Guest Column

The Explosive Inbox: Disturbing Contents

by MERLE HOROWITZ

The volume of e-mail I receive as a superintendent is growing steadily, and more of it than ever carries a hostile or threatening tone.

I am certainly not alone among school leaders who can make that claim.

E-mail builds up each day after passing through the school district’s spam filter, communication from administrators, teachers, parents and sometimes even students. It comes in the form of direct e-mails, copies and blind copies.

I have been confronted by hostile parents disagreeing with school district decisions. I have been threatened via e-mail over legal due process by parents of children in special education. Further, I’ve had to deal with adolescents who have cyberbullied their peers, teachers who have posted inappropriate content online, teachers and administrators who have placed the district in jeopardy through their ill-chosen responses via e-mail, and staff who have been accused of online pornography.

How to deal with these challenges that land electronically on my desktop was the catalyst for my 2009 doctoral dissertation at University of Pennsylvania, which I titled “Educator Experiences With and Reactions to Uncomfortable and Distracting E-mails.” I wanted to understand any differences among educators’ emotional reactions and manner of response. I wondered whether school board policies and procedures exist for addressing harassment of educators through e-mail.

Creating Uncertainty
In my research, I discovered limited examination of this new, but professionally important, field. Educators are inundated with e-mail, which has rapidly become the most popular vehicle of communication. E-mails arrive hourly from a variety of constituents, most demanding a response.

From what I learned, the tone and nature of some e-mails are contributing to a feeling of discomfort, often leaving educators uncertain how to respond.
I used an online survey of superintendents, administrators and teachers in more than three dozen school districts and intermediate unit agencies in southeastern Pennsylvania during the final two weeks of the school year. The fact that 1,831 people responded demonstrates keen interest in the topic.

The findings confirmed the predominant use of e-mail by educators was to communicate with colleagues, though there also was relatively high use of e-mail to reach parents, but much less so with students.

Some respondents shared narrative examples of the discomforting messages they had received from parents, students and colleagues. Many messages were intense and provoked an emotional response. Many expressed concern about receiving these uncomfortable e-mails at their workplace via their district server.

Among the unsettling messages from parents: “You are an embarrassment to your profession”; “Was race a factor in your assigning that grade?”; “I am hiring a lawyer to have you fired”; “You are an awful teacher who has ruined my son’s life.”

From students came these: “You are a terrible teacher because you won’t help me.” “Go to hell for e-mailing my parents.” “I dreamed about you sexually last night.” “Change my grade to help me pass.”

Professional staff reported receiving these unsettling messages from other educators: “You lied to the faculty on this issue.” “If you don’t cover this material, I will go to an administrator.” “Maybe you should resign because of your health.” “I’ll have you fired so fast your head will swim.”

A Rudeness Scale
For my research, I developed the RUDE scale — Reactions to Uncomfortable and Distracting E-mails — in response to the information I gathered from educators. The RUDE scale reveals unique differences across demographic and psychosocial variables of interest and has several applications.

The scale uses two factors to measure whether the language in the e-mail may trigger a severe reaction such as fear or embarrassment. The first factor examines whether the e-mail is offensive and includes offensive language, embarrassing and annoying messages and content that is sexually explicit or suggestive. The second factor reviews whether the message is threatening and includes messages that are defaming or denigrating; harmful, untrue or cruel; insulting or threatening.

Among the 1,831 respondents, 45 percent considered the e-mail received from parents to be a form of harassment and 43 percent said the same about messages received from students. Stunningly, 42 percent considered e-mail from other educators to be of a harassing nature.

Absent Policy
I discovered the socioeconomic status of a school district is associated with different types of e-mail communication. Education leaders in affluent and middle-class school districts tended to receive more uncomfortable e-mails from parents. Educators in the least affluent districts received more uncomfortable e-mails from colleagues.

Most parents in affluent school districts are college-educated and working professionals, precipitating more aggressive questions and threats of litigation. The use of e-mail in this fashion is not surprising given our society’s litigious climate surrounding education. Not all educators are aware that e-mail is considered a discoverable item in a court case.

Almost half of the administrators I heard from said their school district provided no guidance to staff on dealing with online harassment. This suggests that neither school district codes of conduct nor school board policies exist for appropriate communication between educators on the one hand and parents and students on the other. Addressing through board policy what constitutes inappropriate communication among educators in the digital age would be timely and compellingly useful.

Merle Horowitz is superintendent of the Marple Newtown School District in Newtown Square, Pa. E-mail: mhorowitz@mnsd.org