It's an ugly word. It's not one to lightly employ. It's certainly not one that I've ever felt comfortable with using, regardless of the situation. In fact, I don't know if I've ever used "cowardice" in a piece of serious writing at all. Ever. It doesn't show up when I scan this blog for it. It certainly isn't something that I've been chomping at the bit for the chance to get to use it someday.
I've tried my best to avoid it.
But sometimes, when reflecting on your feelings, you run out of descriptors that define your estimation of what it is that you've seen. There's one word that's staring straight back at you and despite your damndest efforts, there's no other alternative. You have to use it. Because it really does sum up everything that you've just witnessed...
And what I saw last night, was cowardice.
I refuse to say "cowardly". That is an adjective to describe a person and I know a number of these people too darned well than to think that of them at all. I know they're better than this... or they're supposed to be, anyway. I won't say that they are cowardly... but I will absolutely say that I am extremely disappointed in them.
I know you are reading this, those of you who I am talking about. Last night you did something that, not in a million years, would I have thought you would ever do.
Oh yes, at times we've certainly disagreed on a number of things. That was okay. Because I respected you and, I thought anyway, that you respected me and everyone else who would come to speak before the board. But even so, I never believed that I could expect anything less than your most honorable effort, as best as you were able to muster it.
To whom it may concern: last night, you let me down.
And you let down the vast majority of Rockingham County.
I would even dare say that you let down a lot of the things that this country is supposed to stand for.
In your heart of hearts, you probably want to believe that you did a pretty smart thing last night. But the only thing that you have to show for the evening is... well, cowardice.
And now I have to call you out on it. Your cowardice is going to be a permanent fixture on the Internet. Decades from now, anyone who searches for what the Rockingham County Board of Education in North Carolina did on June 11th, 2007 will find that they acted smug and indifferent and betraying toward the public trust. And... well yeah, cowardly. They certainly did act cowardly, in the adverb sense.
I have to report this. And I really didn't want to do that at all.
So here it goes...
As you might know already, at the April 16th meeting the Rockingham County Board of Education voted 8 to 4 to mandate school uniforms - or what is euphemistically being called "Standard Mode Of Dress" – at Reidsville Middle School and Reidsville High School starting this coming school year. They voted to implement "S.M.O.D." in spite of massive public turnout against the uniforms.
And they also based their vote for the uniforms on what I can only describe as a blatant fraud. In the months leading up to the March work session (which is when the motion was made to put S.M.O.D. up for a vote at the April regular meeting) there was a "survey" done, mostly by telephone, of Reidsville parents. It was an automated system that told whoever answered the phone that this was a survey being conducted to gauge public sentiment for the school uniforms. People were then given a choice: press "1" to say that they were in approval of having uniforms, or press "2" to say that they wanted more information about school uniforms.
That was it. There was no "press '3' if you do not want school uniforms". There wasn't any "no" option given at all. Parents called had to choose either to agree with the idea of uniforms, or to receive "more information". Months later and that "information" has yet to materialize.
As I said in my spiel during the public comments portion of the meeting tonight, it guaranteed that the results of the survey would be as lopsided as an election in communist Russia.
It wasn't a scientific survey at all. It seems too much like it was meant to deliberately massage the data, in order to generate perceived favoritism toward having school uniforms. Was it intentional? I don't know. If it was, then the motives behind this "survey" were downright criminal. If not, it was thoughtless and sloppy work, at best. The board should have contracted with someone from outside the county, with no connection to the schools or any other vested interest in having uniforms, to conduct a fair survey... that is, if the desire was to legitimately determine whether or not the parents seriously did want the uniforms. In any case, this fraudulent "survey" should have tainted any current drive toward having the uniforms, and too much to pursue them at this time.
Well, the board still voted to have the uniforms at the two schools. At the next board meeting on May 7th, even more incensed parents and students came to address the board about the uniforms, with many stating that there had not been a thoroughly-enough announced intent to bring this matter to a vote on the part of the board: it had been too rushed. Worse, many strongly argued that how the original motion was made to bring a vote to the issue violated the board's own bylaws and other regulations. Everyone who went to the podium during public comments condemned the S.M.O.D.: nobody spoke in favor of it. Later during the meeting, long after public comments had closed, the board moved to put further discussion about the uniforms on the agenda for the next meeting.
That came last night.
Board members Celeste DePriest and Steve Smith (both of whom had voted against the uniforms at the April meeting) were absent.
