The Easton Board of Education (BOE) has asked a law firm to investigate whether a federal law or any board policies were violated when a school board member forwarded emails he received from parents to a local political activist.
The investigation, which includes a review of board member emails and district policies and regulations, comes after it was learned that Jeffrey Parker, a long-time member and the Republican candidate for first selectman, forwarded emails from parents to Dana Benson, whose LLC opposed an Easton, Redding and Region 9 school district survey. The survey was intended to gather data to improve diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the schools. Parker also forwarded to Benson at least one email from an Easton parent objecting to students being required to wear masks in school.
Of particular concern is whether any of the emails Parker forwarded to Benson violated data privacy and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law that protects the privacy of student education records. The law applies to all schools that receive funds under an applicable program of the U.S. Department of Education.
“Members of the public advocating for the ER9 DEI survey might have disclosed information about a student that identifies differently,” said Jon Stinson, Easton school board chairman. “Communicating any identifying information about a student, or data from parents that identify a student, could be enough to violate the FERPA Act.”
In May, Parker forwarded district and parent emails to Benson and shared at least one email with select members of the Easton Republican Town Committee (ERTC). The subject of the emails include the DEI survey, critical race theory, and the district’s mask mandate for students. Benson’s LLC Save Our Towns/Save Our Schools led a campaign to block or delay the survey. His LLC mailed fliers opposing the survey questions to all Easton households.
On May 10, Parker forwarded to Benson an email that school board member Devon Wible had sent to the Easton BOE, then-Superintendent of Schools Rydell Harrison and Assistant Superintendent Stephanie Pierson Ugol. Wible’s email contained a link to the draft DEI survey and a draft DEI statement ahead of the school board meeting. A note at the bottom of the original email stated, “This communication is confidential and proprietary to Easton/Redding/Region 9 and its affiliates and intended solely for the named addressee(s).” Parker received the email on Thursday, May 6 and forwarded it to Benson on May 10, with instructions to “Try to clink [sic] on ‘here’ below.” Parker told the Courier that his understanding was that these drafts had already been made available to the public by May 10.
In his May 20 response to an email from an Easton resident who had voiced strong opposition to the DEI surveys, Parker blind copied what appears to be Selectman Kristi Sogofsky, ERTC Chair Wendy Bowditch and ERTC member Tom Herrmann, in addition to Benson. Herrmann is a former Republican first selectman. Benson was a member of the ERTC when the email was sent, but Bowditch has confirmed that Benson is no longer a member of the ERTC.
In addition to blind copying Benson on the original May 20 response, Parker appears to have forwarded his response directly to Benson with the comment, “No reason to hold back,” to which Benson replies on May 21, “Great response powerful direct clear.”
Parker forwarded to Benson another May 20 email sent from an Easton resident to the BOE objecting to the DEI surveys that included the following instructions and context from Parker: “Dana; encourage her to tell her friends. I need to stay outside the fray for obvious reasons but appreciate your efforts to info [sic] the public.”
On May 20, Parker forwarded another email to Benson from a parent opposed to children being required to wear masks during school. Parker added the comment, “Very dedicated informed and concerned parent.”
Parker forwarded to Benson an email on May 20 from an Easton resident objecting to critical race theory (or CRT) with a comment instructing him to “Keep the list moving forward.” Also on May 20, Parker forwarded to Benson an email from a parent who was upset with what she described as the district pushing “racist and marxist ideology and propaganda.” After receiving the email, Parker forwarded it to Benson with the comment, “Another citizen who needs to be heard.”
Parker told the Courier that he acknowledges it was wrong to share parents’ emails with Benson. But he said his intention was to put the parents in touch with Benson who was voicing similar concerns about school issues. “The parents who reached out to the board were very upset,” Parker said. “They covered a lot of issues, some of it was misinformation, some of it was accurate. My intent was to put them in touch with like-minded people who could help them from a support point of view. If I knew what I was doing was wrong, I never would have done that.”
Parker said he has since gone to the homes of the parents whose emails he shared and apologized to them. “I felt the apology needed to be face to face,“ he said. He also wrote to school board members explaining his reasons for sharing the emails and that he understands he was wrong “because he ran the risk of compromising the important work of the board.”
“I was wrong to do it,” Parker said. “I’m not excusing it. I did it and I own it. Clearly that was a mistake. I could have done it without forwarding the emails.”
In June, the Easton, Redding and Region 9 boards of education approved four surveys for completion by middle and high school students at Helen Keller Middle School, John Read Middle School, and Joel Barlow High School. Parents had to give their consent for middle and high school students to “opt in” and respond to the survey, and questions could be skipped. Parker voted against adopting the survey.
In addition to FERPA, the law firm will investigate whether the release of the parent emails violates any board policies and regulations according to the Easton Policies & Regulations. The Code of Conduct on Data Use instructs school board members to “use data to represent all of the board member’s constituents honestly and equally and refuse to surrender the board member’s responsibilities to special interest or partisan political groups.”
All board member emails forwarded out of the Easton Board of Education accounts in the past 12 months will be part of the investigation. In addition, the board will conduct a member review of FOIA, FERPA and the board bylaws, Stinson said.
Parker said his understanding of district emails was that when they are sent to a board or entity they are public documents and FOI-able. Thomas Hennick, public education officer for the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, said emails sent to the Board of Education are public information. But sharing emails that contain information from a student’s education record or that identify a specific child without written permission from the parent or eligible student could be a FERPA violation.
Stinson said it’s important for parents to know the school board takes seriously the messages they send and treats them with due care, in accordance with district policies and the law. Parker said he apologizes to parents who may have lost trust in his ability to serve the district’s school children. He’s served on the school board since 2011 and as its chairman from 2013-20. He said he hopes parents will look at his long service on the board and understand that “this was an act of trying to get parents connected to like-minded people.”
“But the way I went about it was wrong,“ Parker said.
If the law firm doesn’t complete its assessment of all board member emails in time for the Oct. 12 regular Easton school board meeting, the board may schedule a special meeting, Stinson said. He said he has worked with Parker on the school board for a number of years and has a good working relationship with him.
“I hope we can come through this with a focus on the students and adhering to FERPA,” Stinson said. “This isn’t about punishing anyone.”