More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
School Chief?s Embarrassment Is a Lesson for Itchy E-Mailers
October 25, 2007

CATSKILL, N.Y. -- First, let?s make one thing clear. Does the local superintendent of schools want to kill any of her teachers? No, she does not.

In fact, for the most part, residents seem relatively pleased with the performance of the Catskill schools superintendent, Kathleen P. Farrell, who in less than three years has gained a reputation as a can-do presence in a tough job.

That said, any time you generate news with headlines reading ?Errant E-Mail Leaves School Chief Mortified/ ?Kill These People? Message Prompts Apology, Discipline,? you probably have room for improvement. So in one of those cautionary tales for the Internet age, next time you?re about to send that perfectly succinct nuclear e-mail rocket, consider Dr. Farrell?s travails before hitting the button.

An educator since 1970, Dr. Farrell has built a reputation as a hands-on manager ? perhaps too hands-on for some teachers ? in Catskill, a town with one foot in new exurban gentrification and the other in old exurban isolation. One issue that apparently drove her a bit batty was a continuing dispute with teachers over enforcing state fire and safety rules, which require that classroom doors be kept closed while students are in class. With temperatures at times near 90 in a school without air-conditioning, teachers had a habit of propping doors open to cool things down a bit, and wanted to know why bathroom doors could stay open but classroom doors could not.

Back and forth the discussion went, until Oct. 3, when Dr. Farrell wrote an e-mail message to the district?s director of facilities, John Willabay. She vented a bit and then allowed: ?Please go KILL these people....Please, please, please.?

Then she sent it ? not just to him ? but, accidentally, to an unknown number of others as well, including Terri Dubuke, a sixth-grade teacher who was one of the critics. Ms. Dubuke read it in shock and referred it to the teachers? union, and the matter was discussed at a closed-door school board meeting on Oct. 17.

This week it also found its way into the local press, making Dr. Farrell?s private outburst a very public one. Dr. Farrell, 59, said she had apologized to Ms. Dubuke, and chalked it up to a lapse in judgment and the perils of modern communications.

?I can tell you this is my first experience like this, and it will certainly be my last,? she said. ?I responded with a poor choice of language that was inadvertently also received and opened by one staff member. I?ve sent her a letter of apology. If I could eat my left foot, I would.?

The school board president, James Garafalo, said yesterday that the matter had been resolved and that the Board of Education had expressed its support for Dr. Farrell and the way she?s running the Catskill Central School District. ?We?re going to go on from here and just pick up and continue educating children in the best way possible,? he said.

Not so fast, said Patricia Hulihan, head of the teachers? union.

?I have to say not much surprises us, but this absolutely floored us,? she said. ?A lot of times you think your boss is upset with you, but to see in print something about killing people, that?s quite disturbing.?

She said teachers were taken aback that Dr. Farrell insisted on apologizing only to the teacher who opened the e-mail message, not to all teachers in the district, and that Dr. Farrell seemed to be apologizing mostly for the message?s getting to the wrong person, not the message itself. She added that she doubted that this was the only time Dr. Farrell had expressed similar sentiments with such vigor, and she raised an issue of fairness.

?If a student had written that, we would have been under lockdown and the student would have been escorted from the building,? she said. ?Same thing if it had been a teacher. But when you have the person doing the policing writing it, none of that happens.?

Of course, Dr. Farrell is not alone in sending an e-mail message that reaches an unintended audience. Judith Kallos, who has written four books on e-mail etiquette, said the informality and seeming spontaneity of online communication continue to seduce otherwise sensible people into making fools of themselves.

?Eighty percent of the press calls I get are about this sort of thing,? she said. ?I?m constantly hearing from people with Ph.D.?s who get online and write like sixth graders.?

Back in Catskill, about 60 teachers showed up last night to voice their displeasure at a school board meeting. Ms. Hulihan said her union was demanding an apology from the superintendent and an explanation from her about what, if any, punishment she received.

Dr. Farrell, for her part, said she had learned a simple lesson.

?When personal frustration is overwhelming, bite your tongue harder,? she said.
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