By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 14, 2011; 12:00 AM
Perhaps the idea of revenge came from his sleep deprivation.
Awakened at 4:33 a.m. Wednesday by a ringing phone, Aaron Titus jumped out of bed in a panic. Maybe something terrible had happened, he thought. Even if nothing was wrong, his heart raced with other considerations: His five children, ages 5 and under, including his week-old daughter, were mercifully still asleep, and he wanted to keep it that way.
In a blurry rush, Titus answered the phone halfway into the second ring, listening in disbelief to an automated caller tell him what he already knew: It was a snow day. School would open two hours late. In other words, he and his family could sleep.
But now he couldn't.
"I thought, 'C'mon, people. Really?" he recalls.
Sometime later in the day, the 31-year-old father from Fort Washington, a lawyer who knows a thing or two about technology, made a decision that might well bring amused satisfaction to like-minded parents everywhere.
Titus arranged for an automated message of his own.
He found a robocall company online, taped a message and listed every phone number he could find for nine school board members (sparing the student member), Superintendent William R. Hite and General Counsel Roger C. Thomas.
At 4:30 a.m. Thursday, phones began ringing with 29 seconds of automated, mocking objection:
"This is a Prince George's County School District parent, calling to thank you for the robocall yesterday at 4:30 in the morning. I decided to return the favor. While I know the school district wanted to ensure I drop my child off two hours late on a snow day, I already knew that before I went to bed. I hope this call demonstrates why a 4:30 a.m. call does more to annoy than to inform.''
It ended: "Quit robocalling parents at 4:30 in the morning or at least allow us to opt out of these intrusive calls."
Titus says the automated calling service reported back that, of the 19 phone numbers he supplied for school officials, "eight live people picked up" when the predawn call was made.
In Upper Marlboro, school board member Donna Hathaway Beck was among those rousted from bed.
Beck says she had fallen asleep about 3 a.m. after poring over the school system's proposed 2012 budget and contemplating a multimillion-dollar shortfall. At 4:30 a.m., her phone rang with a caller ID that made reference to the board of education.
She thought: "Oh, this is not good. Something's happened." Then she listened to the message, and "immediately I knew, it's a prank," she said.
Only hours later did she realize that the message came from a parent with a grievance about a snow-day robocall. She had not been aware of the 4:30 a.m. announcement a day earlier. "I wholeheartedly agree that calls at that hour of the morning are a bad idea," she said.
Still, Beck says the caller ID misrepresentation is a problem. "To me, it's false advertising. It should have said, 'Prince George's County Angry Dad.' ''
Titus says he in fact labeled his call "Prince George's County Parent" and does not know why the caller ID would refer to the school board.
Robocalls are a widely accepted fact of family life for those with children in school - an efficient way for school districts to spread the word about emergency closings and for schools to announce everything from state testing days to back-to-school night.
In Prince George's, the early-morning robocall went out to all households in the 127,000-student district because "the wrong time was put in," said spokesman Darrell Pressley. The delay had already been announced on the system's Web site and by e-mail - just after 11 p.m. Tuesday.
Usually such calls are placed "in the 6 o'clock hour, and sometimes the 5 o'clock hour," Pressley said - with a concern for safety and a recognition that not all families have easy online access. This robocall was pegged for the 4 o'clock hour. It was a rolling series of calls that took about 75 minutes to complete, he said.
"It's the first time - and the last time," he said of the timing.
Pressley said most schools start in the 7 o'clock hour, with school-based child-care opening earlier in some cases.
Unaware of any glitch - and already annoyed that other calls were placed during hours he considered overly early - Titus says he was thinking of the golden rule when he landed on the concept of automated retaliation: School officials would wish to be treated as they had treated him.
"I thought I would share the pain," said Titus, whose eldest is in kindergarten at Indian Queen Elementary School, where classes start at 8:15 a.m. Having a newborn in the house, sleep is less predictable these days, he said, but the family's older children often sleep until 7 a.m. or so.
Policies on robocalls vary across the region. Montgomery County does not use robocalls for countywide snow-day announcements. In Fairfax County, robocalls are used, in addition to e-mail and Web postings, but only in daylight hours, not late at night or early in the morning.
School board member Edward Burroughs III said he had not personally gotten one of Titus's robocall rebukes, but considered it "very clever."
"I definitely appreciate his creativity," he said.
On a more serious note, Burroughs said that "I think, in the future, if we know the night before, we need to make the call the night before." Ten o'clock or so may seem late, he said, "but 4:30 in the morning?"
The robocall, he concluded, made a point. "It's certainly something that I welcome all parents to do - communicate with us, by any means necessary," he said.
Staff writer Nick Anderson contributed to this report.