The title cards before the credits roll in “Bad Education” present the usual information you get in based-on-a-true-story films, which mostly means updates on what happened to the real people we’ve just seen portrayed on screen. In the case of Cory Finley’s HBO drama, that would be Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) and Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney), the school district executives who embezzled millions of dollars from the Roslyn, New York, school district.
But there’s another card at the end of “Bad Education,” and it says this:
“The scandal was covered by The New York Times, Newsday, and every other paper in the tri-state area.
…but only after Roslyn’s own student newspaper, The Hilltop Beacon, broke the story.”
So is that true? Did a high school student newspaper really break the story of the biggest school embezzlement scheme in U.S. history?
To a degree, yes, it did. But not in the way the movie depicts it.
In the film, Rachel Bhargava, a junior reporter for the school paper (played by Geraldine Viswanathan), is assigned to do a puff piece on a proposed building project at the school. Against the wishes of her student editor (Alex Wolff) but encouraged to be a real journalist in a chance conversation with school superintendent Taccone, she begins digging into the school files and uncovers a broad-ranging pattern of false expenses and fraud.
To do so, she pores over the school’s financial records and makes countless phone calls with her father. She even journeys from Long Island to Manhattan to knock on the door of the apartment that was listed as the address of a word-processing firm that did business with the school district, but is actually where Taccone lived with a secret male lover.
Rachel’s exposé brings down Taccone’s years-long scheme in the film, which even flashes forward to show Rachel a cub reporter no more, with an “Editor in Chief” sign on her desk.
But that’s not exactly the way it happened. In real life, the story was written by Rebekah Rombom, a senior who was already one of the paper’s two co-editors.
According to an account of the events that Rombom wrote for the New York Times just before Tassone’s arrest, she had received a tip from the other co-editor about allegations that embezzlement had led to the firing of Gluckin, who as far as most people knew had quietly resigned from the school two years earlier.
Later that day, she said, she received the same tip herself, mostly likely in the form of an anonymous letter that had been sent to law enforcement. She then attended a public meeting of the Board of Education at which the board addressed the allegations, and the next day met with the school’s principal and the assistant superintendent for human resources, as well as speaking to Tassone on the phone.
The article ran without using Gluckin’s name, which Rombom had been asked to withhold. Initial reaction, Rombom wrote, was muted, although the story did prompt other news organizations to look into the story.
Digging into public records to find evidence of fraud, which the film depicts the student reporter doing, was actually done by professional reporters from publications like the Long Island newspaper Newsday, which printed its own timeline of the events in 2006.
So yes, the Hilltop Beacon did break the story. It just didn’t do the deep digging that “Bad Education” depicts.