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Anonymous commenting on new APS feedback platform divides some Arlington School Board members

The ThoughtExchange platform Arlington Public Schools has debuted (via APS)

Arlington Public Schools has a new internal social media platform for families but its anonymous commenting policy prompted a tense discussion among some School Board members.

This year, the school system launched ThoughtExchange, which allows people to comment on topics or proposals administrators bring to the community for public comment. Users can also rank the comments others make 1-5 stars.

ThoughtExchange is intended to be a simpler and faster alternative to answering surveys and writing emails. APS has used it to gauge reception of its proposed school calendar and its plans to turn Nottingham Elementary School into a “swing space” and relocate the Spanish immersion program from Gunston to Kenmore Middle School.

“The goal of ThoughtExchange was for us to get more comprehensive feedback from our community,” APS Director of Strategic Outreach Daryl Johnson said in a work session last week. “One of the biggest requests that we continually receive from the community is transparency, and so people are actually able to see the thoughts of others in real time.”

But the platform’s anonymous commenting function raised red flags for School Board member Reid Goldstein.

“In the 10 or 15 years that social media has been around, I have yet to hear anybody, worldwide, say, ‘Boy, this social media is the greatest thing since sliced bread,'” Goldstein said. “I’m curious as to what thought we were going to achieve by creating another social media conduit and allowing commenters to sign up anonymously.”

Johnson said APS allows anonymous feedback so people speak up without worrying their opinions will blow back in their face at, for instance, the next Parent-Teacher Association meeting.

“So yes, sometimes it may go to the other end of the spectrum where it allows someone to say something that may not be the most favorable or the most constructive feedback, but however, it allows people to actually give that honest feedback without the retaliation,” he said.

Goldstein asked Johnson if staff expect “unfavorable” comments to increase, how much time they devote to content moderation and whether the communications team will request a future full-time moderator position.

Johnson noted that staff spend significant time moderating comments and responding to those “spreading misinformation.” He said a full-time moderator is unnecessary because ThoughtExchange uses AI to flag words and notify staff and participants can also report comments.

“We also are able to comment and respond to what people are saying,” he said.

Responding to Goldstein, School Board Chair Cristina Diaz-Torres said anonymous negative comments already exist on other platforms and, with ThoughtExchange, APS at least can moderate.

“These are comments that were happening already in different venues. If you’ve seen an ARLnow comment, if you’ve seen DC Urban Moms and Dads, Arlington Education Matters, these comments have been happening,” she said.

“The reality is that these comments were being made,” she continued. “A lot of these comments are incredibly disrespectful and are incredibly unkind and are incredibly inappropriate, however, here is an area where we can in fact do that moderation, using the tools that Mr. Johnson just mentioned.”

Goldstein agreed these comments have always existed but stressed with the new platform, “we are giving a platform to them and rewarding bad behavior that we have historically…”

“We’re not, though, if we’re taking them away,” Diaz-Torres interjected.

“…historically spent too much time [rewarding],” Goldstein continued, reprising his comment.

Diaz-Torres, who added that she appreciates the ability to rank comments, concluded the discussion with a message to the community “to be kind.”

“This is a new piece of software. And yes, you can be a keyboard warrior to your heart’s content, behind your keyboard, in the privacy of your own home, but remember, that there are humans on the receiving end of this,” she said.

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