The lunacy started right after the Pledge of Allegiance: board member and former chairman Wayne Kirkman immediately made a motion to remove Item 7.9 – discussion about Standard Mode of Dress - off the agenda for the night's meeting!!! To say that this outraged members of the public – who numbered even more than the last two meetings – would be a severe understatement. I heard more than a few muffled curses from my vantage point in the audience directed toward Kirkman. Well, the motion was voted on and I didn't catch who else voted "aye" on it but one member who did vote for Kirkman's motion was Ronald Filer Price, AKA Ron Price: the morally bankrupt publicly-confessed thief, keeper of "enemies lists", bold-faced liar and violator of the Constitutional rights of others. The motion failed to carry, and the agenda was consequently approved.
(EDIT 6:26 p.m. EST: I've since learned that apparently it was Tim Scales who seconded Kirkman's motion to strip discussion of Standard Mode Of Dress off the agenda.)Following this a number of awards and recognitions were made, and then the Hearing of Individuals – better known as public comments portion of the meeting – got underway. And after last night's meeting I'm going to make an effort to videotape all future meetings that I attend. Videotape the speakers and the board members' reactions and then probably edit it together for posting on YouTube for everyone to see. For one reason, the presence of a camera and citizen video journalist might make give some board members reason to pause. But mostly it's so I can better report on everything that gets said during this part of the meeting. A few came to speak about incidents of school violence. Most came to denounce the school uniforms.
I was the fifth speaker who signed up to speak. When my turn came I went to the podium, introduced myself and then started out with this...
"We've already had two meetings where the case against the Standard Mode Of Dress has been passionately argued. There is little I could say that would reinforce what you already know: that Standard Mode Of Dress would be an added exorbitant cost to many families, that it is ridiculous to insist on this when the present dress code isn't even enforced, and the sheer fact of the matter that the parents and students do not want this. That much at least should have been made very clear in the past two meetings..."I then took a few moments to comment on how of all the people who had come out to speak against the uniforms, it was the younger ones – the students who would be most affected by this thing – who had been some of the most passionate and articulate and eloquent speakers that I had ever heard in this kind of public venue. "I really wish that I had been that good at your age!" I told them.
The rest of my time at the podium was completely ad-libbed, so I don't have precise notes on it. But the gist of my argument was that there was no way the Board of Education could morally let this vote stand: because it was a vote made with fraudulent information that may or may not have been deliberately manipulated. I made the comment that "isn't this country in enough trouble because of falsified intelligence?" People in the audience seemed to like that one.
To close it out, I went into a story: "Once upon a time..." Plenty of laughing at that, which was great! I talked about the time in 1994 that there was another meeting of the Rockingham County Board of Education, and how the big item was a controversial subject that brought out people by the hundreds. And how I had originally planned to speak in favor of this issue but after hearing the arguments of those who went before me, I realized that I couldn't, with any clear conscience, still hold to my position. So I had to get up to the podium that night and tell the school board and everyone that I had changed my mind. It was a tough thing to do, especially for a twenty-year old kid... but I had to do it. "There is nothing shameful with admitting that you are wrong," I told the board last night. "You do this, and you are going to get a lot of respect from the public..."
... and then I added that "Some of you need all the respect from the public that you can get."
(With God as my witness, I did not see what some reported to me about what happened next, nor will I make a comment about it here. It's going to forever be something that I will have to envision in my mind. Maybe it's more fun that way...)
Long story short, I returned to my seat and many others rose in turn to condemn the Standard Mode of Dress. All told, public comments went on for about two hours or so. Again, nobody spoke in favor of the school uniforms. And of all the recent meetings, I can honestly say that the arguments from those who spoke tonight were easily the most fervent and convincing... and brutally heartfelt honest. Which makes what happened later in the meeting that much more frustrating and treacherous.
After everyone who had signed to speak had done so, board chairwoman Elaine McCollum called for a break. Following the break the board went into the agenda's action items (funding for this "Dan River Water Easement" thingy should be brought up in comments at the next meeting 'cuz I heard more than one person in the audience raise a concern about it). This went on for a good while and then the board got to Part 7 on the agenda: "Reports/Discussion Items".
(That 7.9, discussion about the uniforms, was the very last thing for discussion on the agenda should do more than raise eyebrows. The board should know that plenty enough people wondered if this was a conscious choice to put this at the tail end of everything so that members of the public would eventually get tired and go home. I'm not saying that absolutely is what happened with last night’s meeting... but that was definitely the suspicion of quite a number of those in the audience. However it was placed, the attrition rate was far lower than I had seen at any other school board meeting since I started attending regularly... which should say something in itself about how angry a lot of people are about this uniforms mess.)
It wasn't until around 11 o'clock that the board got to discussing Standard Mode of Dress. Now, something to bear in mind here: a wazoo-load of principals (and probably some other administrators) are being juggled around the schools in the Rockingham County system starting this coming year. Meaning that Reidsville High School will have an entirely new principal: one who, if the board persists in this insane scheme, will not only have to deal with the intricacies of coming to the helm of another school, but will also be mandated to implement the uniforms policy.
