NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — The Facebook page is called “Fixing a Broken System.” The system referred to is the North Kingstown schools, and organizers say the fix in question is for more town residents to come forward to voice their concerns to an unresponsive School Committee.
“Very simply: Yes, many of us feel we are not being heard,” said Megan Reilly about her reasons for starting a private social media group — now with nearly 400 members.
Some local officials say the watchdog group is “not constructive” and simply want “to badger officials” with detailed and frequent questions and public records requests. These officials, however, would not allow their names to be used with these descriptions.
The site popped up shortly after allegations surfaced that former high school coach Aaron Thomas did “fat testing” on naked teen boys for 20 years.
A number of district officials have resigned or left their positions amid the resulting fallout. Many initially defended the district’s handling of the Thomas situation, prior to the public release of investigative reports that depicted the administrative response to the allegations as delayed and inadequate.
Last year, a middle school teacher was placed on leave and reports publicized that students in the school had been documenting instances of improper behavior toward teen girls – the students referred to it as a “Pedo Database,” according to reporting by The Boston Globe.
The controversy has inflamed tensions between citizen critics of the government saying the government is hiding important information while government officials push back in passive and aggressive ways.
“We have a right to public comments at meetings, but they (school officials or their lawyers) don’t respond, nor do they follow up with answers at a later date,” said Holly Jackson Quinn.
“They have stated they prefer to meet one-on-one in person, which I don’t feel is necessary. They state it’s because they feel ‘emails will be misconstrued.’ Makes no sense to me,” she said.
Another member of the group is someone who says from 14 to 18 years old he was fat-tested — as was another family member — at North Kingstown High School.
He said that School Committee meetings have a three-minute time limit for public comment, but with few exceptions the school committee members say nothing in response “or simply acknowledge whatever questions are raised (and) virtually never respond to the substantiative issues raised.”
The School Department and Committee’s lawyer, Andrew Henneous, and School Committee Chairwoman Erin Earle were provided with several emails, a public records request and questions asked at school committee meetings. Some group members say these requests for information have been ignored.
Neither Henneous nor Earle responded to this newspaper’s requests Monday and Tuesday about whether any answers were given in these specific instances.
It didn’t surprise the former high school student who had the fat tests and said he had awaited acknowledgment from school officials that such traumatic events occurred.
“The (social media) forum provides a place in which people can raise questions, discuss issues and openly share concerns,” he said in an interview. “That isn’t something the school department has been responsive to in any way, shape or form from the outset through today,” he added.
Reilly is frequently criticized by local elected officials. One school committee member disparaged former interim School Superintendent Judy Paolucci for even meeting with Reilly.
Paolucci said this week that her meeting with Reilly and another critic was “to gain an understanding of all sides of the issues facing North Kingstown Schools. Both individuals had made multiple public records requests.”
“I wanted the schools to have more transparency, rather than to have citizens feeling like they had to use (public records request) process to gain information. The district had been in the practice of having all (those) requests processed by the attorneys, which sometimes resulted in a confrontational, rather than a cooperative stance,” she said.
In addition, say critics, these lawyer reviews are financial boons to school committee law firm that may charge for matters that can easily be handled within the district at no cost. Information about the cost in 2021-2022 for reviewing public records requests could not be easily obtained.
The School Committee, by a policy updated March 8, 2022, requires a public records request — that its lawyers charge the town to review — to obtain that cost information or budgeted line item, according to one school official.
Reilly said, “That’s why I started the page, I really didn’t know where to go to get answers. We really didn’t know where to go. That’s why I turned to social media to get attention. It was refreshing to meet with Dr. Paolucci. For the first time in 18 months, I was getting answers.”
She added, “I am not this monster that gives criticism. I also want to give solutions, but no one wants them.”
Advocates say the “Fixing a Broken System” Facebook page helps to avoid this kind of “noise,” as Quinn said, and gives an opportunity for constructive dialogue among members about the problems, the issues and critical comments without degrading personal comments.
The former NKHS student, who said he also saw a family member go through significant emotional trauma from the fat testing, noted, “The forum provides a place in which people can … openly share concerns.”
Reilly also said that she disagrees with any label, floated by some elected officials, that those in the social media group are “like-minded.”
“Perhaps that could be said of the ones who comment, but looking at the list of members, I can assure you that they do not see eye-to-eye on many issues,” she said.
Quinn said, “…some people in this town saw nothing wrong with how the district handled this, they would defend them and shame the victims for speaking up. The page gave us a place to share actual information, discuss it amongst ourselves, not everyone agrees, but we can have civil conversations.”
Reilly added, “As the group grew, members started inviting their own friends, reporters started to join, as did outside-of-NK residents and I accept them all, so the truth is, there is a large percentage of members of whom I do not know at all.”
She also said that while the site provides discussion opportunities, she sees the need for organizing “meet-ups” for in-person discussions and possibly for a newsletter that could make the group more influential than only a gaggle on social media.
The end goal of connecting in person, online and through other communications, said Reilly, is to provide an opportunity for residents to meet each other and brainstorm ideas for working together for suggesting improvements to the educational system.
These include volunteering to attend subcommittee and other town board and school committee meetings, collecting public information and posting to the social media site, and crafting public records requests, as needed, to submit for information not disclosed.
“I will continue to maintain this site, but realize that not everyone is on social media or has the time to check it often. Because of that, I was looking for other ways to reach the public, which was the genesis of my idea for community meet-ups,” she said.
So far, the group has had two in-person meetings at which about 12 people came to each to discuss school-related issues.
That could heat up as the town faces a loss in state-aid funding, pressures to deal with increasing school budgets and an all-Democratic Town Council wanting to avoid tax hikes. The School Committee is also comprised of all Democrats.
The Town Council provides funding for school operating expenses, but has no line-item vetoes over expenses. It also provides money for capital spending, such as buildings and other major projects.
“Keeping as many residents as possible abreast of what is going on in our town is of utmost importance. I’d like to think that the days of keeping secrets from the public are over,” Reilly said.
Also the likely reason for them to not want to try resolving Megan’s concerns through email rather than an in person meeting is because Megan has frequently taken emails from them in the past and posted it to her conservative social media pages to deliberately misinterpret and blast them. They were not born yesterday. Personally, I’d be impressed and flattered by a local official agreeing to meet one person to discuss their issues with them. Goes to show Megan doesn’t actually care about that, she just wants to posture
Local government officials do not respond to public comment because they are not allowed to discuss things not already on the meeting’s agenda. They actually aren’t supposed to get into back and forths with people in Public Comments. Megan probably knows this but pretends not to, because complaining about this makes her look good to the people on her side who don’t know
Welcome to the discussion.
Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.