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Howard County has a school (board) bullying problem | COMMENTARY

Two parents living in Maryland’s most affluent subdivision are pursuing a lawsuit seeking to deny the Howard County school board’s student member the right to vote on issues pending before the eight-member panel. Their outrage is palpable. According to their lawyer, it is unconstitutional for someone under the age of 18, a student too young to cast a ballot in an election, to have such authority. The claim is that certain adult members of the board have used the student as a “pawn” and it’s allowed them to avoid taking responsibility with deadlocked four-four votes.

Given that Maryland’s state and local school boards have traditionally had a student member and at least one-third assign that person some level of voting power, this is what they call in education a full load of rubbish. Here are the two obvious conclusions to draw from the circumstances surrounding this litigation. First, an enormous sense of entitlement pervades Howard County and second, that certain parents don’t care about the regrettable example this is setting for their children. The condensed version? If you don’t get your way, don’t try to argue the facts with the school system, hire an attorney and take it to court.

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At the heart of this litigation isn’t really a concern about the student member’s voting authority but a desire to get the system to return to in-person instruction instead of virtual learning. The Howard County schools had initially sought a return to the classrooms by February, but now the system must remain online through mid-April, thanks, in part, to a recent four-four split within the board, the student member having joined with three adult colleagues in voting against an earlier date. Whether to return to in-person instruction, pursue a hybrid strategy or stick with online only has been a contentious issue for many school systems during the COVID-19 pandemic. There are reasonable arguments to be made for all three strategies. But given the recent uptick in the COVID-19 caseload, hospitalizations and deaths, a cautious approach to public health would seem the most prudent, particularly in a school system where there’s a much smaller “digital divide” than many of its neighbors and student achievement is high.

Kudos to a clearly exasperated Michael Martirano, the system’s superintendent, for calling out the bullying during a virtual school board meeting Tuesday, especially the shameful social media attacks directed at current student member, Zach Koung: “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.” To which we can only add, Amen.

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We sympathize with the plaintiffs in at least one point. Why does Howard County have an eight-member school board given the perils of deadlock that come with an even number? The answer is that it used to be seven voting members but the eighth was added in 2007 when the student member was finally given — by an act of the General Assembly — authority to vote on matters not related to the system’s budget, teacher contracts or redistricting. Still, perhaps adding a ninth member ought to be on the county’s to-do list for the coming state legislative session instead of targeting the student member who, incidentally, is usually selected for demonstrated leadership and academic skills. These aren’t kids found wandering in the halls. Unlike staff and others on the board, they don’t even get paid.

What makes this case particularly irksome is that it contains many of the same reprehensible elements — unhappiness with the outcome of a vote, an attempt to reverse it through the courts and a thoughtless and misleading blanket condemnation — that currently permeate the national news. All the saga lacks is a robust White House Twitter account spouting bile and misinformation. The truth is that student board members in Howard County and elsewhere have proven valuable not only in expressing the views of students but often of teachers. They spend far more time in school buildings and have more firsthand experience than their fellow board members, all of whom are elected by voters. They are a net asset, not a liability.

But, of course, this isn’t really about the student serving on the board. This is about a desire to get kids back in classrooms and a frustration that a majority of the school board doesn’t share the plaintiffs’ view on the matter. But, listen up class, perhaps it’s also a teachable moment. Youngsters, use your words not your lawyers to make your point. And don’t run roughshod over the rights of others. That’s called bullying. When adults engage in such behavior to attack, harass and demean a student, it’s truly a disgrace.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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