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EXCLUSIVE – A Michigan mom spoke with Fox News Digital upon learning the Rochester Community Schools district recently renewed the contract of the deputy superintendent who allegedly “falsely” told her former employer, according to a lawsuit, that her social media activity was “threatening” and “posed a danger,” allegedly causing her to be fired.
“It hit hard. You know, it hit me emotionally and physically. It hit my family. Going through this is extremely stressful,” Elena Dinverno told Fox News Digital.
Dinverno sued the district in 2021, alleging that they retaliated against her over her free speech activism against COVID-19 lockdowns for kids. The district's deputy superintendent, Debi Fragomeni, admitted during her deposition that she spoke with the local mom's boss. The school board renewed her contract for three years at the end of June, which became effective on July 1.
Fragomeni allegedly “falsely” told Dinverno's former boss that the mom's “social media advocacy and criticism of the school district was… threatening and posed a danger to the district and the students’ well-being,” according to the lawsuit.
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Following Fragomeni's November 2020 call, Dinverno was terminated in December 2020 from her position – “effective immediately.” Dinverno's employer told her that her position was no longer needed, she said. However, shortly after Dinverno was terminated, the company posted an opening for a marketing director position on LinkedIn, according to the lawsuit. Dinverno also told Fox News Digital that she excelled in her position and the company had an extremely lucrative year.
“I loved where I worked. I loved the team that I was part of. And I never thought that it would come to this,” Dinverno told Fox News Digital.
“They shouldn't have their jobs,” Dinverno told Fox News Digital about those in the district involved in her legal case. The district paid Dinverno $190,000 as part of a settlement agreement in March.
“To use the energy, money, and time for something like this when truly none of us have done anything wrong is just sad… 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,” Dinverno told a local media outlet.
Parents in the district, including Dinverno, had been speaking out about lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic in Facebook groups. They did not know that as of March 2020 their posts, including those in private groups, were being “closely” monitored and compiled by the district communications office in “dossiers,” the complaint said.
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The communications department “were assigned to regularly capture screenshots of parents’ social media posts and comments which criticized the school district and to compile dossiers,” which sometimes spanned hundreds of pages, the lawsuit said. The “dossiers” were then “circulated to members of RCS administration and [school board] members,” according to the complaint. The district's staff also “frequently” made note of the parents' kids, where their kids attended school, and in some cases, a parent's place of employment, the complaint added.
“We do know that [Dinverno] was told that her employer did get a call… And we know the termination followed thereafter,” said Deborah Gordon, Dinverno’s attorney, said. “We also know other parents’ employers, we believe, have been contacted as well.”
The district denied “any retaliation or ‘spying.’”
“There are no ‘dossiers,’ which is a term that appears to have been conceived by an attorney in a settled litigation for its pejorative implications,” RCS communications director, Lori Grein, told Fox News Digital.
“And what does your written job description today include?” Dinverno’s First Amendment attorney, Deborah Gordon, had asked communications director Grein, according to the deposition transcript.
“To be honest with you, I haven't looked at it,” she replied. “[A] big part of what I do is pay attention… to the community, and then I relay that information… to the senior leaders within the organization.”
Fox News Digital asked the district whose idea it was to begin this “operation” but they refused to answer the question, stating they couldn't comment on the lawsuit.
“So you have a whole operation over there that's just tracking parents that have something critical to say, and then you have records you keep, too, right?” Gordon asked the RCS superintendent, Dr. Robert Shaner, according to the deposition transcript.
“I wouldn't describe it as an operation,” he responded.
“[H]ow many hundreds of hours does it take for somebody to download every single page with multiple social media outlets and… and then create copies and circulate them?” Gordon asked Superintendent Shaner.
“Yeah, I don't know how many hours it takes,” Shaner said.
“Okay. So, what – how are all these, all these cut-and-pastes, page after page after page, what are these used for by you and the board?”
“Again, just to keep us informed of what's going on out there and what's been said in the past,” Shaner responded.
At one point, Shaner was even accused of calling a parent an “a——” at a meeting in the public school district.
“Dr. Shaner… I wanted to let you know I heard you call [redacted name] an a—— … That is behavior unbecoming of district leadership and a violation of your own code of conduct. The… students next to me and other parents also heard you,” an email to the superintendent said, which was read during his deposition.
Shaner denied the accusation.
“Are you really suggesting that [parent's name redacted] took her time to sit down and write this [email], and she's just a liar; is that your position here today?” Dinverno's attorney asked.
“Yes,” Shaner responded, according to quoted transcript testimony from his deposition.
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A Rochester parent of three, Andrew Weaver, who is running for school board, told Fox News Digital, that “the tactics of bullying were systemic in the district.” Parents, he said, have had the police called on them or are sent cease and desist letters “for just asking questions.”
