Howard County schools Superintendent Michael Martirano spoke out against online “bullying” of the Board of Education’s student member during the board’s meeting Tuesday.
“My staff and I have witnessed online behavior and comments on social media that have propelled me to address a multitude of unconscionable acts of bullying by adults in our community,” Martirano said.
Last week, two Howard County parents with children in the school system filed a lawsuit to strip the student school board member’s right to vote. Howard High School senior Zach Koung is the board’s 2020-21 student member. The lawsuit came after a vote that ended in a 4-4 tie as the board was split over whether to commit to virtual learning through mid-April amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The board has tied on a number of votes over the past few months on topics ranging from school resource officers to matters regarding the school reopening process. Following the contentious votes, some on social media — mostly in community Facebook groups — have criticized the board’s student member. Some of those criticisms, Martirano said Tuesday, are by adults who feel “empowered to harass, demean and aggressively bully” the student member.
“I find these actions to be reprehensible,” Martirano said. “We, as Howard County residents, should be mortified that a community that prides itself on civility has neighbors that would stoop so low as to harass any person, but particularly a student, in order to silence their voice.”
The lawsuit, filed Dec. 16 in Howard County Circuit Court by parents Traci Spiegel and Kimberly Ford, argues that giving a high school student the right to vote on school board decisions violates Maryland’s constitution because the student is not 18 years old and is not eligible to vote in elections or to hold an elected office.
Board member Vicky Cutroneo asked Mark Blom, the school system’s general counsel, during the meeting if board members, including Koung, are able to comment about the lawsuit, considering the lawsuit names the board. Blom advised against board members from commenting.
“I just wanted to get clarification to make sure the public knew that,” Cutroneo said. “That’s why we can’t speak up, as much as it kills us [not to].”
Sixteen of the 24 Maryland school boards don’t allow students to vote. However, most school boards in the Baltimore region have one student member who can vote on most topics. The student — a junior or senior — is elected by middle and high school students and serves a one-year term. In Howard, the student member can vote on most topics except those involving redistricting, personnel, legal issues, the budget and “other restricted matters,” according to the school system’s website.
In response to the lawsuit, student representatives from boards of education across Maryland signed their names at the end of a letter of support for the student voice and for the Howard County student member.
“We, the students of Maryland’s Boards of Education, are alarmed and disheartened to hear about the frivolous lawsuit filed against the Board of Education of Howard County attempting to remove the voting rights of its current student member, our colleague and friend,” the letter from the student members states.
The letter, which was signed by 16 different student members, states students are the driving force behind education policies, and they deserve a voice, vote and stake in their education.
“Students now more than ever deserve to have a say when it comes to their education,” the letter states.
Devanshi Mistry, a junior at Liberty High School and the student member of the Carroll County school board, said her fellow student members keep in touch through group chat and, after learning about the lawsuit, they decided this was an issue deserving of a response. It’s a decision that affects them all and, as the letter states, “an attack on one of our voices is an attack on all of our voices.”
While Martirano did not comment on the lawsuit and said it will “run its course through the legal system,” he did say he “admires the grace and class” that Koung has shown.
“Because of policy disagreements, people feel empowered and justified to bully and eliminate the voice of a student simply to change the results of a democratic vote,” Martirano said.
Koung was voted in by sixth through 11th grade students in June and was sworn in July.
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In September, Koung surprised some of his fellow board members with a motion to remove school resource officers from the school system’s middle and high schools. The motion failed but ultimately led to the school system establishing a timeline regarding the contentious topic, which included multiple board discussions, focus groups, a town hall and a projected vote date of Jan. 21.
Then, in November, when the current plan had students in virtual learning through January, the board was considering the school system’s proposed hybrid learning model. When the board was unsatisfied with the proposed hybrid model, Martirano requested more time to allow the school system to refine its plan. The vote to give the school system more time to develop a hybrid model failed, 4-4, with Koung, member Jen Mallo, former member Sabina Taj and former Chairperson Mavis Ellis voting against the motion. Taj and Ellis did not run for reelection and were replaced by other members in December.
That vote led to a motion and board approval to extend virtual learning through mid-April.
A little less than a month later, Martirano said during a meeting that he was “pleading” with the board to reconsider a hybrid learning model in January. A vote to create more flexibility for a possible reopening date failed, 4-4, with Mallo, Koung and new members Jolene Mosley and Antonia Barkley Watts voting against the motion. The vote could have opened the school system to begin a hybrid model before April 14.
While Koung’s last vote was in opposition to Martirano’s hopes, the superintendent wants those who are “bullying” Koung online to “look in the mirror.”
“I expect that my remarks today will ruffle some feathers, and I encourage those who take exception to my words to look in the mirror and ask yourself why my defense of a student being bullied by adults would ever cause you concern,” Martirano said.
Baltimore Sun Media reporter Kristen Griffith and Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.