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Rhode Island teachers unions sue mom to stop release of critical race theory lessons

National Education Association chapters claim they are only trying to protect their members from harassment by "national conservative groups."

Updated: August 5, 2021 - 10:50pm

The Rhode Island mother who turned to public records law to learn what the school district was teaching her daughter is now a defendant in a lawsuit by the state and local teachers union.

The Rhode Island and South Kingstown chapters of the National Education Association sued Nicole Solas and the school district this week to stop the latter from releasing records sought by Solas, including curriculum and policies related to critical race theory, antiracism, gender theory and children's sexuality.

The chapters filed a motion for a temporary restraining order (TRO) and preliminary injunction Thursday, asking a Rhode Island Superior Court judge to personally review alleged personnel files sought by Solas to determine if their public interest outweighs the "personal privacy interests" of the teachers.

Among the records they fear will be released: teacher emails that "may or will contain discussions about critical race theory curriculum" that include names and personally identifiable information.

Thursday's motion pushes back on the assumption that the union wants to stop parents from learning what their children are taught.

"[T]he Union expresses no opinion" on requests for "copies of school curriculum," the chapters say, citing their own use of the Access to Public Records Act (APRA). But they warn that the district is "presently working on a response that contemplates the release of an additional 90,000 records" as soon as mid-August.

"Throwing down the gauntlet, are we? Game on," Solas tweeted Wednesday with a copy of the suit she was served. She also accused the district of turning over "private and confidential emails to the school" — her original request to the principal of her daughter's school — that showed up in the union's lawsuit.

When she received the motion for TRO and injunction Thursday, Solas asked if "teacher unions bullying moms [will] be an everyday thing now?"

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Cornell University law professor William Jacobson, whose Legal Insurrection Foundation has filed similar public records requests to the South Kingstown School District, wrote Wednesday that the lawsuit "makes little sense on its face."

The district is "not shy about asserting exemptions," as evidenced by the hundreds of fully redacted pages it turned over to Jacobson's foundation, and there's no reason to believe the information that concerns the union qualifies as public records, he said.

"My initial take is that this smells collusive. South Kingstown doesn't want to produce records and the union is helping them out," Jacobson theorized. The district previously proposed suing Solas to stop her from filing requests — 200 through May — but backed down after an outcry.

Jacobson was baffled by the request for the judge to review documents in chambers. "Seriously? If that's the case, the Superior Court is going to have to hire more judges."

The suit emphasizes that Solas went on Fox News to draw "national attention to her dispute," prompting another public records binge by a different person, identified in Thursday's motion as Adam Hartman. 

The 300-plus APRA requests, filed April through July, include improper queries for records related to the AFL-CIO, which includes NEA, and an employee shared by the NEA and union federation, it says.

The suit characterizes a request for "complaints against Robin Wildman," the chair of the School Commitee's secretive BIPOC Advisory Board, as a request for records of her "teacher discipline and performance" before she retired. Solas is also seeking "all disciplinary actions" against teachers.

The requests also asked for teachers' emails and communications between Wildman and Superintendent Linda Savastiano, who retired shortly after the outcry against the district threatening to sue Solas. Some are limited to narrow time windows, including Savastiano's emails starting May 17.

These could include the former superintendent's emails with NEA members that are not subject to public disclosure, according to the suit. It cited a 6,500-page document dump from the district last month, but not whether it included non-public records.

It warned against releasing "personal e-mails of NEA members that are unofficial private writings'' and using the APRA process "for abusive purposes or a fishing expedition." The union chapters also urged the judge against approving releases with redactions, which are "not always sufficient to safeguard privacy concerns."

Teachers who have engaged in discussions about critical race theory, if identified, "will be" subject to harassment by "national conservative groups opposed to critical race theory," the suit claims. (Before resigning, the chair of the district's School Committee said Solas was backed by a national "racist group," later identified as Parents Defending Education, which is led by two women of color.)

The Rhode Island NEA did not respond to a query from Just the News seeking its grounds for fearing the district will release non-public or improperly redacted records, an answer to Jacobson's collusion speculation, and the identity of "national conservative groups" and their alleged history of harassing NEA members. An email to the South Kingstown NEA's listed contact bounced back.

"We are asking the Court to conduct a balancing test to determine whether our members' privacy rights outweigh the public interest," state chapter Deputy Executive Director Jennifer Azevedo told WJAR. "We believe they do, and those records should either not be disclosed or should be redacted accordingly."

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