PARENTS URGE NORTH SHORE BOE TO CONSIDER POLICY CHANGES IN AFTERMATH OF PTO CONTROVERSY
January 21, 2015 -- At this past Thursday’s North Shore Board of Education meeting, a Sea Cliff parent, whose 11-year old daughter was a target of criticism in an email sent out to hundreds of parents and posted on a community facebook group early last week, as well as in a letter sent to a fundraising vendor in October, requested that the Superintendent and seven Trustees take action to change district policy so as to protect all students from having their names and other information shared, without the parents’ consent, publicly or with third parties by parent organizations. The father’s request came at the end of a lengthy statement he made just a few minutes after a Middle School PTO co-President announced her resignation from the parent group’s board, and had asked district leaders to amend district bylaws to include parent volunteers among those who are protected under the district’s anti-harassment policies.
The turmoil that has beleaguered the Middle School PTO for the past two and half months developed in the aftermath of a speech given by the sixth grader at the October PTO meeting and exploded into public view when an e-mail entitled “Why We Are ALL Resigning” was sent out to the community, and later posted by a co-President who had recently resigned on the facebook group which has over 2500 members.
Signed simply “The North Shore Middle School PTO,” but with no individual names, the email was not sent through District e-mail as virtually all PTO messages are, but originated from the account email@example.com – different from the account listed on the organization’s website. The more than 50 pages of attachments included emails that had been copied and pasted onto word documents, with at least one having been altered. The email and accompanying documents offer a defense of the actions of MSPTO Board as a body, and allege that certain specifically named individuals had engaged in inappropriate behavior. Based on conversations with individuals whose private emails were included among the attachments, at least five had not given consent for their correspondences to be made public in this way.
In her October speech to 15 to 20 Middle School PTO members, the 11 year-old spoke of child labor and slavery in the cocoa growing industry in Africa, and encouraged the PTO board, in the future, to consider using a fundraising vendor that only sells chocolate that is “fair trade certified” - an assurance that the growers in developing countries supplying the chocolate adhere to certain environmental and labor standards.
According to the email sent out last week, some if not a majority of PTO officers took issue with the child’s speech, alleging that her statements defamed Miss Chocolate, the company that supplied the product for a PTO fund raising sale. In one attachment, the author of an email identified as a PTO officer, highlighting her credentials as an attorney, asserted that she was “pretty confident” the statements made by the child were “a prima facie case of defamation.” In another, the author, a PTO Officer states, “our interest – again, is only for Miss Chocolate – a very responsible, small local business that was slandered.” The word slander was used in many more of the correspondences.
In early November, sixth grade parent representative Karen Kessler was the first to resign from the board. In her resignation letter she expressed concerns that an email from the PTO co-President indicated a “desire to pursue this 11 year old,[and] Dr Ferris.” She continued, “it’s clear you want to take this far as possible. Unfortunately, I disagree with that call and will part ways with the board. I enjoyed my stay but think this has gone far enough and hereby resign my position on the board. “
After the child’s parents learned that an email had been sent to Miss Chocolate and had identified their daughter by name alongside allegations of slander, the father said that for nearly two weeks he sought to communicate with the PTO presidents, but did not receive responses to his e-mails, but that the PTO had sent out an email to the school community defending Miss Chocolate. He explained that he then reached out to the Middle School Principal, Marc Ferris, followed by Schools Superintendent Edward Melnick, who said that the District did not have jurisdiction over the PTO.
The father also said he emailed each of the PTO board members saying that he would go public with the issue if the matter was not addressed. In mid-November he sent an e-mail out to a number of people requesting their help and asking them to attend the PTO meeting that was to be held the following week, and to urge the adoption of a policy that would allow for the removal of PTO board members.
In the meantime, other PTO officers resigned from their positions and November’s PTO meeting was cancelled.
Also that month, efforts at mediating the dispute were attempted by Middle School Principal Marc Ferris and Schools Superintendent Edward Melnick. At the December School Board meeting, Dr. Melnick, in response to a question from a parent, said that officers who had resigned would be invited to return.
Early in January, several parents contacted the Middle School Principal requesting that a meeting be held to address the issue and to develop a plan moving forward.
The following week, the e-mail, “Why We Are ALL Resigning” was sent out and posted. By that point seven of the nine PTO board members had already resigned.
During Public Comment at Thursday’s School Board meeting, Middle School PTO co-President Marla Wolfson spoke first. “It was with deep regret and warm regards for our fellow PTO parents and students and faculty,” she said, “that we, my board put forth our resignations.” She did not identify specifically the other board members on whose behalf she said she was speaking, but seated close by were three officers who had already resigned, and one current board member.
Ms. Wolfson, although not offering specific examples in her remarks, asserted that she and other board members had felt bullied out of their positions. “We are our children’s worst teacher. We are teaching them that bullying is ok,” she said. “We are teaching them E3 are merely words. What I have experienced in the last two months is that ‘everyone does not matter; everyone certainly does not care, and that what everyone learned is that volunteers are not safe, that they are not appreciated, that they are kicked to the curb when their usefulness is over.”
The PTO President then spoke of her volunteerism for the district and feeling unappreciated. “The price I have paid is far too great,” she said, “ – time taken away from my family, home and work, the stress of coordinating events, speakers, collecting money, selling, purchasing, dealing with unhappy parents (which we expect), trying to unite a community, dig up volunteers, persuade people to participate. It’s exhausting and thankless.”
Ms. Wolfson called on the Board to amend district policies so as to protect parents and volunteers. “This is about extending the same rights and protections to parent and volunteers as those that the Board of Education has given to employees and students in its harassment regulations.”
