SOUTH KINGSTOWN — Almost four month after the town council initiated its investigation into the release of student directory information, the results have seemingly left no one satisfied.
In the weeks leading up to the school bond referendum this past spring, numerous school children throughout the district received political mailers from the AFL-CIO in support of the project — prompting outrage and concern from parents.
Some of the children who received these mailers were in kindergarten.
Soon thereafter, the town council unanimously voted in favor of getting to the bottom of “what was released, by whom and when.”
Although Superintendent Linda Savastano came forward seven weeks later with an apology to the community for providing directory information to Stacey Bodziony from the Friends of South Kingstown — which results of the council’s investigations show Bodziony in turn provided to Brad Dufault of Checkmate Consulting — and for not connecting the dots sooner as to how the political mailers came to be address to children, the council decided to push forward with it’s investigation.
The initial memorandum detailing the results of this investigation – which were update soon after due to an inaccuracy within the report – was released by the town council on Aug. 12, appearing to close the book on an endeavor that took more than 110 hours to complete.
Still, many in the community feel as if the investigation has left many questions unanswered. Others feel the investigation did nothing to help move the town forward or help students in the district — and has only fueled the bitter divide within South Kingstown.
The results of the investigation reaffirm that “federal and state law allow local school departments to release directory information without express parental consent,” and that local school departments have the “discretion to define reasonable directory information,” but stops short of determining whether or not the names and mailing addresses of South Kingstown students qualify as directory information.
That, according to the investigation memorandum, depends on school district policy. In South Kingstown, where two policies seem to be somewhat at odds with one another, “this issue becomes more complicated.”
“Based on these conflicting local policies, there is no clear answer about whether the information released in this case is releasable directory information or not,” the memorandum concludes. “It is clear that state and federal law allow a local education agency to designate this information as releasable directory information.”
“It is, however, unclear whether the school committee has actually done so.”
Because of this ambiguity, “it is unlikely that the state or federal government would take any enforcement action against the town based upon the student names and addresses released by the superintendent in connection with this mailer,” though the memorandum shares two steps a parent could take if they feel there’s been a Family Education and Privacy Rights Act (FERPA) violation.
Because of the ambiguity, however, the memorandum from the town solicitor’s office again acknowledges that “it is unlikely that enforcement action would be taken” in either instance.
One of the school district policies explicitly outlines what directory information the district may disclose without parental consent, which includes a student’s name and address, among other details. The policy has been in place since March of 1987, and was last updated in February 2007.
The other policy, which was enacted a little less than three years ago in response to the immigration policies of the Trump Administration, “may have attempted to remove a student’s address, telephone and email; date and place of birth; and dates of attendance and grade level from the definition of releasable directory information.”
At the time it was enacted, the stated purpose of the policy was to “provide equal educational opportunities to all students . . . without regard to their immigration status or national origin” — essentially shielding any possibly undocumented students from immigration inquiries from law enforcement.
Immediately following the council’s authorization of releasing the document, councilwoman Jess Rose thanked the community for their patience — especially the parents of children who received one of these political mailers.
“I just want the community to know that because we’re releasing this report now, does not mean we’re closing the book and are never willing to reopen it,” Rose said last Monday. “If there are concerns, we still want to hear them.”
Councilwoman Deb Bergner echoed these comments, sharing that she also feels “that releasing this report may not satisfy all members of the community.”
“While we don’t have all the information we would like to have, it’s the most information we have at this time,” Bergner said. “There may be other things that come up, and I’m certainly willing to continue to investigate this matter if need be.”
The councilwoman shared additional thoughts on the results of the investigation with the Narragansett Times on Thursday, Aug. 12, soon after those results were made public.
“After more than 3 months of investigation, the short answer is that the person responsible was the very person charged with protecting our children,” Bergner wrote in an email correspondence. “Unfortunately, the town council did not get full cooperation from those who were involved and we still have incomplete answers.”
