Civil Discourse and Schools
The St. Paul (MN) school board voted to end televising and streaming the public comment section of their board meetings. What appears to be implied in the article is the civil discourse televising public comments creates in their schools and district. Televising public comments can provide for greater transparency and accountability of the “government” but it can also be a pulpit for civil discourse in schools, districts and communities. To televise or not is far from the point.
Typical open public comment sections in Board Agendas are not a productive way to participate in an exchange of meaningful feedback between the Board of Education and their patrons. Typical public comment sections of the Board agenda require the speaker to fill out a card identifying who they are and then they are provided a few minutes to address the Board of Education. There typically is no opportunity to engage in a dialogue with the Board or staff. Open public comment sections represent exactly the opposite of what proponents for increased transparency and accountability of the Board of Education are trying to protect. They can be abused and laden with personal attacks that hide motives and accountability of the individual. They can also be a very productive way to provide constructive feedback. The point is to engage in solution focused discussions where there is an atmosphere of respect, embracing diverse opinions and civility.
Problematic is the amount of civil discourse that has become way to prevalent in schools, communities, media and our society as a whole. Schools are expected to teach students about civility, respecting diverse opinions and how to appropriately advocate for themselves. The most influential way to teach students what we expect of them is to model those expectations ourselves.
There is no room for personal attacks, vengeance, sensationalism, intolerance and discourse in or around our schools. When adults participate in these acts in person or through social media they are “telling” our students that is how you should treat others. Media can also be a proponent of civil discourse because sensationalism sells which after all is their bottom line. To be clear, media is not the sole problem but can and should be a part of the solution.
School boards have an obligation to ensure there are multiple opportunities to engage the school community in two-way communication. It is also their obligation to encourage diverse opinions. We must hold ourselves, others and the media accountable for civil behaviors greater than those we expect from our students.
Civil discourse and schools do not mix.