The superintendent of a school district in Michigan monitored the social media posts of parents who criticized the district’s COVID-19 policy, then reported those parents to their employers, and in at least one case, the police, according to a lawsuit filed by a parent in the district.
The Detroit News first reported Tuesday that Robert Shaner, the superintendent of Rochester Community Schools, made the calls to police because he was “concerned and scared” about the “aggressive” social media posts from parents, some of which suggested staging protests outside school board members’ homes, and an email he allegedly received from another parent that stated that the parent was going to “wreak havoc.” Shaner made the comments as part of a deposition made on February 3 in connection with the lawsuit.
The suit, originally filed in May 2021, but amended earlier this month, was brought by Elena Dinverno, a parent of two children at Rochester Community Schools. The suit alleges that Shaner and another high-ranking member of the school board contacted Dinverno’s employer and falsely claimed that she had made threats against the board, which resulted in her being fired from her job.
According to the suit, the Facebook groups, “RCS Parents for In-Person Education” and “Conservative Parents
for Rochester,” rose up in response to the closure of schools and the shift to remote learning in April 2020, after Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order closing the schools for the rest of the school year. Dinverno, who described herself as a “vocal and effective advocate” for re-opening schools, was contacted by the school board, who told her she was “participating in a group engaged in launching threats against the school district.” A school board member then allegedly contacted her employer. Dinverno defended herself to the company, telling them she had not made any threats and was only a strong advocate for her position. She complained to the board directly, and then to Shaner, but Shaner said he could do nothing and complained to her about the alleged conduct of the Facebook groups. Dinverno was then fired from her job.
Dinverno allegedly later learned that other parents had been contacted by the board, including one parent employed by a nearby police department. On top of that, multiple parents, including Dinverno, received cease and desist letters from RCS lawyers telling them to stop criticizing the school board, claiming that the posts were “false [and] injurious to the Board, and threaten further injury if left uncorrected.” The letters allegedly threatened legal action.
The suit also alleges that two of the district’s public affairs specialists and spokeswomen were regularly assigned to screenshot comments made in Facebook groups that criticized the district. The screenshots were then allegedly compiled in dossiers, with notes from the officials, which included personal information about the parents — their employers, their children’s names and the schools they attended. These dossiers were allegedly circulated to school board members and administrators, the Detroit News reported. “I have found at taxpayer expense they had high-level people spending hours monitoring parents’ social posts,” Sarah Gordon, Dinverno’s lawyer, told the Detroit News. “I was stunned. I have a stack that is like a phone book. This was an active group that wanted their kids back in school.”
Shaner confirmed in his deposition that the board monitored parents’ social media feeds. “[W]e value the input of all parents, and we certainly want to keep our thumb on the pulse of the community, so we monitor social media very closely on all fronts and make sure we’re responsive to the community,” he said in the deposition, via the News. “We do watch it and try to make sure we know what’s going on in our community, but that’s not the only place that we get information on social media,” he added.
He also confirmed the calls to police, including the fact that he had called the Detroit Police Department about the Facebook postings of a parent who worked as an officer. “I said I was concerned about his behavior and, from his Facebook post, what he does for a living with the department,” Shaner told Gordon. “The assistant chief said she would look into it and contact their legal counsel.” Shaner said the posts “were aggressive and they mentioned that people should go to people’s homes and protest. … I took his language as aggressive, concerning.”
The suit accused the district of retaliation in violation of First Amendment law, and seeks compensation for “past and future economic and non-economic damages,” as well as an injunction from the Court prohibiting further retaliation. The school board claimed this week that the suit had been settled, but the Detroit News could not confirm the settlement.