As PTA Groups Move Online, So Does Dissension

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By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 7, 2008

When Suzanne Weiss left the Parent Teacher Student Association of Cabin John Middle School, the school e-mail list went with her.

Weiss said the list belonged to her. PTSA leaders said the CJCougarEmail list belonged to them. They started a rival mailing group, which competes with Weiss's for Cabin John parents.

Over the past few years, electronic mailing lists have become the main forum for parents across the region to talk about their schools. With just a few keystrokes, the lists offer parents unprecedented power to spread information, to ask a question or answer one, to praise or pillory for an audience of hundreds.

As school e-mail lists multiply in size and reach, they are increasingly becoming ensnared in contests for control of the medium and the message. Principals are accused of trying to silence their discussion-group critics. Parents have allegedly stolen or hijacked e-mail lists. Moderators who step in to halt vitriolic threads are sometimes accused of censorship.

Some of the most contentious school controversies of recent years have played out largely on e-mail lists: reaction over a plan to distribute hip flasks as a senior gift in 2006 at Arlington County's H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program; debate about military recruitment at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda in 2005; and discontent, this winter, with a $50 graduation fee at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring.

"It's the new venue. It's the new community forum," said Pat Elder, a Whitman parent who protested the presence of military recruiters on the Whitcom mailing list. "We're too busy to, you know, meet."

Weiss, of Potomac, started an e-mail list for Cabin John Middle School in 2003, when she was PTSA president. Over time, she expanded it to include information about the larger feeder system and Montgomery schools on the whole, spending more and more time tending the Yahoo group. Then came a new principal, who was less involved in the e-mail list than the last. The school and its e-mail group became, in a way, estranged.

New PTSA leaders found no way to challenge Weiss for control of the list. She was listed as sole owner on the Yahoo Web site.

"Give it back to them? It never belonged to them," Weiss said.

At back-to-school night, someone left a note on every desk instructing parents how to unsubscribe from Weiss's CJCougarEmail list so that they could join the new group. The new one is limping along with 163 subscribers. Weiss's group has 554.

"We've done everything in our power to get parents to join the new listserv," said Carolyn Wallert, the new PTSA president. "That's their job. And if they're not going to do it, they're not going to do it."

Weiss's detractors say she is holding the list hostage. Supporters say she's preserving unfettered communication.


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