I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Intimidation & Harassment From Montclair's Reformy BOE

UPDATE: OK, I was over the top on that first graph; the Stasi were obviously much worse than the Montclair BOE. Changing...

If you are interested in repressing the free expression rights of your fellow citizens, may I suggest sending your resume to the Montclair, NJ Board of Education?
Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey obtained a temporary restraining order yesterday to stop the Montclair Board of Education’s effort to identify an anonymous critic who the board believes was involved in the public release of district tests.
Essex County Superior Court Judge Thomas Vena temporarily quashed the Board of Education’s subpoena of Google and any others subpoenas that seek “any identifying information about ‘Assessmentgate,’” the user name of the anonymous critic. “Assessmentgate” uses a Gmail address.
In addition, Vena ordered the Board of Education to share all subpoenas issued by the board that make reference to “Assessmentgate” and to refrain from issuing new ones.
The subpoenas are part of an investigation authorized by the Montclair Board of Education on Nov. 1 to uncover how controversial tests appeared on a public website on Oct. 25, less than a week before they were scheduled to be administered to public school students.
Even before their disclosure, the tests had created a firestorm in Montclair, pitting neighbor against neighbor in a battle over reforms implemented by Superintendent Penny MacCormack.
Arguing against the restraining order, Richard Rudin, an attorney representing the Board of Education, described “Assessmentgate” as critical to the broader investigation into the scandal.
The plaintiff is the linchpin to finding out what happened here,” Rudin said. “The investigation isn’t just about finding the person or persons responsible for what may be a crime.” [emphasis mine]
Now, I'm no lawyer, but I have read the Constitution more than a few times. I understand that the standards for subpoenas are lower than that for warrants - but that doesn't mean a government agency has the right to force someone to come before them and give up their First Amendment protections just because that agency feels like it. If the Fourth Amendment isn't directly germane to this situation, at least its spirit ought to be respected. So if Rudin says Assessmentgate, an anonymous commenter on some blogs, is the "lynchpin" for this mess, he ought to show some reason to believe that. Did he?

ACLU-NJ claims their client played no role in the leaking of the assessments.

Requests for comment to the Montclair Board Education were not returned by Thursday afternoon. (Update: Montclair School Board response.)

One subpoena was issued to Google because “Assessmentgate” uses a gmail account to blog anonymously on this website, as well as to post on Facebook and Twitter. Another was issued to the editor-in-chief of the community website BaristaKids, where “Assessmentgate” has left negative comments about both the school board and the administration. [emphasis mine]
Apparently, the Monclair BOE thinks it's enough that someone criticized them on blogs and social media sites to suspect them of complicity in a crime. Silly me: last I checked, I thought that Montclair was part of America: you know, innocent before proven guilty and all that other quaint stuff...

Can I possibly be the only one who finds it amazing that a local school board feels it can just assume the ability to compel testimony whenever it wants from whomever it wants? If this is a criminal matter, it ought to be turned over to the police and district attorney; since when do unelected school boards have the right to conduct what appears to be a criminal investigation? Since when do they get to use their official capacities to pressure critics into giving up their First Amendment rights?

Of course, normalizing harassment is the standard tactic of those who trample over the rights of others:
The Montclair Board of Education defended its decision to issue subpoenas to reveal the identity of an anonymous blogger Thursday by saying the intent was not to imply guilt or diminish the person's First Amendment rights.[emphasis mine]
Oh, no, of course not: it's just a coincidence that they want to out an anonymous critic on the basis of no evidence whatsoever. Golly, why would anyone have a problem with that?
Earlier in the day, the school board faced an Essex County Superior Court Judge who temporarily quashed subpoenas issued by the board to Google and the hyperlocal website BaristaKids. The subpoenas, part of an investigation into a security breach involving student assessments, sought the name and contact information of "Assessmentgate," the pseudonym of an online poster who has been critical of the school board and the school district's administration. 

"Assessmentgate" was represented in court by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, which claimed the board of education did not have the authority to seek their client's identity and that doing so interfered with their client's freedom of speech.

