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Changing the world (and public education) begins with civil discourse | COMMENTARY

Christian Thomas, the student member of the Baltimore County Board of Education speaks at a press conference on efforts to increase Covid-19 vaccination rates among students in Baltimore County. At a meeting this summer, he chided the 12-member board for being “broken.”
Christian Thomas, the student member of the Baltimore County Board of Education speaks at a press conference on efforts to increase Covid-19 vaccination rates among students in Baltimore County. At a meeting this summer, he chided the 12-member board for being “broken.” (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who had more than a few experiences with ignorance and hate, once observed that a person has very little morally persuasive power with those “who can feel your underlying contempt.” His lesson: that “unarmed truth” and “unconditional love” will always prevail in the end. Yet how many of us truly follow such guidance regularly? There are times on this very page when we, too, get a bit irritable and, instead of seeking to persuade our readers respectfully and courteously show a measure of scorn toward those who do not share our convictions. The temptation of vitriol can be great when, for example, a sitting U.S. president suggests your city is the “worst in the USA.”

We are reminded of the late Dr. King’s counsel by two local events. The first: A 35-year-old Howard County man was sentenced to eight weekends in jail and 100 hours of community service for threatening to kill U.S. Rep. Andy Harris because Maryland’s 1st District congressman had supported Republican efforts to overturn the last presidential election in favor of Mr. Trump. Mr. Harris’ frequent trafficking in the lie that Donald Trump beat Joe Biden at the polls last November certainly does him no honor. But threatening to kill the Republican congressman and his family is criminal conduct that more than merits the federal prosecution it received. The perpetrator is fortunate that U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett did not sentence him to worse. As the judge observed, such behavior is “totally unacceptable in a civilized society.”

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The second example is perhaps less obvious, but still important. Included in a consultant’s comprehensive report on Baltimore County Public Schools released last week is the observation that the county school board has become dysfunctional and unprofessional and that this lack of civility breeds an atmosphere of discord and mistrust. Among the 200 recommendations in the 759-page Public Works LLC study are requiring the Baltimore County Board of Education to: adopt a civility policy, attend team-building workshops, consider hiring a mediator, and to have the chair and legal counsel learn parliamentary procedure. Now, there’s a critique — based on a failure to observe mutual respect — one does not usually expect for a group of people responsible for 113,000 students and entrusted with a $2.31 billion budget.

School board members should know better. It’s not hard to catch their bluster and eye-rolling in open session, with some members not bothering to hide the contempt they have for each other. And that’s only in public view; one can only imagine what it’s like in closed sessions. It’s telling that the least guilty is likely their student member, Christian Thomas, a senior at Eastern Technical High School, who at a July meeting, his first, chided the 12-member board for being “broken” with a divide that is “so apparent” and with most “not doing anything to fix it.” We would give the teenager a gold star, but courageous student school board members appear to be a common local trait: Last year, it was a Howard County student board member who was getting bullied by area parents for his stance on virtual learning, with Superintendent Michael Martirano rising to his defense.

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There are likely any number of factors at work in this loss of civility. The national political discourse had been eroding well before Mr. Trump arrived on the scene, but he surely exacerbated it. The pandemic has frayed nerves as health emergencies, fear, uncertainty and unexpected economic hardships have proven overwhelming to some. And social media seems to make every human conflict worse. Posters are rewarded with likes and accolades for trolling, not for open-minded reasoning. Has anyone ever been persuaded by an acerbic Twitter post? Anyone? Bueller?

A few years ago, bumper stickers imploring people to “Choose Civility” were all the rage in the Baltimore area, a product of a noted Johns Hopkins University professor’s work on the subject. We can only hope for those two words to get a revival and follow through, with people choosing to speak kindly, assume the best of each other, listen to opposing views, give and accept praise, be inclusive, acknowledge others and generally make kindergarten teachers proud. It’s easy to say, but it can be tougher to do. As the consultants at Public Works LLC might say, let’s give it a try, as there’s no added cost to compliance.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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