As more and more studies demonstrate the devastating impact of school closures on children — including the toll on children’s physical and mental well-being as well as learning loss — new revelations are shedding light on the tactics one school district used to prolong the closures and silence dissenting parents.
In Michigan, parents whose children attend schools in the Rochester Community School District joined together to challenge the school lockdowns. The school board’s response was not to hear out their concerns, listen to studies they presented which warned that children would be adversely affected, and direct their attention to the well-being of the children under their care. Instead, they deployed staff members to track dissenting parents on social media and create dossiers of what they called “concerning” posts. The dossiers included personal information about the parents, including their workplace and the schools their children attended. In one case, a staff member spent 60 to 70 percent of her time at her job monitoring parents’ social media accounts, the district spokesperson said in a deposition.
School district officials’ behavior did not stop with gathering intel on parents who opposed their crusade to keep schools closed or open only part-time (which they successfully maintained until March 2021, when students were finally allowed back in the classroom full-time). They also targeted those parents. The goal seems clear: silencing them. On multiple occasions, school officials took it upon themselves to contact objecting parents’ employers or the police with complaints about their protesting activities.
When one parent, Elena Dinverno, sought to compile filmed testimonials from parents and students detailing the difficulties they suffered as a result of school closures, the deputy superintendent, Debi Fragomeni, called Dinverno’s workplace, Blake’s Hard Cider, to warn them about their employee.
Fragomeni explained that her goal wasn’t to silence Dinverno or the children and parents she wanted to interview. She testified that she called Dinverno’s workplace because she “wanted [Blake’s] to know that there was a parent associated with their business that was seeking to provide videos of students in distress.”
Other members of the school board also said in an email chain that Dinverno’s plan to interview children about the hardships they faced due to the shutdown was of concern because distressed children should not be filmed. District spokesperson Lori Grein said in an email chain: “How horrifying for these children. Once again they are calling for videos of kids in distress. I know parents are giving permission for this, but can’t we supersede in protecting these poor kids?”
Dinverno later alleged in a lawsuit that Fragomeni told Blake’s Hard Cider that Dinverno’s online advocacy was “alarming, threatening and posed a danger to the district.”
Soon after her workplace received the call from the superintendent, Dinverno was fired. She was told that the decision was due to restructuring.
Dinverno later received a cease-and-desist letter from the school board that accused her of falsely saying that a school board member had called her employer. “At no time has any Member of the Board contacted your employer seeking either your termination or discipline,” the letter said. The school board president knew that it was the deputy superintendent who had made the call, but did not clarify this.
It seems the school officials were afraid of what the students would say, and they didn’t want to hear it. All they cared about was putting a stop to the videos before they could be used to encourage other parents to join together to demand a return to the classroom.
School officials’ behavior went further than Dinverno. They exhibited a consistent pattern of behavior of monitoring social media and taking preemptive action to stop dissent.
One father sought to organize a peaceful protest against the school lockdowns, believing that they were harming the district’s children. The man, who serves his community by working for the Detroit Police Department, sought to organize the protest on Facebook. The school district, of course, had eyes on Facebook and they took action to prevent it.
Superintendent Robert Shaner called the Detroit Police Department to tell them about the man’s plans. He later testified that he called the police department because the man “was talking about putting pressure on people in their personal lives” and planning protests outside of people’s homes.
“I said I was concerned about his behavior and, from his Facebook post, what he does for a living with the department,” Shaner testified. He said that the assistant chief he spoke to said they would contact their legal counsel about the matter.
The school officials turned to the police another time to take action against a parent.
After the district received a message from an online form that Shaner called “threatening,” he called police, who showed up at the door of parent Meredith McCutcheon. Her daughter was in the seventh grade in a school in the Rochester district at the time. McCutcheon says she did not send the message, which was under her name.
The message did not make any overt threat of violence. It said, “I will cause chaos in the district. I will get what I want. You will listen to my demands and that of my forum. Extend the deadline to Aug. 4, 2020. The parents deserve more time. We will hold out as long as necessary to suit our needs.”
McCutcheon was not charged with a crime.
Shaner was named the 2020 Michigan Superintendent of the Year by the 2020 Michigan Association of Superintendents & Administrators. His star has fallen since then.
Dinverno has filed a civil rights lawsuit against him, the school district, Fragomeni, and Kristin Bull, the president of the Rochester Board of Education, in U.S. district court. The lawsuit accuses them of challenging parents’ right to freedom of speech. At a recent school board meeting, several parents also called on Shaner to resign as a result of the scandal. (READ MORE: Attend a School Board Meeting)
When Shaner announced on Nov. 4, 2020, that the school district would shift from part-time classes to going fully remote, he gave no mention of the harms the decision could have on children.
Instead, he said, “We recognize that our families may be dealing with this pandemic in very different ways and that the decision to transition back to temporary remote learning may provide some people with a sense of relief, while others will be extremely disappointed. We respect the differences of opinions; however, we remain committed to following the guidance of our public health experts.”
For Shaner, removing children from school for months wasn’t a concern. All that was a concern was what teachers’ reactions would be and how they would be able to control the response of parents.
He could have directed his attention and decision-making towards the well-being of the children under his care. But instead, he sought to keep happy those who wanted children kept in their homes away from the virus at all costs, and shut down any parent who protested that strategy.