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Signatures, testimonials forged on online pro-GATE petition

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From page A1 | March 03, 2013 |

The already heated debate about the school district’s Gifted and Talented Education program took an ugly turn last week with the discovery that a pro-GATE petition on the website Change.org contained forged signatures and written testimonials falsely attributed to Davis parents.

The petition, addressed to the Davis school board, says, “We the undersigned are parents, teachers and citizens of Davis who strongly support the current DJUSD self-contained GATE program” and calls for “no significant changes to the (GATE) program without a demonstration that the current program is failing its students.”

The petition was created by the newly formed group, Davis Excel, which included a link to the petition on its website and in written materials provided to The Enterprise last week.

By Friday, the petition had 383 signatures and dozens of comments in support of GATE.

However, late last week, parents began reporting that they had never made the comments attributed to them or signed the petition.

North Davis Elementary School parent Shelley Dunning learned about the deception when she received an email inviting her to a GATE-related meeting. At the bottom of the email was a message saying she’d received the communication because she had signed the GATE petition.

Dunning, who said she had never visited the Change.org site before, discovered that not only was she listed as a signer, there was also a lengthy comment posted nearly a month ago that was attributed to her.

The comment said: “I have one child in the GATE program at NDE and then another not in the program at the same school. The difference between the depth and breadth of what the two are learning is incredible. My child not in the program is often bored and simply fills in the blanks of boring worksheets. My GATE child is challenged to go deeper, faster and better. It is very sad to see that in such a highly educated community like Davis, we cannot come together to support such a fantastic educational program for our children.” — Shelley Dunning, Davis.

Dunning called the fabrication “outrageous.”

“I am sickened that someone used my name to set up an account and then posed as me to sign a petition and write words that weren’t mine,” she said. “I now have friends coming forward to tell me they received the same email saying they signed the petition, although they didn’t. It’s outrageous that anyone would do this, but especially in this case, where it concerns our kids and their education.”

The fake comments attributed to Dunning, who is married to Davis Enterprise columnist Bob Dunning, also were included in a packet of materials delivered to The Enterprise last week by Davis Excel representative Robert Poppenga. The quote was one of 25 provided under the heading, “Parent and Other Reflections on the Value of the GATE classroom,” and included at least one other fabricated quote, this one attributed to Davis parent David Thompson.

Thompson’s wife, Jean, said Friday her husband had never visited the Change.org site, never signed the petition and never provided the quote.

Poppenga said the quotes included in the packet of materials were printed directly from the Change.org website.

Change.org is an Internet petition platform that allows anyone to create a petition that can then be signed by others online before being printed and delivered. The site claims it has 25 million users in 196 countries.

The community guidelines on Change.org say signatures using fake names or invalid email addresses are not allowed, and users should not impersonate others, but options for preventing fraud seem limited, as does recourse for those impersonated.

When UC Davis law professor Anupam Chander, who created the GATE petition, was contacted by Davis resident Meghan Zavod about comments on the petition falsely attributed to her, he was able to remove the comments, but not her name from the list of signatures.

He was told in an email from Change.org, “unfortunately, we do not have a feature that would allow you to delete their signature on the website. The only option that we are able to offer is the option to hide their signature. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

That meant forged signatures could be hidden from public view but would still be counted in the overall tally, which is why the petition on Saturday still boasted 383 signatures even though an unknown number of those signatures were forged.

Hiding signatures

Chander also was told that as petition creator, he could not hide any false signatures himself; rather, the signers themselves would have to contact Change.org. For those who had never actually signed the petition in the first place, that merely added to the confusion and anger on Friday.

Chander said he had emailed all 383 people listed on the petition to let them know if they had not signed the petition, they could contact Change.org to have their names hidden. As of Friday afternoon, he could confirm from those who had replied to him that false signatures and/or comments were provided for at least five people, and Dunning said she knew of several more.

Finding out who is behind the deception could prove challenging. In email exchanges, Change.org refused to provide Chander, Dunning or Michelle Amato, whose husband Jim was falsely quoted, with the IP address or email of the person or persons who posted the comments, saying it was against the site’s privacy policy to do so.

“We are unable to provide the information requested without an official search warrant, with which we will be more than happy to comply and help with,” Dunning was told.

Chander and other Davis Excel members expressed anger and frustration over the deception involved.

“I am appalled that someone would use another person’s name in this way, even going so far as to include (purported) personal details about family members,” Chander said in an email. “And I am also appalled that someone would seek to besmirch the good intentions of those who support this petition.”

Said Poppenga: “We (Davis Excel) have absolutely nothing to gain from including fraudulent comments and absolutely condemn such activities. Steps are being taken to try to prevent this from happening and verify petition signatures. I hate to think that anyone would resort to such ‘dirty tricks’ — but I am now quite concerned. We are strong advocates of honesty and transparency on the part of all who are interested in this issue.”

Parent behavior

GATE-gate, as some were calling it on Friday, was another episode in an increasingly divisive debate that has, at times, been less about the merits of the GATE program and more about the behavior of some of the parents involved.

In December, an Enterprise op-ed penned by North Davis parent and PTA board member Kathy Glatter provoked an outcry on the elementary school campus and throughout the community not only for the tenor of her comments in favor of GATE, but also for publicly diagnosing students in her children’s classrooms with what she called “serious emotional problems.” Those problems, she said, detract from the learning environment and create the need for self-contained GATE classrooms.

Many said in defending GATE in that manner, Glatter not only had violated the privacy of students at the school, but also escalated the level of rancor in the debate over the GATE program.

Indeed, several of those impersonated on the GATE petition said Friday that while they have children in the GATE program, they had purposely not signed the petition or gotten involved because they did not want to be part of such an increasingly divisive issue.

Unbeknownst to them, they have been more involved than they realized: Some of the fabricated comments have been on the petition for nearly a month and have been handed out in information packets, including at a GATE meeting last weekend, leaving parents like Dunning to wonder how many people think she said something she never did.

And how many more Davis parents like her are still out there.

To view the GATE petition on Change.org, visit http://www.change.org/petitions/davis-school-board-preserve-excellence-in-education. To  have a forged signature hidden or a quote removed, visit http://help.change.org/home.

— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at [email protected] or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy

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