Administrators at the East Aurora Union Free School District utilized a service to investigate a recently formed group and connections it may have had with a local law firm.
The investigation into the East Aurora Guardians – a group that first formed to challenge the district on COVID-19 protocols and has since continued to look into other district operations – was conducted by Corporate Screening & Investigative Group, LLC, which is based in Orchard Park. Superintendent Brian Russ said the district was able use the group through a contract with Erie 1 BOCES. The investigation took place late in 2021 and Russ said it was a way to try and learn more about members of the organization.
Members of the Guardians group learned that an investigation was ongoing around October of 2021 and began to send Freedom of Information requests to the district to learn more about what was taking place. After an initial denial, the group obtained a 39-page report in January. It was provided to the paper by Denine Cole, a member of the Guardians, and was verified by the district at the newspaper’s request.
In late summer and early fall, there were parents and community members who began to challenge the district on its COVID-19 protocols, and to also show support for teachers that were opposed to testing and vaccination requirements set forth by New York State. Soon after that, these people formed the Guardians group with a website to detail some of their goals. Russ said that there is little information about who the Guardians actually are on that website and the main question he wanted to research was whether there is an association on social media between the community group and its attorney.
The law firm that Guardians work with is Rupp Baase Pfalzgraf Cunningham, LLC, which is based in Buffalo but has an East Aurora location.
“We asked the private investigator to go out and look at public records. Do an internet search. Why is Tony [Rupp] on the pages, is he part of this group or representing them,” Russ said.
For Cole, she said that she is still trying to understand the scope of the investigation and the information that was released to her. She said that the school district knew the law firm that they were connected to.
“Given the timeline, they knew that there was a connection between us and the law firm. The FOIL request came from Rupp Basse representing us,” Cole said. “All the surveillance says to me is that they don’t want us around, despite the fact that it is within our rights to assemble and participate in free speech. They intend to intimidate us.”
The report says its objective was to identify members of the group known as the East Aurora Guardians and to see if there was a connection between the group, its members and the law firm hired to represent them. It states a complete web-analysis was conducted to “search media, blogs, various information sharing sites, personal interest/opinion chat rooms and special interests of the subject.” The report supplied the school district with a social media link to every attorney that works in the office. Thirteen attorneys were identified as not having a public profile in a social media query. The report did not find any other connection between the law firm, its employees and the Guardians. About 30-pages of the report are simply screenshots of websites for the Guardians and the law firm.
“You can see from the report, there isn’t much there. It didn’t give me much information,” Russ said.
Corporate Screening & Investigative Group’s website says that it conducts investigations for school districts for either employee misconduct or to verify an address for a student. Erie 1 BOCES website states under administrative services that it offers surveillance for school districts to use when they are trying to verify a student’s address.
“Our service would check on residency and employee misconduct investigations. The service that CSI provided was to investigate suspected employee misconduct which the paperwork identifies,” Jim Fregelette said, who is the Executive Director, Administrative Services and Operations for Erie 1 BOCES.
Russ said the investigation did not require school board approval and the cost was around $600. Russ said that one of the talking points by the Guardians group is about transparency, yet the website does not state who any of its members are, it only contains information about the school district, its policies and the school board members.
“They are about transparency, but who are their members?” Russ asked. “Nothing is disclosed on the website. The only thing they disclose is information about the district. They talk about transparency, but they are anything but transparent.”
Cole said that Russ knows she is a member of the group, as well as East Aurora residents Becky Horning and Dawn Vona, who have been attending meetings since before the investigation began and who routinely speak out. She said that unlike district officials, who are public employees, she felt her group does not have an obligation to be public. She also said that some members are worried that they will be ostracized by the community if they speak out against the district.
“Parents tell us that they will not speak out because of retaliation, and especially social retaliation. I am a demon on social media,” Cole said. “What we have come to realize with confidence is that there are more people reading the comments and agreeing with us rather than painting us as troublemakers.”
Over the last few months, the Guardians group has scrutinized the district’s policies and procedures. They served a notice of default to the district in February, stating the Board Member Daniel Brunson should be removed from office because he was not properly administered the oath of office in June 2020, and a separate appeal was filed in December with the education commissioner to remove the superintendent and all school board members.
Cole said that there is nothing frivolous with what Guardians are doing and their main concern is transparency and being good stewards with the taxpayers funds.
For administrators like Russ, he said that each time he answers one of their questions, they aren’t satisfied with the answer and they want to create trouble where trouble doesn’t exist.
“They want to twist everything into a conspiracy to create problems. They are not about solving problems. They want to create a disturbance,” Russ said.
Recently, the Guardian members attended a school board meeting on April 6. Several of them spoke out during the public comment period about a future high school field trip to the Irish Classical Theatre Company in Buffalo to see a production called Stage Kiss. David Torke, who supports the Guardian members, read several lines from the script that he felt were were sexually explicit. East Aurora resident Andrea Peach provided an email from the teacher organizing the trip stating that the play has mature language and content, but the class was going to witness a “student version of the show” and the content was being altered for East Aurora.
Peach said she called the theater company and was told that a student version did not exist.
Cole told the board at the meeting that she had concerns about the theatre company requiring proof of vaccination, which discriminated against students.
After that meeting, High School Principal Bill Roberts sent an email to parents on April 8 stating that the field trip was canceled because of the vaccine mandate and the school was investigating concerns over the content of the production.
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