"Absence of Malice"

In 1981, there was a fantastic drama starring Paul Newman and Sally Field entitled “Absence of Malice” about journalistic ethics and how people’s lives can be damaged in the wake of the public being given only part of the story, even when everyone involved believes they’re doing the right thing. It’s a great film and I highly recommend it.

A few days ago I posted an entry titled “What’s the deal with the Bloomfield Hills School Board?” in which I laid out pretty much everything I knew about the controversy here in Bloomfield Hills surrounding a list made by one district parent who strongly supports school masking mandates of other parents in the district who they believed opposed such mandates.

“The List,” as it’s come to be known, consisted of 95 names (the local press reported it as “97 families” but most of the names are couples and 2 of the names were duplicates). The source of these names came from a bunch of Facebook comments agreeing to sign onto an open letter to be sent to BHS Superintendent Patrick Watson supporting a “mask-optional” school district policy for the 2021–2022 school year.

The parent who compiled the list chose to share it within a private WhatsApp chat group with an explicit request that it not be shared externally, and that it was only to be used for group members’ own reference. As Lt. Paul Schwab of the Bloomfield Township Police Department later stated:

“It was not intended to cause any disruption in the district, and it’s not politically motivated. This individual made the list because she didn’t want her kid hanging out with (unmasked students) after school, that’s all. We found out what was going on in a very short time, and when we found out who it was they were very cooperative. We didn’t have to do a lot of digging or get search warrants.”

Regardless of the original intent of the list, however, once the parent chose to share it with even one other person, they no longer had control over who else would see it. Someone shared it on other social media platforms, and someone altered the list, and others may have added or removed names after that. There could be a dozen different versions of it floating around by now.

This caused quite an uproar within the BHSD community, eventually leading then-School Board President Paul Kolin to ask the BTPD to open up an investigation. Unfortunately, he did this without consulting the rest of the school board, which he was required to do by BHSD regulations. He also chose not to share any of his communications with the rest of the board, and to my knowledge still refuses to do so today for reasons unknown.

For these reasons, on September 23rd, the rest of the board unanimously voted to remove him from his position as board President, though he still serves on the school board as a trustee.

As I said in my Public Comment at the following BHS Board meeting on October 7th:

Posting “the list” was a well-intended but poorly-thought out decision made by one person. Sharing it outside of a private chat group was a poor decision made by someone else. I believe the way Kolin responded compounded both of these poor judgments. I don’t believe any of the three thought through the potential consequences of their actions.

I stand by this statement, and I still believe that the board made the right decision under the circumstances. Regardless of his intentions or motives, there was a fundamental breach of trust between Kolin and the other six members of the board which made it impossible for them to continue operating under that arrangement.

HOWEVER, I left out an important part of the story.

The impression which has been given in some of the news coverage of this issue, including by myself until now, is that since there was no malicious intent behind the list, no crime committed, and that the list originated from an open letter opposing a masking mandate, that it was a “no harm, no foul” situation:

no harm, no foul

1. Although technically a breach of some code or law may have occurred, there was no actual damage meriting punishment, apology or retribution.

“After all” the thought process goes, “these folks all willingly signed an open petition/letter opposing mask mandates, why would they have a problem with people knowing about it?”

At the opening of the Oct. 7th BHS Board meeting, around 15–20 district parents who support Paul Kolin, and who feel he was unjustly removed from the board Presidency, spoke up during the Public Comment period.

(As an aside, I’ve never heard of any school board trustee getting so much lavish praise from parents in the district, much less a board President, and I still honestly don’t claim to understand it. I’ve known Kolin somewhat for five years and he’s never seemed extraordinary to me, but for whatever reason, they think of him as the "heart and soul of BHS" etc etc…again, he’s still on the board, he’s just not in charge of it anymore).

(As another aside: Ironically, Paul Kolin himself was nowhere to be seen during the entire first Public Comment period…he left a few minutes into the board meeting and didn’t return until sometime later. One of his supporters said that he was leaving to “be with the students” which I guess is supposed to prove how dedicated he is to them but also kind of undercuts his duties as a Board of Education Trustee, given that this was a regularly-scheduled Board meeting which I presume he was supposed to be attending. But…I digress.)

Several of the parents who spoke are also those on “The List.”

After the Public Comment period ended and the meeting switched over to normal board business, I caught the attention of one of those parents. We stepped outside and were soon joined by perhaps 9–10 other Kolin supporters, most of whom were also on the list. And then…we talked.

We talked about real emotion, real pain and real anger.

For two solid hours.

For most of it there were about a dozen of us, including myself, one other parent who supports the boards’ decision, and around 10 Kolin supporters. Towards the end it dwindled down to 5 of us total. There was no microphone or camera on us (at least I don’t think anyone was recording), there was no news media or administration officials; just a bunch of suburban parents of K-12 schoolchildren who care deeply about their children’s well-being.

Throughout it all, though, we had something which is all too rare in these days of extreme political and social polarization: A real conversation.

They got to hear my perspective, but I had already laid out most of my POV in my prior Medium piece so I don’t know how much hearing it from me in person added to that.

I, however, learned several important things from them as well.

The first thing I learned is that not all of those on the list oppose masking mandates.

To be clear, in some cases this was a matter of semantics: There are some parents who said that they support mask-wearing, but just don’t feel it should be required.

