Rochester school parent sues, alleges district got her fired for speaking out

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

A parent in Rochester Community Schools has filed a federal lawsuit against the school district, alleging its board president called her employer and got her fired for advocating on social media for schools to reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Elena Dinverno filed a civil lawsuit Monday in U.S. District Court in Detroit against the Oakland County district, board president Kristin Bull and superintendent Robert Shaner, alleging they unlawfully restricted her free speech.

Dinverno has two children in the district, which began the school year remotely last fall. In the lawsuit, Dinverno describes herself as a "vocal and effective advocate for her position" who frequently "questioned and criticized" the decisions of the board through posts and comments in two Facebook groups: "RCS Parents for In-Person Education" and "Conservative Parents for Rochester."

Dinverno says in the suit that in a post on one of the Facebook group pages, she asked for video testimonials from parents and students expressing the hardships they’ve endured without the availability of in-person school.

The suit alleges that in the fall, a member of the board contacted her employer, Blake’s Hard Cider Co. in Armada, where she had worked as marketing director since 2019, and falsely claimed that Dinverno was participating in a group launching threats against the school district.

Dinverno alleges she later learned the board member was Bull, who works as a director of content at Crain's Detroit Business. She accuses Bull of threatening to revoke a “40 under 40” recognition for company president Andrew Blake in response to Dinverno's alleged conduct on social media related to school reopening.

Read more: Rochester school district calls parent's lawsuit allegations 'false and unfounded'

Dinverno alleges she was called into a meeting with Blake’s human resources manager and asked to explain her involvement and was told "by the HR manager to watch what she was saying in the online forums."

On Nov. 6, Dinverno says she wrote a letter to her employer's leadership clarifying the extent of her participation in the Facebook groups. She said she had never made any threats and that her participation did not go beyond "passionate, and appropriate advocacy."

In December 2020, Dinverno says she submitted a comment to the board through the district’s online feedback portal that said "every parent has the right to express their sadness, frustration, anger, as a right to freedom of speech" and "by reporting parents you are risking their livelihood. Their employment. That is all they have right now."

On Dec. 18, Dinverno was fired by Blake's, according to the suit, which alleges board members had contacted the employers of other parents over their online comments.

School officials were not immediately available Monday for comment on the lawsuit. District spokesperson Lori Grein said none of those named in the complaint had been served as of late Monday afternoon.

While the district stayed in remote learning from the fall through the end of January, it offered families two learning options for the 2020-21 school year, Grein said. Students could enroll in in-person learning or the RCS Virtual Campus. 

In January, the district opted for a phased-in approach as students returned to face-to-face instruction in cohorts. Students enrolled in in-person learning returned to buildings full-time five days a week by March 1. 

Grein said the district realizes it has been a trying year for many school community members and families may be dealing with the pandemic in very different ways. 

"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," she said.

Lisa Rudy, an associate publisher of Crain’s Detroit Business, said she had no comment about the lawsuit or its allegations.

Dinverno alleges she was sent a cease-and-desist letter by the district on Jan. 14 that said comments she submitted to the board and related Facebook group comments were "false and are injurious to the Board, and threaten further injury if left uncorrected."

Deborah Gordon, attorney for Dinverno, said the fact that a parent received such a letter was shocking.

"This is a government entity for which you are entitled to your First Amendment rights," Gordon said, "unless someone is using threatening language. But over offering up an opinion? There have zero business policing her speech."

Attorneys for Dinverno say she engaged in constitutionally protected free speech and that the defendants in the case unlawfully interfered with those rights by contacting and threatening her employer "with adverse professional ramifications."

The suit also alleges the district, Bull and Shaner impaired her right to free speech and injured her when their actions caused her to lose her job, the suit says.

Lawyers for Dinverno also allege the district "maintains a widespread custom or practice" of contacting employers of parents who vocally oppose board decisions "in an attempt to coerce, threaten, or manipulate said employers to dissociate themselves with the parents and encouraging employers to take adverse employment actions against the parents."

The case is seeking damages for past and future economic and non-economic damages and an injunction against the district prohibiting further wrongdoing or retaliation against Dinverno.

Many parents in the affluent district have been vocal about reopening schools, while others support the district’s decision to keep students home for learning. One parent launched an unsuccessful recall of four board members over an alleged lack of transparency about decisions made concerning remote and in-person learning during the pandemic.