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Pasco school district closes comments on Facebook, Twitter

Nasty remarks on a post about the district’s principal of the year prompted the move.
Speech-language pathologist Caitlin Al-Mutawa speaks during a Pasco School Board meeting in December 2020. The public can address the School Board during public meetings, but the district curtailed its ability to comment on district social media pages in November amid a rise in negative remarks.
Speech-language pathologist Caitlin Al-Mutawa speaks during a Pasco School Board meeting in December 2020. The public can address the School Board during public meetings, but the district curtailed its ability to comment on district social media pages in November amid a rise in negative remarks. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Nov. 17

LAND O’LAKES — With more than 50,000 Facebook friends and nearly 24,000 Twitter followers, the Pasco County school district routinely has received dozens if not hundreds of comments on the items it shares on the social media sites.

No longer.

Effective Wednesday, the district decided to close off its accounts to public commentary. It did so months ago for its YouTube page, where it livestreams School Board meetings.

Superintendent Kurt Browning said his administration did not want to provide a forum for the increasingly negative and sometimes personal attacks that some people shared on even the most innocuous posts.

A nasty remark on the district’s tweet about the countywide principal of the year was the final straw, Browning said. The tweet remains, but the comment, which attacked Browning’s leadership, has been hidden from view.

“Every time we post something positive out there, there are people who always have to find fault and be critical. Even when there’s nothing to be critical about,” Browning said. “We’re shutting them off.”

The decision comes at a time of heightened tensions between some groups of parents and their school boards across the state and nation. Growing numbers of parents have come to their boards demanding action on a variety of issues, such as lessons about race and content in library books, with some becoming belligerent.

Occasionally, fights have broken out. A few board members have reported becoming the target of personal criticism, allegations and, in isolated incidents, threats.

Related: For Florida school boards, criticism gets personal as issues intensify

In response, some boards have changed their rules for public engagement at the meetings. The Pinellas County board, for instance, stopped livestreaming public comment on non-agenda items, and the Alachua County board cut off comments on its social media sites.

Pasco County mom Deb Herbage has depended on social media to get information about the school district and to publicize questions and concerns about the system. She had mixed feelings about the district’s move to turn off comments on Facebook and Twitter.

“I will go on the Facebook page to see updates, and I see parents just attacking them. In a way, I can’t blame (the district),” Herbage said. “But on the other hand, it did allow parents to ask questions.”

Many times, she observed, parents have attempted to get information from school officials through private emails and other avenues, but found little luck. Social media offered an opportunity to hold those officials publicly accountable when private correspondence has failed, she said.

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“What’s their solution if they’re going to make a drastic move like that?” Herbage wondered.

Browning stressed that the district is not shutting down ways to submit input and questions about district business. People can send emails, submit comments on the Let’s Talk website, make phone calls and attend board meetings, among other opportunities, he said.

They also can talk among themselves and criticize all they want in their own groups, he added.

The district simply is acting to stop the negativity on its social sites, which will become for announcements only, said Browning, who frequently has complained about the tenor of social media in the past.

Related: Pasco superintendent blocked a critic on social media. He can’t do that.

“It’s sad where we find ourselves, that we can’t even celebrate positive news without people making negative, hateful comments,” Browning said. “So we will celebrate the positive news, and they can keep their comments to themselves.”

In other business Tuesday, the Pasco County School Board:

• Selected Cynthia Armstrong as chairperson and Megan Harding as vice chairperson of the board.

• Instructed staff to send a letter to the Department of Education urging changes to the state’s new rule on education for children with significant cognitive disabilities.

• Heard several parents and service providers request permission to allow registered behavior technicians into schools to help children with autism.

• Renewed a contract with the Department of Health despite concerns from parents relating to some of the provisions related to COVID-19 protocols.

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