Should parents be sued for asking questions about their schools management?

Here is the article that appears in the Philadelphia Inquirer today.

Devon charter school sues parents

By Martha Woodall

Inquirer Staff Writer

Several parents at the Agora Cyber Charter School in Devon who asked questions about the school's finances have been sued by the founder and her management company.

Dorothy June Brown contends that the parents and the Agora Parent Organization defamed her and Cynwyd Group L.L.C. in complaints sent to the state Department of Education and in e-mails circulated to other parents at the statewide cyber school.

The parents say they were just trying to get answers about the relationship between Cynwyd Group and Agora. The cyber school rents its headquarters from Cynwyd under a nine-year lease and pays the firm a management fee of at least 4 percent, according to a services agreement. Brown owns Cynwyd and serves as its senior consultant to Agora, according to school and state records.

The civil suit Brown filed in Montgomery County Court on Jan. 21 alleges that the parents made misleading statements "that give the clear but false impression that Dr. Brown is corrupt, incompetent and possibly criminal."

The suit also says the parents' association "sought to interfere with Cynwyd's contractual relationship with Agora by spreading untruths about Dr. Brown and by implying that she had improperly used public funds."

Brown and Cynwyd are seeking more than $150,000 in damages for libel, slander and civil conspiracy.

"The allegations are false," Gladys Stefany of Milton, Pike County, said in an e-mail yesterday. She said she learned about the suit last Tuesday when she was served with papers.

'Civil conspiracy'

"When did asking for information that is or should be public information become 'civil conspiracy?' " asked Stefany, who has a 15-year-old daughter enrolled in Agora and is president of the parents' organization.

"It is sad that it has come to this, but I'm happy we'll finally have the opportunity to air our case in the open and get answers to our questions."

Stefany said the questions did not involve the school's academic program. She said she was more than satisfied with the instruction her special-needs daughter has received.

News of the suit left several lawyers and education officials scratching their heads.

"I haven't heard of a case of this sort in recent memory," Len Reiser, co-director of the Education Law Center in Center City, said yesterday.

Lawyers from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association agreed.

SLAPP suit?

Angelique Smith of Aston and her husband, Ira, are among the six parents named in the complaint. She said she believed the case amounted to what is known as a "strategic lawsuit against public participation" (SLAPP) and was meant to intimidate and silence critics.

"This is really about freedom of speech and freedom of association," Smith said. "This is akin to going to a regular public school and telling the PTA to get out."

Brown referred all questions about the suit to her attorney, Wendy Beetlestone. Beetlestone said it was a defamation case and not a SLAPP suit.

"In any kind of public discussion, you have to make sure that what you say is true and doesn't bring down the reputation of the person you're talking about," Beetlestone said.

She said parents had failed to respond to requests to stop spreading information that she said defamed Brown.

"June Brown is a highly respected and innovative educator and has been for many years," Beetlestone said. "When the debate turns to making false statements and doing everything they can to bring her down, she is left with no other option. That's what this lawsuit is about."

Brown is the founder of three traditional charter schools in Philadelphia. In 2005, she and Brien N. Gardiner, founder of the Philadelphia Academy Charter School in Northeast Philadelphia, co-founded Agora to provide online home instruction to students across the state.

The school Web site listed Gardiner as a co-founder, but his name was removed in May after he became the subject of a federal criminal investigation at Philadelphia Academy and was fired from his consulting position at the charter.

The lawsuit against the parents claims Gardiner "had no role in founding Agora and his name does not appear in Agora's application for a charter or in subsequent organizational documents."

Brown's lawsuit also charges that Agora parents tried to imply that she "was guilty of some financial wrongdoing on the basis of her association with Gardiner."

Records show that Brown and Gardiner did business together. In 2005, they established Cynwyd Group as an educational management company, state records show.

In November 2007, the company paid $1.9 million to buy a property at 60 Chestnut Ave., Tredyffrin, that houses the Agora headquarters. The relationship between Gardiner and Brown was severed in May 2008.

Gardiner and others were removed from Philadelphia Ac

11 Answers

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  • 1 decade ago
    Favorite Answer

    Counter sue Brown, what a shower that lot are, I would take my kids out of that mess. Methinks they protest too much. An investigation on your behalf, should have been welcomed, without their heavy handed, and highly suspicious stand they have taken. Stick it out, I would have hoped you have every parents support. What about a silent protest, with banners. "" Why Are Finances Kept Secret, Nothing To Hide!!, then No Problem. MAKE ALL FINANCES PUBLIC."" Also inform press and media of your intentions. GOOD LUCK.

  • 5 years ago

    It's hard to say from this article if there is reason for a lawsuit. If the parents sent out emails to people of authority in which Browns reputation was damaged, and those alegations were false, there would be grounds for a lawsuit. No matter who you are, you can't just go and tell people "So and so is a bad person and they do illegal things" if you have no proof. Doing so is ALOT different than "Just asking questions" But in this news article we don't know what was said in the emails. Also The school may not win because a deflamation of character suit has to prove that Brown's reputation has actually been damaged to the point where she either lost her job, or lost income or potential income of some kind. If she was no longer able to get a job or lost her job due to false acusations, then she would have grounds to recieve money. So really it all depends on how things were worded in the emails. The difference might be as simple as "She has..." vs "I think she might have"

  • Coleen
    Lv 6
    1 decade ago

    This article doesn't show it to be a cut and dry case of the parents asked a question and are getting sued. According to the article it seems the parents went overboard with accusations against the school and their partnerships without any proof, which is slanderous.

    I think the parents could have handled their concerns in a better way. Since this isn't a public school they have the right to not enroll their kids there and take them elsewhere.

  • Anonymous
    1 decade ago

    Well if it is private it should be regulated , When I attended college we received a statement every year showing where their budget was spent and exactly how much of that budget was spent on what.

    but by taking the parents to court they make themselves look guilty of something. They should have made a very public announcement that wanted to negotiate with the parents first.

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  • 1 decade ago

    I suppose the big question here is are they asking unnecessary questions about a private organization to which they are not compelled to belong. As much as you would like the full and complete disclosure of these financial ties, it really shouldn't matter. If the parents don't like the situation, take your child and your money elsewhere.

    And if the parents really resorted to untrue Ad Hominem attack against this woman, then this woman should do everything possible to protect her name. We've seen what can happen if we allow mob mentality to rule, and this woman shouldn't necessarily be crucified, just because these people say so.

  • 1 decade ago

    According to the article the parents didn't ask a simply question about the management of the school, they asked a question about the financials, which the answer was rightfully denied.

    The parents then proceeded to slander the administration casing damages do the schools reputation.

    It isn't as cut and dry as one may think.

  • 1 decade ago

    Not at all thats important stuff. You want to know your sending Bobby & mary to good safe schools. You want to ask a new doctor questions & get referrals same with tax people or investment people because you want to know your in good hands so of course they should be able to ask.

  • 1 decade ago

    I don't think these parents are being sued for asking questions. They are being sued because they started a smear campaign against the school on the Internet.

  • Anonymous
    1 decade ago

    And these are the adult-children we have teaching our kids.

    What a sad sad sad approach to solving problems.

  • JC
    Lv 7
    1 decade ago

    ...just more of the same. There is nothing special or surprising about someone of power abusing it for financial gain.

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