The president of a Northern California school board and three other members resigned when their comments about parents made during a ZOOM meeting they thought was private went viral.
The board members met on-screen to discuss reopening schools after nearly a year of remote learning. They talked shop for many minutes about the particulars of “agendized items” without anything incendiary or controversial arising. The issues discussed were of little interest to those outside the school board and possibly some parents of the Oakley Union Elementary School District.
And then one of the board members, Richie Masadas, offered what turned out to be an ironic insight about a parent complaint on social media directed at one of the board members in attendance, Kim Beede. In an effort to be encouraging, he stated that for the parent “it’s easy to hide behind your screen, but when you’re face to face, it’s a whole different ballgame.”
He was right about that, of course. With the immediacy of person-to-person discourse dramatically lowercased over the last year of lockdowns, our screen age has emboldened increasingly uncivil online interactions. People often allow free rein to their worst selves when accessing the internet. What Masadas did not foresee, however, was that his statement would cut both ways – in real-time.
In the video, Beede asked, “Are we alone?” And without getting confirmation as to whether that was true or not, she said about the parent who lodged a complaint against her, “B****, if you’re going to call me out, I’m going to f*** you up!” After some laughs, another board member, Erica Ippolito, decried what she sees as the parental penchant for lambasting board members unfairly. She stated, “It’s really unfortunate they want to pick on us because they want their babysitters back.” Masadas then related the story of his brother, who apparently runs a medical marijuana delivery service, and asserted that parents at home with their kids are the number one clientele.
The “uh-oh” moment when the board members realized they were being broadcast live was followed by crickets. Not a great look – but who among us hasn’t said some unkind things when we thought we were speaking privately? The public persona and the private self are a fjord-like chasm in many of us.
Superintendent of Schools Greg Hetrick, who was also on the ZOOM call and probably should have apprised the board members they weren’t free to speak so colorfully and disparagingly, later accepted President Lisa Brizendine’s resignation, followed quickly by the three board members who attended the meeting.
There have been many infamous hot mic moments of greater consequence. Former President Barack Obama found himself momentarily playing defense against a routinely fawning press corps back in 2012 when he told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, “After the election, I will have more flexibility,” a comment Medvedev promised to “transmit” to “Vladimir” (Putin). This was rightly assailed on the American right as evidence of Obama effectively engaging in election interference and could be convincingly argued as verifiable proof of Russian collusion. But Obama was afforded latitude few presidents have enjoyed because of the mainstream media’s hero-worship.
And, of course, his successor, President Trump, was the subject of an embarrassing hot mic moment when in 2005 he talked lewdly to TV news personality Billy Bush in private about the physical liberties he could take with members of the opposite sex in thrall to his wealth and celebrity. That audio was carefully archived by NBC and placed, pregnant with possibility, in its vaults. It was passed along to the press a few weeks before the 2016 election – a kill shot, his enemies felt sure. But something funny happened on the way to gaming the election against the Washington outsider: He won anyway.
Both men survived their hot mic moments, but the school board members of Oakley Union Elementary School District did not.
The stressors for parents, teachers, and school board members during COVID-19 have been myriad, compounded by the struggles and suffering of the children in their care. And the scorched-earth political divisions in the country offer little solace. Perhaps we need to revisit the idea of empathy for our fellow citizens. Judge not lest we be judged. It demonstrates grace to be forgiving of others.
And grace is a good thing — for teachers, parents, students, presidents, and school board members alike.
Read more from author Pennel Bird.