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Westerly becomes third school district to receive high volume of public records requests

South County

WESTERLY, R.I. (WPRI) — Westerly Public Schools has become the third Rhode Island school district to receive a large number of public records requests involving racial issues, according to Superintendent Mark Garceau.

The school districts in South Kingstown and Barrington have also received large record requests, in April and May, respectively. The situation in South Kingstown has drawn national media attention after a high-profile School Committee meeting last week.

In an email, Garceau told Target 12 that Westerly school officials have so far fulfilled recent Access to Public Records Act (APRA) requests seeking an “inventory of American flags in classrooms” and “confirmation that we still teach about the Holocaust.”

Garceau wrote that the district is still working to respond to a list of requests for teacher correspondence, teacher emails, curricular documents, teacher training materials and other items.

Doing so “will require many hours of preparation as we try to close out the COVID school year,” he said.

Bob Chiaradio, a Westerly resident who said he and his two children attended the town’s schools, confirmed he submitted a records request on May 27 with 11 items. He told Target 12 he began looking into the schools last September and became convinced that critical race theory was being taught after visiting the Facebook pages of the superintendent and assistant superintendent.

“That led me to believe I needed to start investigating a lot further,” he said.

Chiaradio said his requests include a list of Westerly’s entire K-12 curriculum; copies of all textbooks and reference materials; all slides and materials from inherent bias training sessions for teachers and staff; and any correspondence from the superintendent or assistant superintendent mentioning phrases such as “white privilege,” “Black Lives Matter,” “the 1619 Project” or “George Floyd.”

Chiaradio said he expects to receive his first response to the records requests on Friday, and plans to submit another request later this week seeking three or four additional items. (He acknowledged he also made the inquiry involving American flags and the Holocaust, but said they were not public records requests.)

Chiaradio said he and Nicole Solas — the South Kingstown woman who made national headlines last week for similar records requests in her town — “work very closely together.” He said he was in attendance at the South Kingstown School Committee meeting last week where the committee considered suing Solas for filing too many requests. (The panel opted against taking that step.)

Westerly School Committee Chair Diane Chiaradio Bowdy — who is Chiaradio’s sister — declined an interview request.

“I will say it’s unfortunate that the district’s resources continue to be tapped for things that don’t directly support the interests of our students,” she told Target 12 in an email.

South Kingstown and Barrington both received records requests around similar topics from Parents Defending Education, a national conservative nonprofit opposed to school districts teaching “critical race theory” and other anti-racism curricula.

The Parents Defending Education website states the South Kingstown records request “includes (but is not limited to) budget and costs incurred related to the Racial Equity Audit and Strategic Plan and for the professional development series, Nonviolence Conflict Reconciliation; costs and communications related to antiracist and equity related professional development and critical race theory; any changes to classroom practice, activities or curriculum made as a result of these trainings related to antiracism, equity and gender identity.”

The website states the Barrington records request “includes all communications related to the March 31, 2021 RI House Education Committee hearing on HB 6070. Students from Barrington High School signed up to testify against the bill, allegedly, as part of a school assignment. Included in the request are all emails, correspondences and assignments from March 1, 2021 through the present in Barrington Public Schools, related to HB6070 and critical race theory.”

South Kingstown School Committee Chairwoman Emily Cummiskey said last week that Solas had sent the school committee more than 200 public records requests over the past several weeks. She said those requests would require hundreds of hours of the district’s time to complete.

Solas has appeared on the Fox News programs “Tucker Carlson Tonight” and “Fox & Friends” in the last week to discuss her conflict with South Kingstown school leaders.

Parents Defending Education has said Solas is not affiliated with the group, and Westerly’s Chiaradio said he is not, either.

“I’m not affiliated with anybody — I’m affiliated with me and my group,” he said. “That’s it.”

Tolly Taylor (ttaylor@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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