WESTERLY — Members of the School Committee and the school district administration are defending themselves against criticisms, "accusations and fabrications" hurled mostly by one resident over a period of months.
Superintendent Mark Garceau and each member of the School Committee, during the committee's meeting on Wednesday, addressed comments made by Robert Chiaradio, the brother of School Committee Chairwoman Diane Chiaradio Bowdy, and two other residents.
Robert Chiaradio, who looked and sounded more incensed than in the past, has appeared before the committee periodically for more than one year claiming that students in the district are taught to embrace aspects of critical race theory. On Wednesday, for the first time, Chiaradio used the names of two of the teachers he claims are teaching students "white shaming."
Critical race theory originated in law school. It holds that many of the nation's institutions and laws are based on prejudice against Black people and other minorities.
Garceau defended one of the teachers targeted by Chiaradio as "one of the finest educators, and, frankly, one of the finest people I've met in 35 years in this business" and called the other teacher "outstanding."
Chiaradio claims that one of the teachers "shamed, bullied and silenced a student for having a different political view than he did." Garceau said a weeklong investigation revealed that the incident that Chiaradio alleges never happened.
Robert Chiaradio was joined at the podium by two other highly critical residents. Kim Suminski ridiculed some of the committee members for wearing facemasks during the meeting and said, "I want half of you impeached."
Suminski also referred to a "whipping tree" that she said was employed by the school district when she was a student. The other resident, Joanne Grey, called for the resignation of an administrator and a member of the School Committee.
Diane Chiaradio Bowdy said some individuals who address the School Committee fail to provide evidence to support their claims.
"Your credibility gets destroyed when you keep coming to the podium and not backing anything up. Ever," Chiaradio Bowdy said.
Instead of facts, Chiaradio Bowdy said, the committee has been presented with opinions.
"For some, truth and facts are irrelevant, and negativity and destruction have become a way of life. At the same time, my commitment to serving this community faithfully and proudly and tirelessly has never been stronger," Chiaradio Bowdy said.
School Committee member Mariane Nardone questioned Robert Chiaradio's approach. While she respects the district's teachers, Nardone said, she also agrees with Robert Chiaradio's stated hope that district scores on standardized tests improve.
Giuseppe Gencarelli, a School Committee member and school principal in a different district, said one of the teachers that Chiaradio criticized is his daughter's hero and is one of the district's best teachers.
"I wear a mask because I'm a role model in school. Calling us out for being on the School Committee is ludicrous and frustrating to hear. I'm an educator of 22 years. I'm an educator because I want the best for kids," Gencarelli said.
School Committee member Robert Cillino, who also works as a school principal in a different district offered a similar perspective. "I hate wearing a mask. I don't want to wear it, but if kids have to wear it, I'm going to wear it," Cillino said.
Robert Chiaradio's repetition is wearing, said Rebecca Fowler, a member of the School Committee.
"I get anxious whenever I see you Mr. Chiaradio. I am trying to be empathetic to what you are saying and I'm trying to be middle of the road, but it is tough when we listen to the same words and phrases over and over again," Fowler said.
Micheal Ober, a School Committee member, said that he has not seen proof that critical race theory is part of the district's curriculum.
School Committee member Christine Cooke said the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll.
"This is a sad night for our town. We have a very divided town — economically, politically, and health wise. It's very sad to see that hatred and animosity between all these different groups. I would love it if something positive came of this," Cooke said.
Carmela Sammataro, the district's English Language Arts coordinator, asked the committee to stop speakers from referring to specific teachers. She also promised to keep attending the committee's meetings to provide a counterpoint to the criticisms.
"It is disgusting — to drag a teacher's name into this is inappropriate. It is wrong," she said.
Lisa Fusaro, a counselor in the Westerly High School guidance department, defended the teachers who were named by Robert Chiaradio, saying one of the teachers loves her students more than any other teacher and praising the other for his "passion and knowledge."
William Nardone, the School Committee's lawyer, speaking toward the end of the meeting, said public comments about school district employee's job performance "are not appropriate." In the future, he said, he would recommend Chiaradio Bowdy "gavel down speakers" who expose the committee to legal action. He also called for an "element of civility" when individuals address the School Committee during the open forum portion of its meetings.