Now, to me, this amounts to the same thing given that the point of wearing a mask during a pandemic is mostly for other peoples’ protection, not yours. Ultimately, however, you could debate this endlessly, and in the end it doesn’t really matter. For better or worse, they feel their views were misrepresented.

In a few cases, however, they said that they not only support masking, they literally support mask mandates (and even vaccine mandates, I believe, though that part of the discussion got sort of garbled at a few points).

One parent explained in detail her rationale for signing onto the letter. She pointed out that the letter to Mr. Watson dated back to late July, when the COVID-19 case and death rates were still at a fairly low rate in Oakland County, and BHSD was still presumably operating under the mitigation policies which Watson had put in place in late June.

Part of her point (I think) is that there may have been some folks on the list who opposed making mask-wearing mandatory at the time, but who might have changed their minds a few weeks later after the Delta variant really started to surge in Southeast Michigan.

The crux of her explanation, however, was that she felt that District personnel had been kind of all over the place even when it came to their own policies, telling a story of her children’s District summer camp experience (Or perhaps this was from last Spring? Sorry, I’m writing this all from memory). Some policies allowed the younger kids to take “mask breaks” when outdoors, while some teachers apparently didn’t want the the kids to take the masks off for a break because it caused too much confusion/disruption to put them back on again, and so forth.

Basically, this parents’ rationale was that she wanted a mask mandate, but wanted the County to put it into place, not the District, reasoning that Oakland County Health Department personnel were better equipped to make such policy decisions than the School Board members.

Whether you agree with her reasoning or not, the bottom line is that you had at least one parent who supports mask mandates but was put on a list claiming that she opposed them.

There’s a line in Neil Simon’s “Biloxi Blues” which comes to mind (a great play and movie, by the way):

I learned a very important lesson that night.

People believe whatever they read.

Something magical happens once it’s put down on paper.

They figure no one would have gone to the trouble of writing it down if it wasn’t the truth.

The moment that “The List” went viral, it took on a life of its own. According to some of these parents, they, and in some cases their children, are being shunned or at least avoided by other families who assume that they’re unvaccinated and/or that they’ll refuse to wear a mask indoors, regardless of whether this is the case or not.

Another parent, who says she puts in countless hours with the PTO and other school functions, insisted that she & her husband are vaccinated, they make sure their kids are masked indoors, and yet she’s faced scorn and suspicion from her friends & neighbors. She broke down in tears, and I didn’t sense any acting on her part. She was genuinely upset.

In short, this whole ugly incident and the way it’s been handled has opened up a deep well of pain and anger across the board.

The main point that these parents want to convey is that, contrary to the views of the police, the school board, some of the media coverage and, yes, my own prior blog entry…this was not a “no harm, no foul” situation at all.

The police concluded there was no crime committed, but the fact remains that these parents hurt and anger is real.

They’re angry at the list-maker for “playing the victim” and for not coming forward, and they’re angry at the other 6 members of the school board…not just for stripping Kolin of his authority, but for what they perceive (whether intentional or not) as an utterly dismissive response by the board.

Towards the end, the conversation turned to a more positive note: What they feel would now be helpful given how torn apart the BHSD community is over this issue.

The responses varied. There was one who kept demanding that an “independent attorney” ensure that none of the other board members were part of or ever had been part of the private WhatsApp chat group…I don’t even know how you would determine that without some sort of forensic computer audit, which seems a bit unlikely. Others were calling for the other board members to resign, which, again, isn’t gonna happen.

For the most part, however, it boiled down to three demands:

The first thing they want is for Kolin to be reinstated as School Board President. I’m not on the board, of course, but I can’t fathom that happening. But…that’s what they said.

The second thing they want is an open apology from the list-maker. Some said they’d accept it as being made anonymously (as long as they knew for certain it came from that parent); others insisted on them revealing their identity publicly.

The third thing they want is for the BHS School Board to acknowledge their pain and anger over this issue with a real and tangible response, as opposed to the formal statement released by the Board on Monday evening, which I agree was extremely watered-down and lacking in content (my chief criticism of it is that it didn’t list or link to the actual half-dozen regulations which Kolin violated; their chief criticism is, of course, that they feel the board is essentially rolling their eyes at their very real pain).

Again, I can’t see any scenario where the first of these happens, but I think the second and third items would go a long way towards healing the rift in the community.

Meanwhile, as someone who supports the Board's decision, I was and remain honestly stunned that Kolin didn't seem to acknowledge that he had done anything wrong. It's not just that he felt being stripped of his position as Board President was too harsh; he seemed to sincerely not grasp that he had mishandled the situation at all.

Some of the damage caused by multiple people in this mess can't be reversed; like COVID-19 itself, some of it has likely spread too far. However, also like COVID-19, there are still mitigation measures which can be taken to reduce the harm and ease the pain.

It therefore seems to me that the best move would be for both the list-maker and Kolin to issue some sort of a joint statement in which they both apologize for their errors in judgement, as well as for the Board to issue a statement acknowledging (not apologizing for, but acknowledging, which is different) the pain felt by those who were included in the list.

I'm neither an attorney nor a member of the school board; there may be legal or procedural reasons why the above can't or won't happen. But I'm strongly urging the list-maker, Kolin, and the other members of the school board to find a way to make it happen so the entire community can move on from this ugly chapter in the District's history.