An early morning school-district robocall annoyed one Maryland father so much that he came up with a little payback.

Share story

Awakened at 4:33 a.m. Wednesday by a ringing phone, Aaron Titus jumped out of bed in a panic. Maybe something terrible had happened, he thought. Even if nothing was wrong, he had other considerations: His five children, ages 5 and younger, including his week-old daughter, were mercifully still asleep, and he wanted to keep it that way.

Titus answered the phone halfway into the second ring, listening in disbelief to an automated caller tell him what he already knew: It was a snow day. School would open two hours late. In other words, he and his family could sleep.

But now he couldn’t.

“I thought, ‘C’mon, people. Really?’ ” he recalled.

Later in the day, the Fort Washington, Md., lawyer who knows a thing or two about technology made a decision that might bring amused satisfaction to like-minded parents everywhere.

Titus, 31, arranged for an automated message of his own.

He found a robocall company online, taped a message and listed every phone number he could find for nine school-board members (sparing the student member), Prince George’s County Public Schools Superintendent William Hite and General Counsel Roger Thomas.

At 4:30 a.m. Thursday, phones began ringing with 29 seconds of automated, mocking objection:

“This is a Prince George’s County School District parent, calling to thank you for the robocall yesterday at 4:30 in the morning. I decided to return the favor. While I know the school district wanted to ensure I drop my child off two hours late on a snow day, I already knew that before I went to bed. I hope this call demonstrates why a 4:30 a.m. call does more to annoy than to inform.”

It ended: “Quit robocalling parents at 4:30 in the morning or at least allow us to opt out of these intrusive calls.”

Titus said the automated-calling service reported back that, of the 19 phone numbers he supplied for school officials, “eight live people picked up” when the predawn call was made.

In Upper Marlboro, school-board member Donna Hathaway Beck was among those rousted from bed.

Beck said she had fallen asleep about 3 a.m. after poring over the school system’s proposed 2012 budget and contemplating a multimillion-dollar shortfall. At 4:30 a.m., her phone rang.

She thought: “Oh, this is not good. Something’s happened.”

Then she listened to the message, and “immediately I knew, it’s a prank,” she said.

Only hours later did she realize that the message came from a parent with a grievance about a snow-day robocall. She had not been aware of the 4:30 a.m. announcement a day earlier.

“I wholeheartedly agree that calls at that hour of the morning are a bad idea,” she said.

Robocalls are a widely accepted fact of family life for those with children in school, an efficient way for school districts to spread the word about emergency closings and for schools to announce everything from state testing days to back-to-school night.

In Prince George’s, the robocall went to all households in the 127,000-student district because “the wrong time was put in,” said spokesman Darrell Pressley.

The delay already had been announced on the system’s website and by e-mail just after 11 p.m. Tuesday.

Usually such calls are placed “in the 6 o’clock hour, and sometimes the 5 o’clock hour,” Pressley said, with a concern for safety and a recognition that not all families have easy online access.

This robocall was pegged, mistakenly, for the 4 o’clock hour. It was a rolling series of calls that took about 75 minutes to complete, he said.

“It’s the first time — and the last time,” he said.