Board member John Smith raised that obvious point. And it soon became apparent to all that the entire procedure to approve and put in place the Standard Mode Of Dress at Reidsville High and Reidsville Middle had been, not to put too fine a point on it, "bass-ackwards".
Then came the most despicable part of the entire evening...
The board members... look, as I'm writing this it's 4:30 a.m., I was at the Central Office from 5:30 p.m. until past midnight and in all this time I haven't stopped a moment for rest, so forgive me if I'm too wiped-out to care about who exactly said what in particular, but I'm speaking primarily about the ones who voted for this immorally-conceived obscenity to begin with... began what can only be described as the Rockingham County Board of Education's perverse version of Dean Smith's "Four Corners Play":
The board refused to acknowledge anything that the public speakers had said at all! Not once did they bring up any concern that anyone from the public had raised in opposition to the school uniforms. Instead they used the thing about the new principal at Reidsville High, and the now-suddenly-critical issue of "oh but do we actually have time now to implement this thing before the school year starts?" to completely dodge the issues that we had spent all evening talking to them about.
The motion was made to continue discussion at the next meeting. Any one of those who had previously voted for the uniforms (including Herman Hines, even though he abstained from the April vote... although it still count as a "yes" vote, go figure) could have made a motion to rescind the vote for the uniforms. In a sane world, that is exactly what would have happened: someone, anyone on that board who had voted for the uniforms should have had some change of heart, after listening to all of those people. That is, if they had been listening at all.
Instead, every one who came to speak at last night's meeting about the Standard Mode Of Dress... did it for nothing.
For all the time taken away from things we'd rather have been doing, for all the gas we spent driving to Eden to speak about something that never should have happened to begin with and has already wasted plenty of money... it was as if we hadn't even been there at all.
To those who know whom I'm addressing when I say this: dammit, didn't you listen to anything that was said last night?
Too many people gave up their valuable time and money to address you last night. And you acted as if you didn't give a flying rat's butt about any of them.
Instead, the board members who had voted in favor of the uniforms in April, I think it was pretty apparent that the majority of all but the most obstinate of them (I'm looking at you Mr. Sign Thief) was trying to find a way out of this mess that they had put themselves in, without having to admit that they were wrong. Nobody I've talked to thinks Mr. Sign Thief would do anything approximating an admission of error, but that's to be expected anyway...
It was a total failure on the part of those who voted for Standard Mode Of Dress to own up having screwed up. Last night could have been a bright and shining moment for them. They could have earned our respect, in a way that very few public officials seem interested in doing these days.
Instead, they wasted it... so that they could try to look good politically.
Don't try to wheedle your way out of this, those of you who know who you are. You refused to look us in the eye and face up to the fact that you were wrong.
You decided last night that you weren't going to hold yourselves accountable to those of us who put you in those school board seats to begin with.
I told you that there was nothing shameful about admitting that you were wrong. Now look at you: I saw very little not to be shameful over last night.
And what did it gain you?
Nothing but a lot of honked-off parents and students, and one former school board candidate who swore he would try to do what's right whether or not he won a seat in the election, along with most of the rest of Rockingham County.
Let me put it this way: a lot of people are pissed at what you are doing. At what you have done.
In the brief hours since the end of the meeting last night, I have seen more anger and rancor and feelings of ill will directed at those of you on the board who voted for the uniforms, than I have ever seen generated from any other issue in all the time that I have lived in Rockingham County (which has been most of my life).
I don't want to begin to write here some of the things that I have heard and have been sent to me since last night. I will say this though: "assassination" is not on the list of options that have been suggested. Not yet, anyway. But I've heard plenty enough that should drop jaws all over the place if I were to share them here.
You should at least know that one way or another, none of your jobs are safe anymore. I have to wonder if that even really bothers you, though. You came across as so hard-hearted during last night's meeting, it is an open question in my mind as to whether anything could faze your stubbornness or your arrogance.
It's late. I have literally been up all night since the meeting, trying my best to accurately convey what happened last night and to put my thoughts in order about all of this. I wish that I could put it out of mind for the time being...
...except for the matter of having witnessed an act of cowardice, that is bothering me too much.
Like I said: you let me down. You let all of us down. And we're not going to let you forget it.
So... where do we go from here?
Like I said, it's late. Way late. But I'm going to write more about this very soon. Along with a few other things.
But in the meantime, to those of you who share my disappointment with how the Board of Education chose to act last night, I will leave you with this "teaser"...
"If a created being has no rights to which his creator is bound to respect, there is an end to all moral relations between them."That goes for relations between people and their governments, too.
-- Oliver Wendell Holmes