Civility in the Twittersphere: Task force in the making in Montgomery County

Students on Twitter take note: One Washington-area school system wants to help teach civility in the Twittersphere.

Montgomery County school leaders say they hope to spark a community conversation on the issue, and more than 150 parents, students and others have now applied for positions on the district’s newly forming Cybercivility Task Force.

Superintendent Joshua P. Starr proposed the task force in December, not long after he was blasted with offensive tweets from students who cursed, threatened and used racial epithets as they reacted to decision making about whether to close schools for snow.

“Whoa, this is going too far,” Starr recalled thinking at the time.

Thus came the idea for a broader discussion on teaching students what’s safe and civil — and what’s not — on Twitter and other social media.

The superintendent of Maryland’s largest school system wrote an open letter to parents, and said he would create a task force.

The interest in being part of the new effort has been encouraging, said Montgomery schools spokesman Dana Tofig, who said officials didn’t know whether 10 applications would trickle in — or 200.

“We’re closer to 200,” Tofig said Thursday, with three days to go before the application deadline, at 5 p.m. on Feb. 24. “It demonstrates the need for this kind of conversation.”

Task force members will be selected by early March, with a first meeting expected by mid-March. The effort is expected to last until August.

The broader goal is to raise awareness of the need for cyber-civility in online discussions between Montgomery students and adults. The task force will also examine tools for schools, parents and others to use to spur conversations on the topic, officials said.

“We really want this to be very organic,” said Tofig. “We want this group of people to come together and guide us in this conversation.”

In Starr’s December letter to parents, he wrote: “We need to talk about ‘cybercivility’: how we can help our children grow into responsible and caring adults who interact with one another in a civil, respectful way.”

As superintendent, Starr had received offensive tweets before December, but that period of weather-related decision making touched off a particularly offensive string of tweets.

Amid last week’s snow-related closings, he received a few offensive tweets, but not as many, officials said.

Starr has said he wants to use the episode as “a teachable moment.”

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
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