Douglas County, Education, Politics

Report: Student had multiple options to reach larger audience; student determined to protest

The Douglas County School District Board of Education meeting scheduled for July 19 is expected to be full of fireworks despite the fact that two board members attempted to help a student air her grievances against the district.

Tuesday’s meeting will feature a presentation by the independent investigator who cleared board members Meghann Silverthorn and Judith Reynolds of any wrongdoing in an alleged bullying incident involving Ponderosa High School student Grace Davis.

Grace Davis speaks to the Douglas County Board of Education after a public meeting with the president and vice president where she alleged she was bullied.
Grace Davis speaks to the Douglas County Board of Education after a public meeting with the president and vice president where she alleged she was bullied.

If social media sites and the board’s last work session on June 21 are any indication, political opponents of  Silverthorn and Reynolds—including board minority members Anne-Marie Lemieux, Wendy Vogel, and David Ray—will still pursue sanctions against the two women despite the fact that the investigative report indicates the two board members attempted to help Davis air her concerns.

Silverthorn, Reynolds, and district administrators tried multiple times to either answer Davis’s questions without the need for a protest or help her reach even more students with her message.

Opposition to the protest came from several directions. And beginning March 1, several meetings between administrators and Davis took place.

First, according to the report, Ponderosa High School Principal David Haggerty “right away, discussed the proper approach to the protest with Dr. Steven Cook and the Director of High Schools, Cory Wise,” the report says. “Collectively they were concerned that a highly publicized protest could draw a substantial number of people to the campus, creating safety hazards and significant disruption to the integrity of the school day.”

The report also says, “All those interviewed agreed it was appropriate for the district and PHS administrators to investigate and address the possible disruption and safety hazards associated with the protest.”

Other concerns such as students missing class were discussed. PHS administrators “made clear that they would notify the PHS parents and staff that missing school for the protest would be treated as an unexcused absence unless a parent called in an excuse,” the report says. There were no objections from Davis.

The report states the administrators also told Davis that district “higher-ups” were willing to speak with her about her concerns regarding teacher retention. When asked if she would meet with Silverthorn, Davis agreed.

But Davis made it clear from the beginning she was not willing to compromise, telling PHS administration there was “No way” she was going to be talked out of the protest, the report says.

Another meeting between Davis and administrators discussed the topics of safety, timing, location, and the integrity of the school day, the report says, and again Davis said she was going to hold the protest despite those concernss. The only concession Davis made was to move the protest from along the busy Parker Road to the school’s soccer field and to change the timing from early morning to shortly after school started to avoid traffic issues during drop-off times.

Additionally, administrators offered alternative means of redress, even providing the option of an assembly held before the entire student body where questions could be asked and answered. It was then that administrators asked Davis to meet with Silverthorn and Douglas County School District Superintendent Liz Fagen to address her concerns.

“They were attempting to discourage the protest while providing Davis a safer and more effective forum to address her concerns,” the report says.

Although Davis agreed to meet with Silverthorn, she declined all meetings with Fagen prior to the protest. Instead Davis, wanted to meet with Fagen after the protest to “interview” her with questions raised during the protest.

According to the report, Davis sent Fagen an email that read, “I am interested in meeting with you and other educational leaders, that’s why I’ve been speaking with my principals and BOE members. When I spoke with my principals yesterday I also mentioned about how I’m interested in speaking to other leaders in the district and articulating our views.”

During the meetings Davis attended from March 1 on, she made audio recordings without telling anyone. Additionally, the report states that her parents were notified at least once by administrators about the meetings taking place, and the parents declined to be present.

A report in the Colorado Independent attributes Sarah Davis to saying that she and her husband had many conversations with Grace about her involvement in politics.  The story says, “Mother, father and daughter had many conversations over the school year about the risks of Grace’s political involvement. They even made a spreadsheet gauging possible outcomes such as suspension, expulsion, or worse.”

Yet, despite the attention Davis received from the district and several requests both in person and by email to talk to board members, Davis contends she never had a conversation with her parents about meeting with Silverthorn and Reynolds in which the alleged bullying took place. The meeting was scheduled the day before it occurred.

Reynolds was not originally included in the meeting arrangements made between Silverthorn and Davis, but came after an invite by Silverthorn recognizing Reynolds as Vice President of the board.

During their 90-minute conversation, Silverthorn and Reynolds again suggested a school-wide assembly to reach more students and have a productive exchange of ideas. Davis refused.

Silverthorn also suggested Davis join the Student Advisory Group as a student representative to give feedback to the district.

The report clearly says Davis knew what she was getting into when she opted for the protest.

“In organizing a protest regarding teacher evaluation and retention, (Davis) entered into a heated public debate already occurring within the district community,” the report says. “…Leveling allegations against the district, its employees and elected officials, is very serious and doing so tends to elicit passionate responses from those affected.”

Despite the fact that Davis told administrators that she believed a lot of students would use the protest as an excuse to ditch school rather than attend the protest. The report notes that Davis’ press release, which she used to announce the protest, explicitly encouraged students to “ditch class.”

The day following the meeting with Silverthorn and Reynolds, the storm began. The Davis family began contacting the district and claiming wrongdoing. The report says at least one adult activist group with their sights on removing Silverthorn and Reynolds from their seats, began letter writing campaigns to oust the two women, printed T-shirts with #IstandwithGrace. Additionally, someone contacted the Jefferson County Education Association to help organize more protests and disruptions at board meetings.  Meanwhile, Davis exclusively gave audio of the meeting to Mark Boyle, the education reporter at Channel 7 who has thus far failed to disclose to viewers that his wife is a teacher in the Douglas County School District.

Although Davis has insisted the protest was entirely student driven, one student from PHS told Complete Colorado otherwise the day of the protest.

“A Ponderosa student, whose identity Complete Colorado has decided not to release to protect that student from repercussions from the statement, said the protest came about as a result of efforts by two students … who have a history of helping teachers get their word out.”

The students identified one of those students that day as Davis. At the time Complete Colorado chose not to identify Davis. However, once Davis began speaking at public school board meetings, her identity became common knowledge.

“Two students are really close with the teachers,” said the student in the March report. “They are always involved with them in a ton of stuff. … “(Teachers say that) since the district has changed, the pay has been below what they can live off of. They are unable to support themselves and their families and how (Superintendent Liz Fagen) gets options for bonuses but none of the teachers do.””

On Tuesday, July 19, the board will hear a presentation of the full investigative report. The meeting is expected to be contentious. Board members Vogel, Ray, and Lemieux are expected to to demand further sanctions despite the fact Silverthorn and Reynolds were exonerated of any wrongdoing in the report and attempted to give Davis other avenues to reach a wider audience.

The report also found that Lemieux, Vogel, and Ray themselves may have been in violation of the district’s code of conduct when they publicly chastised Silverthorn and Reynolds at the explosive April 19 meeting. It encourages the board to consider whether these actions amounted to censure in the lack of an investigation.

“The code of conduct allows a public censure where a substantial violation is found by the board,” the report reads. “The code of conduct thus implicitly contemplates an investigation into whether a substantial violation occurred. The conduct of the April 19 board meeting thus takes on additional significance because, if the board finds any substantial violation of its policy after a review of this report it should consider whether public censure has already occurred.”

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