Issuing subpoenas is "standard legal practice" in an investigation the school board said. "The subpoenas represent a reasonable expectation that the person/entity has information that may be relevant to determining how the assessments were made public." [emphasis mine]
"Reasonable" by whose definition? The unelected board's? That's not how it's supposed to work, folks: you don't get to harass people because you think they might be involved in a crime. Just like how you shouldn't harass former public employees because you don't like the things they've said about you:


Oh, is the link dead for you, too? Here's why: this used to be the URL of the blog of Scott White, a former counselor in the Montclair Schools. As I reported earlier this fall, White, an award-winning educator, left Montclair due to the "reforms" being imposed by the new, Broad-trained superintendent, Penny MacCormack. We can debate whether White's posts were ill-advised; what's not up for debate is whether White had every right to criticize an appointed government official on the basis of her policies.

You would think that both the BOE and MacCormack would remember this, show a little restraint, and let a disgruntled former employee blow off some steam before moving on. You'd be wrong:
After a call to my school's principal from Montclair Principal Earle (with threatened calls to the superintendent and the police) and a call from the Montclair Police Department about assessmentgate, both referring to my blog, I have decided to take a hiatus from blogging and to limit access to my blog.
Anyone else getting the chills? Montclair's "reformers" are allegedly calling up the employers of their critics to intimidate them into silence. Everyone OK with that?

What's really galling here is that this harassment is designed not only to quash criticism; it's also keeping the focus off the real issue. Someone in MacCormack's administration screwed up and didn't properly secure the assessments. You don't impose a centralized, high-stakes testing regime without adequate safeguards to prevent exactly what happened here. If the board was more interested in fulfilling their fiduciary responsibilities to the citizens of Montclair than in harassing their critics, they'd be focusing at least some of their investigation on how MacCormack's staff allowed this breech to occur.

But that would bring up an even more uncomfortable question for this board: why is Montclair getting so test-crazy? What's the point? And why are so many parents and other citizens in Montclair so adamantly against MacCormack's "reforms"?

To answer that question, we have to discuss some ugly truths about Montclair's history, race, and the realities of standardized testing. The board clearly doesn't have the stomach for this - but some of Montclair's brave citizens do. More in a bit.

Montclair, NJ: Home of America's Reformiest Appointed School Board.™

ADDING: WNYC's Schoolbook is usually pretty good. But I've got a problem with this lede:

An Essex County Superior Court Judge in New Jersey has temporarily stalled efforts by the Montclair Board of Education to identify the person who leaked more than a dozen school tests days before students were scheduled to take them.

The Montclair Board of Education subpoenaed Google on Nov. 1 to learn the identity of an anonymous online critic of the school district who goes by the name “Assessmentgate.” He or she uses a Gmail account.
As far as I have seen reported, there is no reason to believe "Assessmentgate" had anything to do with the posting of the tests. Further - again, as far as I have seen reported - there is no evidence that these tests were "leaked," which implies someone on the inside deliberately released them publicly. That may be what happened, but we don't know - this could also have been a matter of incompetence.

The Montclair BOE has really done a superlative job of spinning this entire thing to their liking, haven't they?

ADDING MORE: "Assessmentgate" runs a blog at the Montclair Patch. He or she has made many, many criticisms of the Montclair BOE and Superintendent MacCormack. But can you find anything here that would lead you to believe he or she had anything to do with the release of the assessments?

I can't.


Deb said...

I am assuming that part of the reason Penny was put there was to implement Cerf's agenda - tests and all - in an area where they could claim that all this works.

Yes, I have chills. The unmitigated gall of this school board suggests they have lost all touch with reality and need to be replaced. Fast. Along with the superintendent they hired.

Mrs. King's music students said...

Unfortunately, issuing subpoenas HAS become standard legal practice to deal with bloggers not the tests. The tests are just the excuse. It's a Christie thing and its commonly used to stifle anyone who opposes him (and his political cronies). They know they don't have a case but their opponents living on moderate incomes can't afford to fight back and often back off. In one instance, a crony of Christies in local office called the principal of his opponent's campaign manager to convince him to deny tenure. He threatened the school secretary in his own town for merely forwarding an email that contained a political cartoon about him.
With unfettered access to taxpayers money, elected (and now Christie-appointed) in effect, have the ability to use your taxes to fund legal suits against you and it doesn't matter one whit if they lose every time because they didn't spend their money in the first place. This is RAGING in and around political hubs Jazzman and I'm glad you brought it to light. I had a bad feeling that you were on the list when young Mr Cerf referenced your blog at the NJEA confs.

I would love to know how Mr Scott engaged the ACLU. They are the definitely the antidote, but the code to accessing them is devilishly tricky to navigate.