“It just showed the level of not even being willing to sit down and talk or understand why people were frustrated. It was just a constant ‘We'll just continue to use legal actions to threaten and intimidate people,'” Weaver said.
Fragomeni said that someone in the district made a complaint to the Michigan Department of Human Services regarding a boy in second grade, according to quoted transcript testimony.
“I do not know the specifics of the complaint. Our concern was the well-being of the child who was under duress in the school office,” Fragomeni said.
“So what was the duress, as you understood it?” Gordon asked.
“He was not wearing a mask,” Fragomeni said.
Before she was terminated, Dinverno began accusing someone on the school board of calling her employer, before it was later uncovered that it was Fragomeni.
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“It has come to my attention that certain board members are contacting parents,” Dinverno said in the feedback portal to the school board on December 12, 2020. “May I remind you that we pay for your salaries with our tax dollars?”
“By reporting parents you are risking their livelihood. Their employment. That is all they have right now… The fact that certain members of the board are trying to shut parents up because they are vocal about their pain and suffering is unacceptable… [U]sing our voices. Our right to free speech. Is our GOD GIVEN RIGHT.”
Three hours after Dinverno was terminated on December 18, the vice president of the school board, Kristin Bull, responded to the mom's December 12 communication, the lawsuit said.
Bull said, “I can assure you, on behalf of the Board of Education, that none of us have ever or would think to reach out to the employers of our district parents related to anything posted on social media.’”
She also “falsely stated, ‘We don’t actively monitor social media,’” Dinverno’s lawsuit against the district said.
Instead of clarifying to Dinverno that she was mistaken and that it was Fragomeni who called – not a school board member – the district sent a case and desist letter in January 2021 instructing Dinverno “to cease making public false statements about the Board, Board members, and the District” and said “[t]he District is prepared to preserve its legal rights using the tools available to it to the fullest extent of the law,” the complaint said.
“Did it occur to you that the easiest and most honest way to correct that was… just letting Elena know the truth?” Dinverno's attorney asked, according to the transcript from Bull's deposition.
“I didn't consider that, no,” said Bull.
The attorney then read an email sent by Bull about Dinverno's accusation. It said, “At the end of the day this one is of highest concern to me personally. The claim near the end that the employer told her a board member called will be difficult for me personally to refute.”
“What do you mean there?” Gordon asked.
“I can't specifically say what I meant there,” responded Bull.
“And you asked the administration to pull all of Elena Dinverno's posts, didn't you?” said Gordon.
“I don't recall,” responded Bull.
Gordon then read an email sent by Bull which said, “[P]lease pull for me the posts Elena D wrote in the fall encouraging students to send their videos. I know she previously posted it with a different name. If there was any way to know when that name changed, I would appreciate it. If there's any way to get this for a meeting, I have an 8:30. I would appreciate it so much.”
Superintendent Shaner was also asked about this email.
“So now we have the board president [Kristin Bull] asking [executive director of communications] Lori Grein, a direct report or indirect report of yours, to pull all the posts Elena Dinverno wrote in the fall. So obviously you knew as of this time, if not before, I assume, that your office was keeping all posts, negative posts, by all parents, correct?”
“I'm aware of our office, again, keeping records, as you described to me, regarding social media,” Shaner responded.
Shaner also added that he believed Fragomeni did not regret her actions.
“She said… she did not regret what she did and she was protecting children; that's what she said,” he said, according to the transcript from his deposition.
Dinverno said she was disappointed that the individuals involved didn't seem to pay any real consequences. “You can't behave like this and not have some level of consequences,” she told Fox News Digital. “The fact that… you would have something like this go public… and for the board not to do anything to reprimand… it hits us hard as parents. We feel like we're being 100% ignored.”
Both Weaver and a mom in the district, Carol Beth Litkouhi, are running to restore parents' involvement in education and bring transparency to Rochester.
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“I want to restore our focus on academic excellence so that all kids can receive the kind of help they need to achieve their full potential, and I want to restore transparency and communication and accountability in the district,” Carol Beth Litkouhi said. “We've got to remember that when parents and teachers partner together, that's the best way to help kids succeed.”
“I'm not like really invested in politics, but I just believe in these values and I want to just stand up for the principles of it,” she told Fox News Digital.
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“We have to find people who are willing to stand up for what's right and who aren't afraid of the bullying tactics. So I thought, you know what, I want to advance this mission. And so I'm willing to run so that I can advance this mission. And honestly, that's what it's all about,” she said.
Fox News Digital asked RCS if they are continuing to monitor and document parents' posts, and they said, “we pay attention to all forms of media, publications and broadcasts, including social media comments, which have been shown to contain clues that could have prevented the loss of life had they been acted upon” in light of “tragic experiences in other districts, such as Uvalde.”
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