SOUTHFIELD, Mich. (FOX 2) - A Rochester Community School mom is suing the school district, board president, and superintendent after she says the board retaliated against her for vocalizing her opposition of the district's remote-learning efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the lawsuit filed by Elena Dinverno, the school board president and superintendent contacted her employer after she posted her thoughts about the plans on Facebook group pages which ultimately led to her termination.
The lawsuit claims that Dinverno "advocated for the reopening of schools" on two Facebook groups: RCS Parents for In-Person Education and Conservative Parents for Rochester. When the school board voted to start school remotely in late July and early August of 2020, Dinverno said she posted and asked for video testimonials from parents and students regarding "hardship about the availability of in-person school."
Dinverno, who was a marketing director at Blake's, said in response to those posts, school board president Kristin Bull called Blake's CFO, Marty Blake. Bull is an employee of Crain's Detroit and Dinverno claims in that phone call, Bull noted that Blake's President Andrew Blake was named one of Crain's Detroit Business’s "40 under 40" in November. Dinverno claims Bull threatened to revoke the accolade due to Dinverno allegedly making threats against the school district.
Dinverno was called to a meeting with Blake's HR department and was told to watch what she said online. She said she wrote a letter to Blake's to clarify her participation in the group and said she never made any threats. She said her comments never "went beyond passionate" and were "appropriate advocacy".
In December, Dinverno said she submitted this lengthy comment to the board of education where she reiterated she was vocalizing her right to freedom of speech:
"It has come to my attention that certain board members are contacting parents places of work to notify them that their behavior on the social channels they participate in is undesirable. May I remind you that we pay for your salaries with our tax dollars? And that what you are doing is against the by laws (sic) of the BOE? Every parents (sic) has the right to express their sadness, frustration, anger, as a right to freedom of speech. They have no one to speak with because the nothing (sic) is changing! If you have a problem with a particular parent please do what you tell our kids to do—go to the course. Let them tell you how they feel. By reporting parents you are risking their livelihood. Their employment. That is all they have right now. I know you all understand that kids are sad, hurting, giving up, and as parents we will go (sic) whatever is necessary for our children. Parents are hurting too. 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. Now let me be clear—threats are unacceptable. But using our voices. Our right to free speech. Is our GOD GIVEN RIGHT. If you don’t like it—then have a conversation with that parent. And maybe. Just maybe. Make a change that will impact these kids in a positive way. Dr. Shaner—I would be happy to fill you in on what I have learned about certain members of your board reporting parents to their work. Please reach out to me."
Shortly after the comment was submitted, she said Superintendent Dr. Robert Shaner called her to discuss the comment. Dinverno said she told Shaner about Bull contacting her employer, to which Shaner allegedly said that "there was nothing he could do." She said he then complained about her involvement in the Facebook groups and stated that the behavior of parents in that group was wrong.
On December 18, Dinverno said she was terminated and was told her position was no longer necessary. A few weeks later, she said a job opening for the same position appeared on LinkedIn.
FOX 2 reached out to Blake's for comment on Dinverno's lawsuit. Andrew Blake said the company could not comment on the lawsuit since it wasn't named. However, he said it's caused a "great deal of disturbance to our operations with incoming threatening calls, emails and social media posts against our property and employees."
Dinverno's situation with the board of education continued as her December comment was part of the agenda during a January 11 meeting. However, she said it was never addressed and claims school board Vice President Kevin Beers told her to "save it for Facebook."
Dinverno said other parents received similar letters and have also had their employers contacted by the board including an employee of a neighboring school district and a police department. All these parents were part of the same Facebook group.
She said the school and board of education sent her a cease and desist letter through their attorneys saying her comments were "false and are injurious to the Board, and threaten further injury if left uncorrected."
Dinverno's lawsuit claims the district and board violated her First Amendment rights. She's suing for damages and seeks an injunction to prohibit 'further acts' from the district and board.
When contacted for comment, a Rochester Community Schools spokesperson said the allegations are "both false and unfounded" but could not comment further because it is in litigation and issued this statement:
"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."
KC Crain, the president and CEO of Crain Communications also released a statement.
"Crain Communications is not a party to this suit, but its allegations call into question our editorial integrity. The assertion that Kristin Bull, a trusted manager within our organization, threatened to revoke a highly sought-after recognition award is patently false and is offensive to our core values - we are perplexed why anyone would make such a baseless claim. Furthermore, Kristin denies making any threats to anyone at Blake's Hard Cider Co.
"All Crain award programs, such as the annual 40 under 40 awards, are based on nominations from readers, reporters and editors. Award recipients are selected by Crain's editorial team. Kristin leads the "custom" marketing division of Crain's Detroit Business, and has no part in award nominations nor the selection of the recipients."