The only thing better than a fictionalized version of a real-life scandal is one that prominently features Long Island accents, and HBO’s Bad Education ticks all those boxes and more. Based on a mid-2000s scandal in Roslyn, a well-off suburb of New York City, the movie tells the story of Superintendent Frank Tassone (a brilliantly creepy Hugh Jackman), a superficially charming and ambitious school superintendent who is arrested for embezzling millions from the school district. The case involved multiple arrests and millions of dollars, and would later become known as the largest school embezzlement scandal in U.S. history.
The film depicts how for years, Tassone and his second-in-command Pamela Gluckin (Allison Janney) brazenly used school funds to pay for their lavish lifestyles, which for Tassone included face lifts and first-class flights to London with his much younger boyfriend. Yet because the school has a high Ivy League admit rate, Tassone avoids the notice of authorities, until a dogged high school reporter (Geraldine Viswanathan) blows the lid off the scandal. Eventually, Tassone was sentenced to four to 10 years in prison, and was released on good behavior in 2010. Gluckin was sentenced to three to nine years in prison for stealing $4.9 million; she was released in 2011, and died in 2017.
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Bad Education is based on a New York magazine story by reporter Robert Kolker, and for the most part the film is relatively faithful to its source material. Yet there are a few key deviations, with the real-life Tassone taking umbrage with some details of Jackman’s portrayal of him. Here are just a few things the movie got right — and wrong — about the scandal.
1) Tassone did indeed throw Pamela Gluckin under the bus while concealing the extent of his own embezzlement.
According to Bad Education, Pamela Gluckin’s embezzlement is discovered when her son rings up a hefty tab from a hardware store, charging it to the school’s credit card; she is later confronted by members of the school board and Tassone, a longtime friend of hers, who refers to her as a “sociopath” before calling for her resignation. He then convinces the school board not to report the theft to the authorities, for fear of hurting Roslyn High School’s reputation and college acceptance numbers.
Per Kolker’s article, this confrontation — and Tassone’s betrayal of Gluckin — is fairly close to what actually happened. Unlike in the film, however, it took a full two years after Gluckin was fired for Tassone to be investigated for his own misdeeds. Even after her firing came to light, Tassone continued to deflect blame, allowing angry parents to target their ire at the school board for covering it up, rather than at him. “[He] was seen by Roslynites as valiantly coming to the board’s defense, telling everyone who would listen how upset he was, how betrayed they all felt by Gluckin,” Kolker writes for New York magazine.
2) Both Tassone and Gluckin were extremely brazen about their purchases.
The movie depicts both Tassone and Gluckin flagrantly flaunting their lavish lifestyles. Gluckin is depicted as particularly egregious, hosting guests in the Hamptons at one of her three homes, and blithely tossing around the school credit card to pay for her niece’s PlayStation. Indeed, it does appear that both Gluckin and Tassone were pretty blatant about their purchasing habits, with Gluckin driving around in a Jaguar with the vanity plate DUNENUTN (a detail that’s thankfully captured in the film) and Tassone using $56,645 of schools funds to pay for a Manhattan weight-loss doctor. His predilection for cosmetic surgery was also well noted by parents.
From Kolker’s New York magazine article: “Says one parent: ‘Suddenly it’s not Frank in a Ford Taurus with his pants way up to here — it’s Frank with his hair slicked back and a face-lift.’ Parents and teachers couldn’t fail to notice long light scars behind his ears. A few years into his tenure, he showed up to a parents’ meeting with small bruises around both eyes. He said he had been boxing, but people in Roslyn know an eye tuck when they see one.”
3) The character of Rachel Bhagavra is a composite of the Hilltop Beacon‘s staff.
One of the most shocking aspects of the scandal, as depicted by Bad Education, is that it was uncovered not by the mainstream press, but by a high school newspaper — specifically, one dogged student journalist (Viswanathan) at the Hilltop Beacon, who breaks the story despite being discouraged by the paper’s senior staff and by Tassone himself.
It’s absolutely true that the student newspaper the Hilltop Beacon broke the story, which was later picked up nationwide. But Bjahavra herself is not based on a real person, screenwriter Mike Magovsky told Slate, referring to her as “a part composite, part invention meant to be an audience surrogate who is finding out information with us.” She appears to be in part based on Rebekah Rombom, then-editor-in-chief of the Beacon, who wrote an article for the New York Times discussing how the paper broke the story.
According to her account, her reporting didn’t arise from being assigned to another “puff piece,” as is depicted in the film; rather, she and her co-editor received a tip that an anonymous letter was floating around accusing a school district employee (later identified as Gluckin) of stealing money. The letter prompted the board of education to call for an emergency meeting, which was attended and reported on by Rombom. “I believe it was inevitable that this story would have surfaced eventually. All we did was push it there a little faster,” she wrote.
4) Tassone was not closeted, nor did he date a former student.
In the movie, Tassone is seen flirting with a Las Vegas bartender named Kyle (Rafael Casal), whom he recognizes as a former student of his. Tassone then has an affair with Kyle, jetting back and forth from New York to Vegas and flying him first-class to London, unbeknownst to his longtime partner Tom (as portrayed by Stephen Spinella, whose name was changed in the film from Steven).
Kyle is actually a fictionalized version of Tassone’s former boyfriend Jason Daughterty, a 32-year-old former exotic dancer with whom Tassone actually purchased a house. He was not Tassone’s former student, and in an interview with the Coach Mike podcast, Tassone seemed to take particular umbrage with that aspect of the film’s portrayal. He also took issue with the fact that the film portrayed him as closeted, going to great lengths to conceal his sexual orientation by keeping a photo of his deceased wife on his desk. (He also denies that his partner didn’t know about his boyfriend and that he had an open marriage.)
“I’m not ashamed of being a gay man, and again, they made it seem somewhat sordid,” Tassone said. “That bothered me and upset me when the detective questioned [husband] Steven, and he implied that Steven didn’t even know I was married. That was not the case. And I don’t understand why they had to bring my sexuality into the film.”
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