The Dallas school board is scheduled to take up the case of the Instant Messages from Hell today -- the matter of a recently resigned personnel director who penned irreverent and even profane messages to colleagues and did so on a computer system owned and operated by the school system.
The messages, forced out into the open by reporters for The Dallas Morning News, included phrases such as, "im pissed," "freaking people," "riding her ass," "meskin" and "migrant."
In an editorial strongly congratulating its own reporting staff for finding the messages, the paper said the messages could, on the one hand, be taken to reflect "immaturity" or might, on the other hand, be indicative of "poor character." Deciding, as they often do, that the truth probably lies between the two extremes, the editorial page staff called the whole saga "a stain on Superintendent Mike Miles' administration" no matter what.
News of the messages was celebrated by critics of the current school district administration, one of whom said on the radio, "Just think if these things had been said in the classroom." It was a provocative suggestion, perhaps causing people to wonder how terrible it would have been if these same things had been said in church, especially at a funeral.
But they weren't, were they? They were said in an instant messaging system between colleagues who stupidly thought they were speaking privately, even though one of them, district spokesperson Paula Blackmon, did stick her head into the message thread long enough to warn the others that every word they were typing into their computers was indelible public record. And still they didn't get it and continued to blab.
So, yes, it was yet another case of people stupidly believing that anything typed into a computer can be private, a phenomenon that everybody who works in an office has seen played out again and again. Stupid.
In an age when HR people are afraid to ask a job candidate his age or whether he is married for fear of litigation, when human resources departments won't give a bad recommendation to somebody who was fired for murder because he might sue, it was incredibly rookie and dumb to put any of this stuff down in bits.
But are you and I shocked to find out that's how people really talk to each other in an office? Oh, c'mon. Give me a huge break. I grew up going over after school to see my dad in the church office, and I heard way worse than this stuff. Granted, I had to hide behind the door for a while. It was always worth the wait.
Morning News metro page columnist Jacquiellynn Floyd wrote about it under a headline she probably didn't write herself that screamed, "Mean texts paint picture of reptile nest in Dallas ISD HR office." I don't know how anybody who ever worked in a newsroom could compose that line with a straight face. The way people on newspapers talk about each other makes the Navy look like a finishing school.
The meanness accusation is a reference to texts in which people talk about actions they think may be needed, like hounding someone into retirement. Again, I can't believe somebody put that in texts, and, no, at least generally speaking I don't like the idea of people being hounded into retirement.
But the messages don't give any of the context. I had a kid in those schools once. In addition to some wonderful and life-changing teachers, there were teachers there who were insane, intellectually challenged, morally dangerous or preposterously senile, in a legal environment in which it was extremely difficult for management to get rid of them using the formal process available. If anybody had asked me for permission to hound them, I would have said please. Let out the dogs!
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There are other charges in the internal investigative report the board will consider today that include nepotism and some kind of hanky-panky with contracting. I don't offer any opinion about those charges whatsoever. I know nothing about them. Those are serious matters, and obviously the school board today will take them seriously.
But the hyperventilated response to the stupid instant messages is instructive. Put this in context with the fierce resistance to school reform in some quarters. Almost from the day Mike Miles took over the school district almost three years ago, his critics have launched failed effort after failed effort to get rid of him through the mechanism of scandal. None of it has ever stuck, and meanwhile Miles has achieved goal after goal in his pursuit of reform.
Every new bucket of tar, when it arrives, is hailed by the status quo crowd almost as manna from heaven. It should be enough tar by now to pave the road all the way out of town, but Miles hasn't moved an inch.
This instance is like all the previous ones at least in this single regard: It's a whole bunch of noise and uproar from a distance. The trick, as always, is getting in close to tease out the truth.