Bullying stops at the top

SCHOOL OFFICIALS TAKE BULLYING seriously for good reason. Kids need to know it’s wrong to pick on those who are smaller, weaker or otherwise vulnerable. Schools understand that teaching by example has the greatest impact. But what do you do when school officials act like bullies?

During a board meeting last month Taconic Hills school board President Ronald Morales instructed district Superintendent Mark Sposato to call the police. Mr. Morales was upset by a labor union lawyer representing two bargaining units in the district. The lawyer, Pamela Melville, insisted on continuing when Mr. Morales asked her to stop speaking to the board at the public forum.

Ms. Melville left before a police officer arrived. But the superintendent followed up with a terse letter accusing Ms. Melville of “disruptive, belligerent, condescending and disrespectful” behavior, adding, in case she missed the point, that her conduct had been “inexcusable and unprofessional.”

Superintendent Sposato concluded by saying that Ms. Melville would have to have his permission to return to the Taconic Hills campus, and if she did not have his permission, the district would call the police again and accuse her of trespassing. He sent the letter to a lot of people including the regional staff director of the union, a nice touch that sounded a like a kid who says: “Ooooo, I’m gonna tell on you!”

If only this came down to a matter of grownups indulging in a “Do as I say, not as I do” moment. But it’s worse than that. It smacks of heavy-handed, anti-union bias of the ugliest, most discredited kind. It represents an approach that does nothing to further the goal of educating children in a time of challenges greater than most anyone alive can recall.

I have faced union representatives across the table, negotiating on behalf of a public sector entity. I know how tense talks can get when individuals rub each other the wrong way. There were times I thought the bargaining unit or its representative had gone too far. But for the sake of the larger goal, negotiations depend on the willingness of both parties to put personalities aside and reach a fair agreement.

I have watched in dismay in recent years as veteran teachers clung to benefits that resulted in younger colleagues losing their jobs. It’s their right, but it’s a long way from the spirit of workers who risked all for the right to organize.

So let’s assume that the Taconic Hills school board felt Ms. Melville was out of order and that board President Morales felt she was challenging his authority. As the person who wields the gavel he had several options.

The entire board could have remained silent during her statements. Elected officials are under no legal obligation to respond. If he felt the board had to act, he could simply have adjourned the meeting. That might have offered a chance for tempers to cool and for a compromise to emerge. If members of the public attending the meeting felt inconvenienced by the adjournment, they would likely have blamed Ms. Melville, not the board.

If members of the board felt that Ms. Melville represented a physical threat to anyone in the room, then they should certainly have stopped the meeting. Instead, they continued to meet while Superintendent Sposato was dispatched to call the police.

Summoning an armed police officer was the most reckless and indefensible choice. It wasted the time of the police officer, who has no obligation to enforce parliamentary procedure, and it abused of the authority of the board for its members to call for help in the absence of a true emergency. It looks exactly like what it was: an attempt to bully an official representative of unionized workers.

The follow-up letter from the superintendent made matters worse by threatening police action against Ms. Melville if she did not get permission to come on school grounds. Other than the vague charges at the beginning of the letter, no facts support the decision to restrict her access to the district. The letter doesn’t read like a statement of policy, it comes across as harassment.

Bullies always talk tough. But reasonable people know that tough-guy posturing has unwanted consequences. Maybe Taconic Hills officials were tired, cranky, overly concerned about protocol. That’s only human. But this has gone on too long. It’s time for the board to admit its error, publicly rescind the restrictions and, yes, apologize to Ms. Melville. This isn’t about the board anymore. It’s about the children.

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