By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Trampling on the rights of parents

Swampscott school officials are a disgrace. Check out this Salem News story about a meeting on drug and alcohol abuse that parents of high-school students were forced to attend — the penalty for non-compliance being that their kids would be banned from sports and after-school clubs.

Once the parents got there, they were told they could not speak. According to the News, one parent was informed he could keep his mouth shut or face arrest. The media were barred as well, though school officials were unable to stop News reporter Ethan Forman from attending, since he’s the father of a Swampscott High School student. Yet even that didn’t stop a police officer from reportedly trying to kick him out.

According to today’s News, principal Layne Millington “is hoping to hold a second gathering with parents.” No word on whether Millington plans to organize a posse in order to round up parents to make sure they attend. In an editorial, the News rightly calls the meeting “an exercise in authoritarianism and censorship.”

The Swampscott Reporter, which was unable to get a reporter inside, editorializes that school officials’ thuggish tactics (my phrase, I should be careful to point out) “have given Swampscott a black eye.” (Here’s the story the Reporter posted in advance of the meeting.)

And why did Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett address the parents? Back when district attorneys, rather than the attorney general, enforced the state’s open-meeting law, Blodgett’s office was always responsive about complaints and tough on public officials who violated the law. Once Blodgett saw what was up in Swampscott, he should have refused to participate. Maybe he didn’t realize the media had been banned.

This was an enormous mistake. Swampscott school officials should apologize for their shameful actions.

The stunningly appropriate photo is taken from the Swampscott High School website.

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  1. The mindless arrogance is appalling. I hope this makes your annual list of free speech outrages known as the Muzzle Awards.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Peter: Oh, yeah, instant Muzzle. And one for Lincoln Chafee, too — see the short item I just posted.

  2. L.K. Collins

    Didn’t Essex county vote for Blodgett just recently?

    The county just passed up the chance to change.

    You get what you vote for.

  3. Michael Pahre

    The meeting and the school’s administrators’ behavior both sound totally wacky.

    That said, I don’t understand why you think that the state’s Open Meeting Law has anything to do with it. (I didn’t see any OML reference in any of the stories you link to.)

    If this were a meeting between, say, the district’s school committee and parents, then the OML would apply. School committees are subject to the OML.

    But school administrators are not. Period. School administrators (or their designates) meeting with parents is not subject to the OML. Yes, it is a “private meeting,” not an “open meeting” under the OML definition.

    Nonetheless, this ought to make your muzzle list because it is an outright stupid communications blunder to make blanket media bans. Have a reporter show up, see how boring the meeting really was, fall asleep, and fail to file a report. Instead, the media think something sinister is happening… Maybe the reality is that something totally nutty is actually happening.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Michael: No, I don’t think this was a violation of the open-meeting law. I also don’t think Blodgett should have allowed himself to become a party to a large event on public property from which the media were excluded and parents were treated with contempt. He may not have been entirely aware of what’s going on. Now that he’s had a chance to read the Salem News’ account, I hope he’ll say something.

  4. Michael Pahre

    I agree that the DA might not have wanted to appear at an event where the parents (his constituents) were treated with contempt.

    But I’m less sure of how questionable it would be for him to appear at a school for a large event that was closed to the media. That’s not necessarily wrong or politically bad — depending on the circumstances.

  5. Aaron Read

    You know, I read things like this all the time, and increasingly what I find more offensive is how the people being muzzled apparently seem inclined to stand there like sheep and take it.

    Something tells me the school board wouldn’t be so arrogant if they knew a parental riot was going to break out every time something like this started.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Aaron: Oh, man, do I hear you. But in this case it sounds like some of the parents are really angry. We’ll see what happens.

  6. Rick Peterson

    Two thoughts:
    1. Being threatened by someone (Millington)who works FOR ME? Really?
    2. That those same employees are behaving like fascists in a town that includes Holocaust Survivors is sadly ironic, IMHO. (Swampscott Schools close for Yom Kippur, for example.) Plus, it would seem that the absolute ban on students being present ANYWHERE with alcohol could be problematic for Seder Observance, no?

  7. Mike Fortier

    The most disconcerting piece of this story to me is the way
    that police acted in concert with school officials. It’s a lot
    easier to enforce your authoritarianism when you have the power of
    law enforcement on your side. It also strikes me as particularly
    petty and cruel to threaten punitive action against one’s child if
    the parent doesn’t come to the meeting. That’s the kind of thing a
    movie villain does, not the kind of thing you expect from a public
    official, or more simply, an adult.

  8. Nancy Mades

    These types of mandatory meetings/classes are probably more common than you realize. So far I’ve had to go to two meetings/classes at Melrose High School to teach me how to tell my kids not to drink on prom night. If I didn’t go to the meetings, they couldn’t go to the prom. You’d think I’d learn my lesson after the first class!

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