Fight for school transparency in Pembroke earns First Amendment award

  • Marc Miville, a friend and colleague of David Pearl, accepts the 2016 Nackey S. Loeb School’s First Amendment Award on behalf of Pearl at the Palace Theatre in Manchester on Thursday night. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 11/17/2016 11:39:14 PM

School officials in Pembroke once tried to muzzle David Pearl.

And the cops in town, trying to keep the peace, suggested he leave a public meeting, knowing full well the Hooksett resident was within his rights.

Pearl never budged.

It didn’t take long for all involved to learn a hard lesson: No matter how often Pembroke School Board Chairman Tom Serafin told Pearl to sit down, or Pembroke Co-Superintendent Patty Sherman insisted state law prevented her from revealing the drug bust of a staffer, Pearl dug in his heels and demanded answers. He demanded a voice. He demanded his First Amendment rights.

Every time.

That’s why he was posthumously given the Nackey S. Loeb First Amendment Award on Thursday in Manchester, five months after he died suddenly from a heart attack at age 55, and seven months after he fueled a campaign against what many in the community saw as a cover-up.

“Pembroke suppressed free speech, but David kept going,” Marc Miville, a friend who accepted the award for Pearl’s grief-stricken wife, said during a short film.

Later, at the lectern, Miville added, “He was all about accountability, about transparency.”

Remember Pearl? He was big news after Rekha Luther, the dean of students at Pembroke Academy, was led from the school in handcuffs in February, arrested for possession of heroin and steroids.

Then, nothing. Even within a climate of opioid abuse, sometimes happening in schools, Pembroke school officials chose to avoid the subject. Only after my colleague, Nick Reid, broke the story six weeks later did they address the issue.

They said their hands were tied based on state law. Something about an employee’s privacy outweighing the public’s right to know. In other words, nothing to see here.

Sherman, realizing word was out after parents began asking questions, wrote a letter to the community, which read, in part: “We have not made any public announcements regarding this case because it is a personnel matter that under state and federal law the administration must keep confidential.”

Pearl’s response? Baloney.

An arrest is a public record. Sherman could have informed parents, in the same way the police chief detailed the charges against Luther.

At one meeting with the Pembroke school board, Pearl said, “I don’t find it was non-public knowledge or protected by any law because it was a police report filed on an adult.”

At another meeting five days later, Pearl told the board it had “avoided at every turn building trust by admitting what happened in the school. I show you a mistake and instead of rushing to correct it, you’re putting up another wall.”

That’s why Pearl won this award. He hated walls. In an age when local officials often hide behind phony rules, sometimes even calling cops with really big arms to school board meetings to intimidate, which is what happened to Pearl, the videographer never quit.

His tenacity reminded us not to be sheep. He reminded us not to always fall in line and, in this case, to speak up when other would prefer you be quiet.

Once the media reported the arrest, Pearl took over, asking why no one had informed the public about a serious issue, and trying to ensure this sort of secrecy never happened again. He was told to zip it, more than once.

At one meeting, the one in which a detective with Popeye-sized arms attended, Serafin told Pearl he was breaking the rules and he should “please sit down.”

“Which rule am I breaking?” Pearl questioned.

“I’m not going to give you a reason,” Serafin said. “I asked you to sit down.”

Pembroke officials, we learned, cited their policy because it was a personnel matter. They maintained state and federal law stopped them from saying anything.

Pearl kept it simple: “That information can be conveyed to the public,” he said at one meeting. “Nothing further, but that information could have been conveyed.”

There would be no lawsuit against the school board if they stuck to the simple, public facts.

His battle aligned with that of Donna Green, who, as a member of the Timberlane Regional school board, fought access to public information as well. Green was also honored Thursday, after pressuring officials to view electronic school records to avoid paying 50 cents a copy for the voluminous file.

It all came together at the award ceremony, this concept of freedom of the press and freedom of speech and the right to petition government. An all-star gathering in this field spoke at the Palace Theater.

Claire Ebel, the former director of the American Civil Liberties Union, was honored as well. Speaking about Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback who kneels during the national anthem, she said, “They want you to stand during a football game and sing the national anthem. The press could not challenge government without the First Amendment.”

Joe McQuaid, the publisher of the Union Leader and a co-cordinator of the event, said, “We need to protect the First Amendment. The First Amendment allows us to dig up news and print it.”

In this case, Pearl never stopped trying to pry open the clams who sat in front of him at these meetings, never stopped trying to obtain information he believed was important to share.

He wanted to know about the inner workings at the school in which his daughter attended and make sure serious issues were communicated to parents.

“Some in town saw things differently,” Miville told the crowd, referring to the road blocks his friend had hit. “Hopefully they see things differently now.”

I tried to find out, but Sherman did not respond to emails and phone messages, although no law prevented her from doing so.

Meanwhile, Pearl’s wife, Joanne Pearl, watched a film about her husband’s contributions to transparency in local government and schools. She heard the ovation after Miville had finished his presentation. She cried, and others spoke about Pearl for her.

“Every meeting when he’s not there,” Miville said, “he will be missed.”

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