Colorado school board members cleared of accusations they bullied student
COLORADO — Two Colorado school board members have been cleared of wrongdoing after being accused of bullying a student.
A student at Ponderosa High accused the Douglas County board members of intimidating her to stop her from protesting for the superintendent's resignation. An independent investigation was conducted and on June 21 the law firm released a report saying the members cannot be punished under an official policy. The investigation found that members are not included in the school district’s anti-bullying policy. The policy only applies to students, the report said.
Student Grace Davis organized a protest supporting teachers in March after learning about the high turnover rates caused by performance evaluations. Davis believed the evaluation system to be unfair, focusing on students’ performance as a measure of their abilities as a teacher. Davis thought this system to be the cause for the high turnover rate after hearing teachers complain about the evaluation methods.
Before the protest, board president Meghann Silverthorn and director Judy Reynolds conducted a private meeting with Davis which she recorded. Throughout the meeting, Silverthorn and Reynolds made comments Davis found intimidating, including telling her she would be responsible for incidents at the protest and that the protest is not protected by the First Amendment.
Protest organizers are not responsible for the actions of protestors and telling Davis she could be liable is “chilling in its own right,” Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado, said in a Colorado Public Radio article.
Davis was asked from where she received legal advice regarding her right to protest, to which she cited the ACLU. Silverthorn said that applies to adults and that students have different rights.
“What you believe to be your First Amendment rights may not be correct,” Silverthorn said to Davis.
Silverthorn goes on to say that school sanctioned consequences are within the bounds of First Amendment rights.
She also criticized Davis for scheduling the protest during class time, saying, “You don’t believe students should be in class?” Davis responded by saying she believed it would draw more attention, citing an example of a protest at another school.
However, Silverthorn said her comments about rights have been “misconstrued.” If the protest occurred outside of school hours, Silverthorn would not have been concerned, she said. Davis’s original protest documents, according to Silverthorn, suggested to students they could not be disciplined for missing class to attend the protest. Silverthorn tried to correct her on that, saying being absent would still result in consequences.
“Of course everyone has First Amendment rights, but there are consequences,” Silverthorn said.
All students absent from class to attend the protest were punished in the form of an unexcused absence. In a letterto parents, David Haggerty, Ponderosa High Principal, said punishments “may include a warning, school detention or in-school suspension,” all of which are in line with school policies, he wrote.
In the investigation report, the authors described another board member’s, Anne-Marie Lemieux, position to be that she believed it was inappropriate for Silverthorn and Reynolds to discourage protesting and First Amendment rights or offer legal guidance that was incorrect.
On April 30, Lemieux sent an email urging Reynolds’s and Silverthorn’s resignation. Wendy Vogel, another board member, sent a similar email saying, “I agree that your intent wasn’t to make [redacted] feel intimidated or belittle,” she said, following with “Intent cannot be used an excuse for your actions.”
The redacted name likely refers to the Davis.
Of the report, Reynolds said she was “pleased”, but also she wishes that the meeting would have had a more positive outcome and that the disagreement would not have happened.
Silverthorn said it is unfortunate that the content of Davis’s original message has been overtaken by the controversy. The conversation Davis originally wanted to have about teacher turnover and performance standards is lost, replaced instead by a conversation about bullying and intimidation.
After the findings were released, Davis and others protested at the June 21 school board meeting, eventually forcing them to end the meeting.
In an interview with Westword, Davis said, "It's scary to wonder if they're going to abuse their power again, like they did to me."
The report indicates some people interviewed believed their tone to be inappropriate, but the report concluded tone is a matter of judgment and cannot be punished under an official policy. There is no policy that covers intimidating students in private meetings, which Davis maintains is the problem. “Even though technically they didn't break policy, it doesn't mean what they did wasn't wrong,” she said in an interview with Westword.
The board members also could not be punished under the anti-bullying policy because it only applies to students, not adults. Their behavior also did not fit the criteria of any other policy, the report said.
The report suggests the board consider altering their policies to cover situations like these, a conversation Reynolds said she is expecting.
“I imagine there will certainly be some discussion about it,” she said.
The investigator will meet with the board at the July 19 meeting to discuss the findings and recommendations.
The report will cost Douglas County taxpayers $163,696.25, according to documents obtained by the Colorado Independent. Silverthorn said she found it unfortunate the county had to spend that amount of money, but said they wanted a “thorough, unbiased investigation.”
SPLC staff writer Evelyn Andrews can be reached by email or (202) 974-6317
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