Opinion
Education Opinion

A Perfect Digital Storm

By Susan Graham — January 26, 2008 4 min read

The Fairfax County Schools Snow Day Storm may sound like a tempest in a teapot, but snow days are a big deal up here in Northern Virginia where stay-at-home moms are rare, commutes are long, traffic is horrific, and snow is too infrequent to justify heavy public investment in snow removal equipment.

Thursday, January 17, was school transportation’s worst nightmare -- morning temperatures below freezing and rising into the high 30’s by the middle of the day, with snow starting around morning rush hour and ending sometime in the early afternoon. In the pre-dawn hours, after consulting with Fairfax Superintendent Jack D. Dale, Chief Operating Officer for Transportation Dean Tistadt made the decision to send the buses out and the kids to school.

School superintendents understand (from experience) that the public often assesses their competence based on their ability to call snow days accurately. Fairfax County Schools is cognizant of this, and I was impressed with their thoughtful and thorough effort to address concerns and parents’ need to know. Their website devotes considerable information to emergency information and links to the Department of Facilities and Transportation page. This message from Mr. Tistadt is featured on that page.

This department is committed to delivering quality customer service by being responsive, flexible, innovative, and efficient. We are committed to effective communication to include ensuring that this web page includes up-to-date, relevant, and accurate information. We welcome your feedback and hope you find our web site an easy means by which you can obtain the services and information that you need. I encourage you to e-mail me.

A lot of people, including high school senior Devraj “Dave” Kori, didn’t agree with Mr. Tistadt’s decision. During his lunch break at Braddock High School, Dave called Mr. Tistadt to let him know he thought it was a mistake. Apparently he called his office first and, not surprisingly, did not get a response. Dave then did what digital natives do, he moved on to the next level of contact. Dave looked up the home phone number for Mr. Tistadt and called his house. He left a message asking for a response and left his name and phone number because, according to the Washington Post:

He said his message was not intended to harass. He said that he tried unsuccessfully to contact Dean Tistadt at work and that he thought he had a basic right to petition a public official for more information about a decision that affected him and his classmates.

Mr. Tistadt didn’t get home first that night, his wife did, and she returned Dave’s call, leaving a voice message asking “how dare you call us at home,” referring to Fairfax County students as “snotty-nosed little brats,” and telling Dave to “get over it, kid, and go to school.” Dave posted the message for his friends on his Facebook page. When one of his friends turned the message into a YouTube video, Mrs. Tistadt’s message became an overnight Internet phenomenon, picked up and shared by the media across the country.

In Saturday’s Washington Post update, Dave offered a partial apology:

I'm sorry that this led to such embarrassment and harassment" for the Tistadt family, Kori said. He said he's also sorry that "this whole thing has shifted away from the issue of students not having a voice," a cause he said inspired him to doggedly pursue the administrator in the first place.

Dave will be serving a day of Saturday detention for violating the Student Code of Conduct’s cell phone use rules. He has taken down his Facebook page, but multiple YouTube versions of Candy Tistadt’s message, like dark feathers in the wind, cannot be retrieved.

While Dean Tistadt credited Kori for having the “courage of his convictions to stand up and be identified,” he also says “There will be no apologies out of my family.” He reasoned that while Kori’s decision to post the message was “deliberately intended to provoke and taunt,” his wife’s response was emotionally driven.

There are lots of on-line discussions with opinions that range from “Dave is a brat and the personification of what’s wrong with these kids today” to “Mrs. Tistadt is a psycho and ought to be ashamed of herself.” While no one comes out of this looking real good, I tend to side with Dave. While his call may have overstepped the line between public and private lives, he used a published number. Mrs. Tistadt chose to respond and to leave the message to a call that was made to her husband, not her. But the public debate does raise these questions:

Did Mr. Kori invade the Tistadt’s privacy by accessing the home phone number and using it to leave a work related message?

Was Mrs. Tistadt out of line when she took it upon herself to make a personal response to a work related message for her husband?

Would she have done the same thing if the caller had identified himself as a parent and left a work number for a Washington law firm?

Did Mrs. Tistadt have an expectation of privacy when she returned the call and left a recorded message?

Was Dave Kori out of line by sharing Tistadt’s recorded message with his friends?

Would it have been different if he had shared it face to face rather than posting it on his Facebook page?

Did Kori’s friend overstep the right to privacy (of Tistadt or of Kori) by posting the message on YouTube?

What responsibility does the media have for turning this into a major news story rather than passing it off as an immature mistake by a 17 year old and an impulsive overreaction by a middle aged woman?

Who is villain and who is victim here? I think Marc Fisher of The Post said it well:

Every once in a while, a story confronts us with just how deeply divided we are -- and how little we realize it.... (T)here are no good guys. There is only a confrontation with the gulfs that separate digital kids from analog parents and new concepts of community from old notions of responsibility.

For better or worse, the world is shrinking in terms of our ability to communicate and expanding in terms of what information is being shared. When we find ourselves on opposite sides of the digital divide I would offer this piece of advice from my goddaughter. Everyone here needs to BMBGOI (Build Me a Bridge and Get Over It!).

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.