade others, it prevents us from achieving our common goal of doing what is best for children.

We need your help and cooperation in putting an end to ineffective and inappropriate forms of communication. We will not tolerate threats of violence, whether in person or online. This behavior has no place in our schools, where educators are working tirelessly to keep children safe and focused on learning. We owe it to our students to model the kind of leadership, human interaction, and civil engagement that is expected of adults in trying situations.

Make no mistake: Community engagement remains an integral part of our public schools. We welcome – and encourage – parents and families, businesses and community members, along with district staff and students, to participate in meetings that impact our schools. Your voice and perspective matters.

But it is time to check our behaviors and restore a stronger semblance of courtesy and respect in interactions with one another – the same behavior expected of the students we serve.

We must aim to restore civility to our schools and our communities so that we can move forward together in our common interest of educating and caring for the children in our schools. For in the end, it is their growth and well-being that should be our singular focus.

Joel Aune is the executive director of the Washington Association of School Administrators. Tim Garchow is the executive director of the Washington State School Directors’ Association.

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