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

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Allegations by a Rochester Community Schools parent that a school board member got her fired for advocating on social media for schools to reopen are untrue and unfounded, the district said.

Lori Grein, a spokesperson for Rochester Community Schools, said Tuesday she could not discuss specific details of the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court by parent Elena Dinverno.

A spokeswoman for the Rochester Community Schools says the allegations in a parent's lawsuit against the district, its superintendent and board president are untrue.

Dinverno, who has two children attending RCS, is suing the district, board president Kristin Bull and superintendent Robert Shaner, alleging they unlawfully restricted her free speech.

"The allegations in the complaint are both false and unfounded," Grein said. "We wish we could discuss it in detail, but that is not possible now that it is in litigation."

Lawyers for Dinverno allege the Oakland County 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."

Asked to specifically address that allegation, Grein declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

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."

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

The lawsuit alleges that in the fall, a member of the board contacted Dinverno's 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.

KC Crain, president and CEO of Crain Communications, issued a statement Tuesday denying the lawsuit's accusations against Bull, saying she has no part in award nominations or the selection of recipients.

"Crain Communications is not a party to this suit, but its allegations call into question our editorial integrity," Crain said. "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."

Bull leads the "custom” marketing division of Crain’s Detroit Business, Crain said, and denies making any threats to anyone at Blakes’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," Crain said. 

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 and said she had never made any threats and that her participation did not go beyond "passionate, and appropriate advocacy."

Dinverno submitted a comment to the board in December 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.

On Tuesday,  Andrew Blake issued a statement saying the matter involving Dinvero has caused "a great deal of disturbance" to company operations, including threatening calls, emails and social media posts against company 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," Blake said.

Blake declined to discuss the allegations in Dinvero's lawsuit, including whether he was contacted by Bull or someone else from the district.

"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," he said.

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. 

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."

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.

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.