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District PIO Drops a Joke on Us We Aren't Taking

The chief spokesman of San Diego Unified School District made a joke, twice, that we couldn't laugh off.

Recently, our writer Mario Koran was meeting with the chief public information officer for the San Diego Unified School District, Andrew Sharp, and his deputy, Linda Zintz.

The purpose was to build a better working relationship. But during the meeting, Sharp told Koran about concerns he had about another writer on our staff, Ashly McGlone. Sharp expressed frustration with her stories.

He joked that if McGlone were not careful, we should not be surprised to find her body wash up on shore. Later, as the meeting was ending, he joked again that he looked forward to working with Koran but not McGlone. Because McGlone would be dead.

Koran told Editor in Chief Scott Lewis about the comments, making clear they were made in the context of a joke. As managers, though, once we heard about them, we didn’t have the luxury of dismissing them. We had to tell McGlone, and she was understandably jarred.

Up until that point, we had only few interactions with Sharp and they were negative. We had literally no rapport with him. His repeating a joke about the dead body of one of our investigative writers — someone who is currently investigating the district — was inappropriate at best and a warning or threat at worst.

Yes, the conversation was off the record. We vigorously protect our sources who speak off the record. But no, we won’t protect as confidential information your mentioning the potential murder of our colleagues. It was an exchange we had to tell senior staff about and we felt we had to alert the district.

We sent a letter to the district that is a public document and now we feel obligated to be transparent about the incident. We spoke with Cindy Marten, the school district superintendent. Sharp ended up making a call and left a message for McGlone apologizing. He later wrote a more formal apology.

“As indicated by Mr. Sharp, his comments were taken out of context. He, in no way meant to threaten harm to anyone. We recognize the importance of a safe workplace and regret an employee was unnecessarily made to feel unsafe in any way,” Marten said in a prepared statement.

That is sincerely appreciated. Unfortunately, we still feel unsettled.

Our relationship with San Diego Unified can be tense at times. And now, there is extreme antipathy to journalists around the country associated with political campaigns. In Mexico, not far away, the murder of journalists is terrifyingly common.

We have had previous occasions when we worried for the safety of our journalists involved in tense investigations.

We fully expect and take negative feedback every day. Often, it is passionate and angry. Often, people point out things we have written that were wrong or we could have communicated better. This is part of the process and we welcome it, no matter how hard it can be.

But joking about the dead body of one of our reporters was not acceptable and it is not part of the spectrum of feedback we can tolerate. Making the joke twice seemed bizarre and eerie.

Had any of our employees made a similar joke — twice — about the murder of anyone in the public schools system, we’re quite sure they would be in serious trouble and their job would be in jeopardy.

The district has been forced to deal with burdensome but unspecific, anonymous threats of violence all year long. They have led to lockdowns, news bulletins and anxiety-inducing messages to parents. We understand these reactions are necessary and we appreciate it. This is why we think district leaders should appreciate our concern.

All of us care deeply about San Diego Unified School District’s success. Many of us trust the district with our children every day.

We want good schools for all. We admit a fierce bias toward that. It is, after all, what we named our new education podcast. It gives us nightmares to think of places where kids might struggle or not get the best opportunities. So we’re passionate about it. We’re passionate about good schools for English-language learners. We have highlighted successes in the district, while analyzing priorities and spending. We want successful schools to share their approaches. We want to scale out innovations and quickly admit mistakes about ones that don’t work. We want people to know and care about who serves on school boards.

All media organizations, including ours, are often accused of focusing on the negative – exposing scandals or highlighting statistics that don’t bode well for the agencies involved. Counterintuitively, exposing bad news comes from an optimistic perspective: We believe San Diego is capable of confronting shortcomings, and of constantly striving to be better. But you can’t tackle problems you don’t know exist, and that’s what we see our role as.

It is not easy, though.

The discussion around education is personal and intense. It can get confrontational and accusatory. We’ve dealt with that for years.

We want to argue and have good debates. We want to have constructive dialogue, even if it’s adversarial. Big cities must have adversarial dialogue without violence. It’s the only way to achieve great things.

Some people may say we’re overreacting. The district has proposed that McGlone simply not work with Sharp in the future. But that is discriminatory to shut her out from the top public relations office. Yet, we can’t work with someone who jokes, in the context of talking about criticism of our work, that we will be murdered for what we’ve done.

There’s just no way. We advise other journalists not to as well.

There is no context where jokes like that are appropriate. They’re not funny.

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