“Countless hours were spent, and numerous meetings held because of the willful obstruction and actions of former Superintendent Linda Savastano,” she continued. “Sadly for our community, the investigation uncovered that Linda Savastano lied in multiple public documents and in public forums professing that she did not give student information. However, the investigation uncovered that she did in fact provide our children’s data for the mailer and denied a similar request from a community member opposed to the school facility plan.”
In her comments, Bergner also highlighted that “Ms. Savastano, Ms. Bodziony and Mr. Dufault have indicated that copies of the student information used on the mailer have since been deleted and they no longer have access to it,” according to the investigation report.
In the timeline of events provided, the final bullet point states that the town solicitor’s office “has been unable to review the emails of Ms. Savastano following her resignation, as her school laptop has been cleared of such data by Ms. Savastano.”
In the days that have followed the initial release of this investigation, numerous community members have expressed outrage over this data being wiped. Some have suggested the school committee reconsider its separation agreement with Savastano, or that there be a criminal investigation into the matter.
Others who hope to see the community move on from the issue have been quick to point out inaccuracies within the initial report.
Inaccuracies within the initial report
On Friday, Aug. 13 at 1:50 p.m. — less than 24 hours after the initial report had been released to the public — the report was updated to exclude inaccurate information regarding Savastano, Bodziony and former School Committee Chair Emily Cummiskey.
In the timeline of events that was detailed in the initial report, one of the first bullet points references a meeting on April 9, in which “Superintendent Savastano, Stacey Bodziony and School Committee Chair Cummiskey appear to have met with a representative of the AFL-CIO.”
This bullet point also included an attached exhibit, which has subsequently been removed.
Reportedly, both Cummiskey and Bodziony swiftly brought this “blatant lie” to the town’s attention.
While there was in fact a meeting on this date, Cummiskey stresses that it was not with any representatives of the AFL-CIO.
“The meeting was with Greg Mancini in his capacity as Executive Director of Build RI,” Cummiskey told the Narragansett Times on Saturday, Aug. 14. “The Superintendent asked Andrew Henneous, the school department’s legal representative, prior to this meeting taking place if it was appropriate, and it was deemed to be.”
Cummiskey expressed that she was “absolutely dumbfounded and appalled” that the initial report contained false information about herself, Bodziony and Savastano.
She reiterated that she did not have any communication with anyone from the AFL-CIO — which she attested to as much in a signed affidavit a few weeks prior. This affidavit, which Cummiskey completed under notary, was not included in either version of the report.
According to Town Solicitor Michael Ursillo, the exhibit was “removed because we subsequently learned that it contained an error that had to be rectified for the record.”
“We did not include Emily Cummiskey’s affidavit because we did not want to compound the initial error by mentioning her in the revised report without context,” Ursillo wrote in an email correspondence on Wednesday. “There were many documents that were not included in the initial report as we made judgment calls on the information collected during the investigation.”
When the report was updated on Friday, language was included ahead of the memorandum and numerous documents shared on the town’s website, communicating that “subsequent to the release of the report, it was discovered that, while a meeting took place on that date, it was not with a representative of the AFL-CIO and did not pertain to the AFL-CIO mailer.”
And while this updated version exists, Cummiskey points out that there’s no notation of the update with the report itself, and that screenshots of the original report containing “false assumptions” are still circulating.
“It seems that from the beginning, this entire investigation — all the way through to the report, was actually a politically motivated witch hunt in order to slander and discredit me personally,” Cummiskey said.
On social media, former school committee member Sarah Markey, who resigned soon after Cummiskey amidst health issues, expressed her concerns over how the entire investigation was handled and how trustworthy the results can be when there was need to update immediately after it was released.
“This investigation didn’t do anything to move our town forward,” Markey wrote on Facebook. “And worst of all, it literally helps zero students. We could have handled this much more thoroughly and gracefully.”
“If this was actually about protecting kids, I don’t think we would have seen this play out the way it did,” she added.