One incident did get through to her, though, after she faced months of alleged harassment by Michael Colson, former Westford Education Association president and a Westford Academy history teacher currently on leave.
As The Sun previously reported, Colson is scheduled to be arraigned at Ayer District Court on Tuesday, facing charges of harassment and identity fraud. A complaint filed by the Westford Police Department described how Colson allegedly used at least one fake Facebook account and email address to harass Jannelle Cioffi before, during and after her unsuccessful School Committee run. When police tracked the accounts to Colson’s home IP address, he “stated that he could not say it was not him,” according to the complaint.
Cioffi believes she was first harassed by Colson in November 2019. Soon after she argued in a Facebook group with another parent about school policy, an account under the name “David Townie Weir” posted on multiple Facebook pages about a “special intimate summer affair” he shared with Cioffi, a claim she denies. She said the police are currently investigating whether this account belonged to Colson.
As Cioffi became increasingly involved in local politics over the next few months, Colson reached out to her over Facebook messenger in January 2020 to meet her. The following month, during a dramatic School Committee meeting, Cioffi and Colson joined forces to distribute 200 T-shirts expressing support for Superintendent Bill Olsen. He later urged her to run for School Committee multiple times and told her he would do anything to help her get elected, short of a public endorsement, which swayed her to run.
“I always thought we were on the same page. We were never not on the same page,” she said, which is why she was shocked when he later endorsed current School Committee members Valery Young in March and Gloria Miller in June on behalf of the teachers’ union.
In early March 2020, “Kate Lawson,” a fake Facebook account using the photo of a Westford Academy student, created a Facebook page called “Divisible Westford Traditional Massachusetts” and posted several divisive posts Michael Cioffi said were indicative of a “racist, white supremacist group,” and made Jannelle Cioffi the moderator of the group.
She said she reached out to Lawson, who said it was an accident. She removed herself from the group.
In June, days before the election, she was again made an admin of the group, and didn’t notice until three days later, when she received several angry emails about her association with the group.
Because that group contained pro-Trump content and several posts containing the right-wing “Pepe the Frog” meme, and because she had recently attended a pro-police “Back the Blue” rally, Westford residents accused Jannelle Cioffi of being a racist. “I really didn’t want to go out. I didn’t want to go to the grocery store, because I had no idea where it was all coming from,” she said. She skipped work for three days following the harassment.
Over the next few days, she was repeatedly made an admin of the group, and repeatedly took herself out. Lawson also posted bullying messages against her in several town Facebook groups. Jannelle Cioffi eventually blocked the group.
“It wasn’t just him,” Michael Cioffi said of the posts. “Once he started it all, then it kind of snowballed, and then other people piled on, and those are people that we knew,” he said, adding that the numerous aliases Colson allegedly used made it feel like a “coalition” of people against her. When she publicly posted about the harassment she faced by Lawson, Westford residents accused her of being a “bully.”
She made clear that she was not the only one allegedly targeted by Colson, though she was the only one who has spoken up. She has speculated that Colson targeted her because she has been outspoken in advocating for students to return for in-person learning, which he was vocal against.
Lawson’s divisive Facebook posts and Colson’s ensuing arraignment have also had a chilling effect on town discourse and the number of candidates participating in this year’s election.
“These fake accounts were extremely damaging, and had devastating effects on our community. They were divisive, destructive, and harmful to the reputations and credibility of so many,” former School Committee member Megan Eckroth said in an email, referring to everyone targeted by Colson’s alleged accounts, including School Committee members, community members and school employees. “They eroded the community’s trust in our elected officials and committees, and now – discovering that the person behind these was not only a teacher in our district but the president of the Teacher’s Union at the time — is another level of devastation for our staff, our parents, and our students who feel blindsided by this deception.”
Former Select Board Chair Elizabeth Almeida said in an email that Select Board and School Committee members received “numerous outrageous, anonymous emails about the town budget” in fall 2019 that spread misinformation and “negatively impacted public discourse and sowed distrust between the public, especially members of the Westford Educators Association, and the Select Board and School Committee.” She did not say that these emails were likely from Colson.
As for Jannelle Cioffi, although she said some community members have apologized for their accusations since Colson was arraigned, she said her reputation hasn’t recovered, and that she will likely leave Westford following her kids’ graduation from Westford Academy.
“I speak up more than most. I’m not really quiet when it comes to things that I believe in,” she said. “I have been recently because I don’t want to deal with it anymore.”