The school officials at the heart of HBO's new film “Bad Education” may have gotten away with the largest theft from a school system in American history if it weren’t for a persistent student reporter.
Roslyn High School student Rachel Bhargava (played by Geraldine Viswanathan) was weary of continuing to write fluff pieces for the student paper Hilltop Beacon. She was determined to dive deeper and report more substantial stories.
As a result, Bhargava began questioning the school’s expenses — noticing that an exorbitant amount was being spent on cosmetics and questionable items while the school’s roof continued to leak. She began calling companies listed on expense reports only to find out they were often not companies at all. Some were merely people connected to the school’s superintendent Frank Tassone and assistant superintendent Pamela Gluckin.
When she uncovered that they had in fact embezzled thousands in taxpayer dollars, she broke the story in the student paper. Her reporting ultimately led to the arrests of Tassone, Gluckin and their co-conspirators, as shown in the film. Her work scooped even The New York Times, who along with other outlets in the tri-state area, covered the embezzlement scheme heavily after her story came out.
Is Bhargava based on a real person?
Rebekah Rombom was a senior at Roslyn High School when the Hilltop Beacon broke the story in 2004. Rombom told the Island Now that the character is based in part on her. HBO has not confirmed this to Oxygen.com.
She told Island Now that she “received some information about an alleged embezzlement taking place” while she was serving as co-editor of the student paper. She then attended a school board meeting and began digging.
“I did some interviews in the process,” Rombom said. “Rachel does a little more investigative reporting than I did. I had tried to do a Freedom of Information Act request to dig a little bit deeper on some of the documents that I thought revealed more detail about what was going on, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it in time, so I reported the facts that I had from interviews that I was able to do before we published.”
She then broke a bombastic 2004 story which alleged that school officials embarked on a $250,000 embezzlement scheme. What she didn’t know yet was that the amount was much higher. Tassone and Gluckin — and a number of co-conspirators — were arrested soon after. It’s believed they conducted one of the biggest thefts of a school system in American history, the New York Times reported in 2005.
HBO said in a press release that “Bad Education” celebrates the Roslyn High community, the school newspaper in particular. They noted that The New York Times got wind of the scandal after a writer’s son, who attended the school, brought a copy of the school paper home. A media frenzy soon followed.
The real Tassone stole $2.2 million from the school district, Newsday reported in 2008. Gluckin admitted to stealing $4.3 million. Tassone was sentenced in 2006 to four to 12 years in prison for larceny and was released early in 2010. Gluckin was sentenced to 3 to 9 years in September 2006 for larceny. She was released in 2011, Newsday reported at the time. She remained on parole until 2015. She died two years later, HBO told Oxygen.com.
Where is Rombom now?
Rombom studied English at Dartmouth where she also worked for the school newspaper. She graduated in 2008, according to Island Now. She lives in Brooklyn and, like the people she helped bring down, now works in education. She said she consulted on “Bad Education.”
“I haven’t worked as a journalist in about a decade, but I’ve always taken what I do seriously,” Rombom told the Island Now. “My approach at school and in my career has been to put in a lot of effort and try very hard to do well. I’ve now worked in several different industries and roles, and for me that approach, alongside being very lucky and grateful for what’s come my way, is what’s worked.”
She said she felt conflicted about breaking the story and for stirring up such controversy in her community.
“I do think that one of the central themes that comes out in the story is that several things can be true, one person or one situation at once,” Rombom told the outlet. “And I definitely felt conflicted about being the first to publish this information. I know that Dr. Tassone led a school system that did an incredibly good job for a lot of students, including me, and also oversaw the embezzlement of a ton of money that was meant to fund our education. It’s a hard set of realities to reconcile.”
Roslyn High was and is one of the top schools in the nation.
Rombom did not immediately respond to Oxygen.com’s request for comment.
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