ROCHESTER, Mich. – A settlement has been reached between Rochester Community Schools and a parent who accused the school board of getting her fired from her job over social media posts that were critical of the district’s pandemic response.
Sunday Read is ClickOnDetroit’s Sunday news review to help readers catch up on some of the most important topics of the week.
- Related: Get Caught Up
As many districts did when the pandemic struck, Rochester Community Schools switched to remote learning in an effort to slow COVID-19 spread. The move was difficult for schools, of which many did not have the infrastructure ready to support online learning, and for students and parents, who had to adjust to a significant lifestyle change.
In response, some Rochester schools parents spoke out about their district’s handling of virtual learning, making critical remarks on social media. One parent, Elena Dinverno, says her online comments got her fired from her job after a school board member intervened.
Dinverno filed a lawsuit last year, which has just reached a settlement this week. Here’s a breakdown of what happened.
Behind the lawsuit
With the pandemic in full force, Dinverno -- a mother of two -- says she was concerned about her children’s online education experience with Rochester schools. The mother reportedly interacted within a Facebook group, discussing her concerns and her opinions about how the school district was responding to the pandemic and her desire for her kids to return to in-person classes.
Following those social media posts, Dinverno says she was fired from her marketing director position for Blake’s Hard Cider. In a federal lawsuit filed in May 2021, the mother claims that the board for Rochester Community Schools saw the social media posts and reached out to Dinverno’s employer, sharing what they saw.
Dinverno claims that a school board member called her employer, misrepresented her online statements and got her fired. The filing originally claimed that the phone call was made by board President Kristin Bull, but Dinverno now says it was Deputy Superintendent Debi Fragomeni.
“We do know that (Dinverno) was told that her employer did get a call from a board member ... And we know the termination followed thereafter,” said Deborah Gordon, Dinverno’s attorney. “We also know other parents’ employers, we believe, have been contacted as well.”
“I was in shock,” Dinverno said. “I think I was actually in tears. I was so upset that it would come up to that and that someone would actually reach out to my employer. I felt violated.”
The mother of two was reportedly sent a cease and desist letter by the district due to her social media posts.
“My client was nothing but polite and respectful online,” Gordon said. “This district is thin-skinned with an inability to follow the law that they are literally hiring lawyers at the taxpayers’ expense to send cease and desist letters not just to my client, but to others.”
The complaint claims that the district spent time and resources directing staff to monitor parents’ Facebook groups, look for those who were vocally opposed to what the district was doing, and compile reports on them for school board members.
Depositions also reportedly revealed that Dinverno wasn’t the only parent whose employer was called by district officials.
Andrew Blake, president of the Blake’s Family of Companies, issued a statement last year regarding the lawsuit, but did not comment on Dinverno’s termination.
“The Blake’s Family of Companies was recently made aware of Ms. Dinverno’s allegations against the Rochester school district. It is our policy to not discuss current or former employee matters publicly. Because Blake’s was not named in the lawsuit, we are unable to comment on it at this time.
“However, this incident has caused a great deal of disturbance to our operations with incoming threatening calls, emails and social media posts against our property and employees. While I understand we are in a time where free speech is being challenged and I am empathetic with the concern, Blake’s must now concentrate on the safety and well-being of our employees.
“It is our hope that the public will instead shift their focus on allowing our judicial system to handle this matter and to not continue to direct any frustration or anger towards our business and staff.”Andrew Blake, President, The Blake Family of Companies
School district responds
After the lawsuit was filed last year, the Rochester Community Schools district issued a statement, saying Dinverno’s claims were “false and unfounded.”
“The allegations in the complaint you have referenced are both false and unfounded. We wish we could discuss it in detail, but that it is not possible now that it is in litigation.
What we can tell you is that we all realize that this has been a trying year for many of our school community members, and we recognize that our families may be dealing with this pandemic in very different ways.
Nothing about this pandemic has been routine, easy or predictable. But ensuring the safety and wellbeing of our entire school community for both children and adults has always been the right thing to do.
We have all wanted the same thing during this once-in-a-century pandemic – to get our children back to in-person instruction with as much of a normal routine as possible – but we had to do so in a safe and healthy way that protected our students, teachers, staff and families, including parents and grandparents.”Lori Grein, Executive Director Strategic Communications, Rochester Community Schools
Other parents claim wrongdoing
In addition to the district calling parents’ employers, other parents in the Rochester Community Schools community have claimed that district officials have been targeting parents who are critical of the district and the school board.
After Dinverno’s story was made public, Local 4 received messages from several other parents who shared their experiences with the board and administration.
One parent, Meredith McCutcheon, said that in 2020, the superintendent called the cops on her at her home after receiving what they felt was a threatening message that was signed with McCutcheon’s name. The mother was not charged, and the email address and phone number attached to the message were not hers.
Still, McCutcheon had been an administrator on a large Facebook page with other parents called Parent Advocates for Rochester Community Schools, which has been active for years on various issues. She says that at one point, group members requested a town hall and wanted to address the board regarding their concerns, but she was met with intimidation tactics instead.
“It’s difficult for me to say I know for sure what’s happened in other cases, because you don’t know all the details, but I can tell you with my situation, it speaks to pattern. There is a pattern,” McCutcheon said.
Even before Dinverno’s lawsuit, parents in the district had complained about bullying by the administration. After some details were made public, a large crowd attended a board meeting on Feb. 28, demanding the superintendent’s termination and the resignation of some board members.
Lawsuit reaches settlement
Earlier this week, Rochester Community Schools reached a settlement with Dinverno regarding the 2021 lawsuit. Details regarding the settlement, including the settlement cost, were not publicly released.
The district issued a statement following the settlement, saying that litigation details cannot be discussed, but officials are working to be “responsive to the community” and its input.
“The parties in the Dinverno litigation mutually agreed to resolve the matter. As part of the settlement, the parties agreed that the only public comment they would make is that they agreed to settle their differences; consequently, we are not able to discuss it. Rochester Community Schools values the input of its community members. As a responsible and respectful listener, we pay attention to newspaper, radio, TV news, and social media to make sure we are responsive to the community. Rochester Community Schools’ focus continues to be on the education, growth, safety, and wellness of our students, staff, and school community.”Rochester Community Schools