I am a mother in the South Kingstown School District in Rhode Island investigating through public records requests how critical race and gender theories are integrated into lessons, school policies, and contracts. Now the School Committee is considering suing me to stop me.
My child is enrolled in kindergarten and I became concerned that Critical Race Theory (CRT) and gender theory were integrated into lessons when an elementary school principal told me that teachers don’t refer to students as “boys” and “girls.” Additionally, I was told a kindergarten teacher asks five-year-olds, “what could have been done differently on the first Thanksgiving” in order to build upon a “line of thinking about history.” I asked why kids could not be called “boys” and “girls” and was told it was “common practice.” I asked for clarification on the “line of thinking” about history but got no answers. The more questions I asked, the less answers I received.
Then I asked for a tour of the elementary school and the Superintendent offered me an in-person or virtual tour, but never responded with a date and time despite my numerous follow-up emails and phone calls. After almost a month of radio silence the Superintendent then told me that now they were not offering tours due to Covid restrictions. Yet the Superintendent offered tours of other schools to campaign for a school bond.
I also asked to see the elementary school curriculum. I asked the principal, the school committee, the superintendent, the director of curriculum, and even the legal department at the Rhode Island Department of Education to allow me to view the curriculum. The school’s Director of Curriculum told me she was unavailable and never responded when I said I could view the curriculum on any day and time. Then a school committee member directed me to file an Access to Public Records Act (APRA) request on the school district website to obtain the curriculum. After thirty days, I received an incomplete curriculum and filed an APRA complaint with the Attorney General.
By contrast, curriculum for two charters schools in South Kingstown (Kingston Hill Academy and The Compass School) is available on their websites. I scheduled a tour of a private school in five minutes. Why was it so hard to get a tour and see the curriculum in my own public school district?
At this point I had reason to believe that the school district was hiding information and deliberately stonewalling me. I started using the APRA request google link on the school district’s website to request public documents that might answer my questions about CRT, gender theory, and other concerns. When I requested the emails of a school committee member the estimate of what they would charge me came back as $9,570. Who can afford that?
Under the APRA, “a reasonable charge may be made for the search or retrieval of documents. Hourly costs for a search and retrieval shall not exceed fifteen dollars ($15.00) per hour and no costs shall be charged for the first hour of a search or retrieval.” Additionally, each copy costs 15 cents.
I amended my request to narrow the scope of requested emails to six months and requested digital copies instead of hard copies. That $9,570 estimate dropped to $79.50. I quickly realized that if I structured many specific and narrow requests, I could afford to purchase the public information which was otherwise inaccessible to me due to the non-responsiveness of my school leadership. I felt like I had cracked the code to this mystery of inaccessible information.
These initial high estimates of public records requests are common barriers to parents obtaining information about their children’s school district. A parent in another Rhode Island school district received an estimate of $17,295.75 to obtain public information related to the cost of an athletic field. Access to public information is not cheap. Or equitable.
I continued to submit small and numerous public record requests to investigate my school district. The school department continued to respond in the statutory time period of ten days. A school committee member even made a snarky reference to my APRA requests in an email. Evidently my APRA requests were not problematic if they were the subject of sarcasm from a school committee member.
No one in the school department ever told me it was a problem while I was in constant contact with them to request and purchase information. I purchased over $300 worth of public information and shared it to a private Facebook group to raise awareness about indoctrination in Rhode Island schools. I developed a growing network of likeminded teachers, parents, and community members who gave me information about CRT and gender theory infiltrating Rhode Island school districts.
Then, on Friday, May 28, the school committee set an agenda item for a public meeting to discuss “filing litigation against Nicole Solas to challenge the filing of over 160 APRA requests.”
My school committee now is considering suing me because I submitted a lot of public records requests to get answers to my questions which the School District would not answer. This same school committee which told me to use a statutorily prescribed process to obtain one piece of information (curriculum) is now having a public meeting to discuss suing me for using the same statutorily prescribed process to obtain other information. The message was clear: ask too many questions about your child’s education and we will come after you.
The most puzzling part of this shameful abuse of government power is that numerous attorneys with whom I’ve consulted cannot figure out the basis of a claim against me. There is no limit to submitting public record requests. Further, the APRA statute contemplates multiple requests made in a 30-day period for the purpose of cost. It states: “[M]ultiple requests from any person or entity to the same public body within a thirty (30) day time period shall be considered one request.” Accordingly, I did not submit 160 requests – I submitted ONE.
I suspect the South Kingstown School Department is displeased that a parent has found a way to legally compel responses to difficult questions surrounding CRT and gender theory in public school. I suspect they are also displeased about my criticism of the antiracism policy and appointment and hiring policy, both of which are under review and breathtakingly racist.
The Access to Public Records Act prohibits a government body from compelling a citizen to justify or explain her requests for public information. But, here I am attending my first in-person school committee meeting where my own name is one of two agenda items in open session. Here I am feeling immense pressure to explain and justify my public information requests to this shameful government body on pains of potential litigation against me. A school committee scheduling a public meeting to discuss “filing lawsuit against Nicole Solas to challenge filing of over 160 APRA requests” is nothing short of an attempt to deprive me of my civil rights to obtain public information about my child’s school.
I can think of a dozen better ways my APRA requests could have been addressed. The Superintendent could have hired a temporary assistant for $12 an hour to retrieve documents. If the school department is concerned about this extra cost of fulfilling my public record requests, it should use its 64 million dollar budget more wisely than to hire a consultant to manage School District’s Facebook page for $50 an hour to post important messages like memes that say “Happy Mother’s Day.”
The school committee also could have reached out to me and asked if they could answer my questions directly. But no. Instead, they sought to publicly vilify a mother.
Although I am shocked that a government body would use the threat of litigation to publicly bully, harass, and intimidate a mother who was advocating for her child’s education, I am not afraid. And I will not stop asking questions.
This shameful retaliation against a parent who demand transparency from public schools will not be tolerated. Every parent needs to keep asking questions. Every parent needs to submit more public records requests when they do not receive answers to their questions from school leaders. Hold your elected representatives accountable and do not allow them to prevent you from protecting and advocating for your children.
If the school system starts to bully you because you are asking too many questions, then you’re winning. Don’t give up.
Rhode Island ACLU Executive Director Steve Brown told GoLocal on Tuesday he believes the South Kingstown School Committee’s response is “inappropriate.””I can certainly understand the difficulties facing a municipal body when confronted with such a huge number of APRA requests in a short period of time,” said Brown “However, I am also hopeful that, upon consideration, the school committee will recognize that suing a resident for this activity is not an appropriate response.”