SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — School officials in South Kingstown have backed off a threat to sue a local parent who has filed public records requests about race and gender curriculum, hoping instead to mediate the issue in a case that has drawn national attention.
At a special meeting June 2 lasting more than four hours, the School Committee unanimously decided it will try to go through mediation to respond to requests from Nicole Solas of Wakefield for information related to South Kingstown’s curriculum and how it incorporates teachings about race and gender.
Solas said she was ignored when she went to school officials with questions about critical race and gender theory in the schools.
“I am a mother of a child enrolled in the district, going into kindergarten. I had questions about her education, and you didn’t answer them,” Solas told the committee.
She then used the state’s Access to Public Records Act to file a request for the information, and said the district quoted her a price of $9,570 to get it.
“I amended my request to narrow the scope of requested emails to six months and requested digital copies instead of hard copies,” she said. “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.”
The request for transparency resulted in what Supt. of Schools Linda Savastano likened to a “tsunami.”
The district says it received 251 requests between April 25 and June 1; 201 from Solas.
The requests began slowly with one or two per day, but then accelerated to 50 or 60 per day, Savastano said.
“Suddenly you know that you can’t maintain this pace,” she said. “That’s how we’ve gotten to this point in terms of workload.”
In 2019-20, a typical year, South Kingstown received 73 requests, Savastano said. From September through April, it received 27 requests.
Most of the 201 requests Solas filed asked for information about staff and “equity/race (indoctrination).” A further 12 asked about school committee correspondence and another 12 about consultants.
Solas notes that under Rhode Island General Law, multiple requests from any person to the same public body within a 30-day time period are considered one request.
“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,” she said.
The law gives a public body 10 days to provide requested documents, plus a 20-day extension. The public body must explain any extensions or denials in writing.
Savastano said she wants to share as much information as possible about the schools but also protect children, parents and staff. She tried to respond to the requests from within her office and “get it done.”
“It kept coming and coming and coming to the point the tsunami was there,” she said.
School Committee Chairwoman Emily Cummiskey claimed the requests for public records from Solas are part of a larger national effort by a racist group to sow chaos in school districts.
“This issue is a much larger one – one that involves a disturbing attempt by a nationally-organized, racist group to create chaos and intimidate our district in recent weeks as we discuss bringing equity and anti-racism curriculum to our schools,” Cummiskey said in a statement she read at the meeting.
She did not identify the group.
According to a report by WPRI, similar records requests have now been made in Barrington and Westerly.
Cummiskey claimed that in South Kingstown, information for one of the requests from Solas took 40 hours to assemble. The others have placed a large burden on staff time and resources and tied the hands of the school district, which is legally bound to respond, she said.
“A single staff member dedicated to fulfilling these requests, before legal review, would need to work full-time, every single day, for more than five weeks on this. Simply put, we would need to hire additional staff to fulfill these requests. Even one single APRA request left unanswered could result in tens of thousands of dollars in litigation costs. This is a clear attempt to harm our district.”
School Committee attorney Andrew Henneous said the committee could revisit filing a lawsuit at a later date, and said that using mediation doesn’t “stop the timeline” on the pending APRA requests.
“The attorney general has been very clear, you respond to it within the statutory timelines,” he said.
In filing a lawsuit, the town would hope to get a court injunction to stop the APRA requests.
State and national media attention is focused on the controversy in South Kingstown. Solas appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox show as well as a morning show on the network.
Critical race theory examines social, cultural and legal issues as they relate to race and racism, according to Wikipedia. Solas also has taken particular aim at school policies in South Kingstown and elsewhere that, she says, allow the district to assist a child’s gender transition without parental consent or notification. She has called a proposed “anti-racism” policy “radical and dehumanizing.”
“The school committee should focus on equality, treating students without regard to race,” she said.
Vocal supporters of Solas also attended the meeting.
“It’s really simple: transparency. A mom had to step up for her children,” speaker Dave Coté said. “(Nicole) had to follow your process. She followed your process.”