A petition requesting similar action by the School Board was posted through change.org on a community facebook group earlier in the day. The profile photo accompanying the petition indicated that it was authored by a MSPTO officer who had recently resigned.
Shortly after Ms. Wolfson’s remarks, parent Noah Blumenthal, whose daughter had given the speech at the PTO meeting in October, addressed the Board.
He began saying that both of his daughters had decided on their own to advocate for fair trade chocolate after hearing about child slavery in the cocoa industry. “They made their choice,” he said. “They then convinced us to do the same.”
Mr. Blumenthal spoke of the excitement and pride his daughter felt in having the opportunity to address the PTO regarding the issue and then defended the accuracy of her speech.
“Her case was solid. Miss Chocolate, as a seller of non-fairly sourced chocolate products, is benefiting from child slavery,” he said.
“That may sound shocking, but I’m only stating what one of Miss Chocolate’s own suppliers, Hershey’s, that’s right, the Hershey’s Chocolate Company, has stated on record.” He said that Hershey’s had pledged to use only fair-trade certified cocoa by 2020.
Conceding an error in the speech, he explained, “My daughter was also slightly confused about one word. Among all the other things she said that make it very clear what her point was, she said Miss Chocolate uses child slaves in their manufacture of chocolate. Miss Chocolate doesn’t do that. They aren’t a manufacturer. But they do have a supply chain that does use child slaves. The same as any grocery store, gas station, deli or anywhere else that sells Hershey’s or just about any other major supplier of chocolate.”
“For this error, my daughter was accused of slander. That’s a big accusation.” Mr. Blumenthal said and then explained that he had shown a transcript of his daughter’s speech to lawyers and all said that the statement was not defamatory - that “the totality of her statement was true and the single errant word comes nowhere near the threshold required by law to constitute slander.”
During the remainder of his remarks, Mr. Blumenthal spoke of how he felt about his child being the target of criticism in emails – one to the fundraising vendor and another to the school and larger community.
He read excerpts from the letter that the owner of Miss Chocolate had sent to the two PTO Presidents which indicated that an email authored by a PTO board member had been sent to Miss Chocolate and that his daughter had been identified by name. Continuing, he read other passages from the letter and explained that “the PTO email to the company accused my daughter of attacking the company,” and that “the email to this company also included an opinion offered by a PTO board member that the company had grounds for legal action against my 11-year old child.”
“Imagine how you would feel if that had been your child,” continued Mr. Blumenthal. What would you have wanted the district to do on your behalf?”
The child’s father then segued into the events of the preceding few days. “This week my daughter was named in an email, ostensibly from the entire PTO board,” he said, and added that the email had also been posted on a local community Facebook page. "Those responsible might claim that they didn’t name my daughter as they only used her last name.”
Noting that his daughter is the only child in the school with that last name, he asked, “How many of you would be comfortable with accusations being leveled at your child identified by last name and sent to hundreds of people in the community.”
Mr. Blumenthal then read several quotes from the email and its attachments.
Concluding his remarks, Mr. Blumenthal encouraged the Board to consider changes to its bylaws in an effort to protect students from facing a similar situation to what his daughter experienced.
“Our bylaws say that if students are attacked for speaking out, the district will leave them on their own,” he said. “Members of the Board of Education, I hope you feel the weight of this as you determine what new bylaws should be in place to protect the children in our district in the future. Next time, the child being attacked so publicly might be your own.”
Schools Superintendent Dr. Edward Melnick then read a prepared statement.
“It saddens me to see after 28 years in this community how an issue arising out of a situation in a Parent Teacher organization could have escalated into what this situation has become,” he said, before explaining that the District did not have jurisdiction over the parent organizations but that the Board would seek recommendations from District Counsel “in areas of policy and code of conduct.”
The Superintendent did, however, offer his personal thoughts. “As far as I am concerned as Superintendent and as far as the board is concerned,” he said, “it is not ok for the name of a student to be shared with an outside company nor appropriate for a student to be subject to such ridicule on facebook. It is not the way our community ought to operate.”
He continued, “As the adults in this community, we are constantly modeling for our children – including how to have rational conversations, how to compromise, how to solve conflicts and how to act beyond our own selves and for the greater good. We need to make sure that our children understand that not every situation will resolve to their satisfaction. But part of life is coping, dealing, and moving on and as adults we need to practice that as we move ahead. ”
Later during public comment, after other residents had spoken, Ms. Wolfson spoke again and asserted that she had never shared an email about a student with a third party – that all emails she had sent had been among the PTO Executive Board and the Principal. She said she agreed “wholeheartedly” with having a policy “about not naming children.” She also asked that the policy on harassment be extended to volunteers. “In neighboring districts, people line up to volunteer. Here, nobody does, because you put yourself on the line.”
The PTO board had acted with “complete integrity,” she said. “I have never ever nor would I have ever done anything to hurt a child, and never sent that email.”
Northwordnews reached out to all nine PTO officers who had begun the year on the board for comment and to answer questions regarding last Monday’s email. Three responded – Karen Kessler, Liz Wezwick, and Dana Baron. Each said they had no knowledge of the email before it was sent.
CLARIFICATION – The original version of this article quoted Mr. Blumenthal as saying that the email entitled "Why We Are ALL Resigning" was posted on the "North Shore community Facebook page." The email was posted on the Glen Head, Glenwood, Sea Cliff, Brookville, Roslyn Harbor, Greenvale Neighbors Facebook Group.
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