UPDATE April 13, 1:45 p.m.: Russell met with human resource staff from Denver Public Schools on Wednesday. He said they told him his remarks were “egregious,” but did not identify which remark. He was also offered the option of resigning over termination to preserve his future employment opportunities.
“This is what the Army does before court-martialing an officer,” Russell said. “I declined.”
Russell’s termination results in about a $40,000 fine based on his separation date and the date he would have retired.
Russell is expecting a written recommendation within the next five working days.
“If I’m reinstated or offered a better outcome, it is ended,” he said. “If he recommends that termination stand, I have the right to a hearing by a paid impartial hearing officer in a trail-like setting, witnesses, attorneys, etc. which is of course what I will do. I told all of them that I feel entitled to reinstatement out of fairness, and the fact that the charges are not proven by their only evidence, the audio recording.”
DENVER — A 50-year Army veteran who until recently was serving as the JROTC instructor at George Washington High School was fired by Denver Public Schools (DPS) in March over what he believes was an issue involving his cadet commander and gender identity.
Retired Lt. Col. John Russell, in fact, says DPS never gave him any specifics about why they terminated him until he pushed the issue.
A Colorado Open Records Request by Complete Colorado asking for Russell’s disciplinary actions was denied.
Will Jones, director of communication for DPS, said in an email: “Deputy General Counsel Michael Hickman shared with me that DPS can only provide verification of employment, with start and end dates and compensation and benefits information but nothing related to discipline.”
Jones confirmed that Russell was employed as a military instructor by DPS for 15 years, from Aug. 24, 2002 to March 27, 2017. He earned $98,000.
Russell was in his role at George Washington from Sept. 2, 2011 to present. He was at East High School for the first nine years.
“The nature of separation or any disciplinary action will not be provided,” Jones said. “DPS considers corrective action part of the personnel file which is exempt under CORA. Please understand that we cannot comment on this personnel matter.”
The denial of Russell’s separation or disciplinary action is a violation of Colorado open records laws that have been interpreted by the courts as recently as last year that only the information required as a condition of employment, such as address, phone number, social security numbers and other such private information is protected as personnel records.
However, Russell, who has retained an attorney, said it involves an incident that occurred just hours before he was handed his walking papers.
Russell, 72, spent 24 years, 5 months and 11 days on active duty for the Army. He retired in 1991. He immediately passed his national teaching certification test and took on a career as a JROTC instructor for the Department of Defense schools in Germany.
After his daughter’s family was transferred to Fort Carson, he moved to Colorado to be closer.
Russell said the circumstances surrounding transgender policies started last spring when the instructors were in the process of selecting the battalion commander for the 2016-17 school year.
The battalion commander oversees the commanders of all five companies (class periods) within George Washington High School as well as maintains its own staff of 10-12 students.
Russell said he and his co-instructors were in the interview process when their lead applicant, a senior this year, made an announcement they didn’t expect.
The girl responded to a question about what she would like to do as commander that she believed would improve her battalion.
The girl told her instructors she was a lesbian and that she believed the drill teams were sexist so she planned to allow students to participate in whatever drill — male or female — they associated with.
Russell said they were fine with that.
“That’s none of our business to challenge that,” he said. “She was clearly superior to the other two candidates in her preparation.”
The instructors selected the girl as their commander and started working with her to fill ranking positions under her.
They then spent the summer of 2016 working on several projects, including the ninth-grade academy, which entailed several activities with incoming ninth-graders at George Washington and two full days of team-building skills at the University Denver.
“She ran that,” he said. “And she did an absolutely superior job of gathering people, getting them into uniform, getting the materials we needed, getting them onto buses and getting them back to George Washington and ready for the next day.”
Russell said the rest of the school year went just as smoothly. The girl became the leader of the girls drill team. Both the boys and girls drill teams were opened to members of the opposite sex, and one male did join the girls team. Additionally, one female student’s request for a male uniform was granted.
Russell said because he answers to both the military and the school district, he sought advice from time to time from both supervisors, but always deferred the final decision to the principal at George Washington, and at no time did there ever appear to be an issue with gay or lesbian students and their role in the JROTC program.
“She had a lot of headway to organize and manage things to get things done,” Russell said.
In December, Russell nominated her for a speaking contest. In February, he nominated her for an advanced promotion to cadet colonel. And in March, he nominated her for the superior cadet medal.
“So all along the way, I elevated this young lady,” he said. “I gave her the praise that was due. And I gave her (criticism) when it was needed, but it was only about her performance. We had a very positive relationship. She was more or less responsible for running the battalion, and I would stand behind in the background with my arms crossed, just watching how things went.”
On March 9, Russell, the other instructors and all the student officers met before school to go over the specifics of an upcoming drill meet. He said as the meeting was breaking up, and as people were walking around the room putting things away, just minutes before the start of the next class, the student commander made an announcement without any prior notification to her teachers.
“The young lady announced, ‘Oh, by the way, from here on out, I want to be called sir, and I want to be referred to as a male because I’m transgender.’ There was a lot of background noise and a lot of people heading to the door.”
Russell said he went right into the next class, which the girl was in, and nothing was said about her announcement.
“We went through the next 90 minutes without literally batting an eye at what she had said,” Russell said.
That night he texted the other instructors and the girl about meeting the next morning to discuss her announcement. He said he wanted to make sure she understood what she was asking for, and get a clearer picture about what she wanted and how she wanted to handle it.
“But obviously, she had the right to do this,” he said. “I just wanted to be clear about how she saw this would work.”
After she asserted she was 18 and wanted to be referred to as a male, Russell ended the meeting and went about his day as planned. He called his boss at DPS, told him what was going on and was told under Army policy, she had to fill out her year as a female.
Russell planned to talk to the principal at George Washington later that day about what his supervisor said when he was called in and placed on administrative leave.
“I was put out of the building and told I was being investigated for an allegation that I had discriminated against a person in a protected class,” Russell said.
On March 27, he was terminated for discriminating against a person in a protected class (a DPS board policy) and violation of Article 26 of the Denver Classroom Teacher’s Association, which was acting unprofessionally to a student.
According to Russell, the student commander recorded their conversation, and on April 6, Russell was finally allowed to hear the recording.
Russell said he does not believe anything in the recording is unprofessional, and he stands behind his comments.
“Listening to the tape reaffirms for me that I said nothing or did nothing that would stand in the way of the girl being who she wanted to be,” Russell said.
“In the JROTC world, we serve two masters, the Army and the school district in which we are employed,” he said. “And it’s safe to say that if it’s a matter of social engineering, the school district policy will be superior. If it’s a matter of money and qualification of an instructor, the school is all too willing to leave that in the hands of the Army.”
Russell is scheduled for a post-termination hearing at DPS offices Wednesday at 2 p.m.
If he disagrees with their findings, he said he is then entitled to impartial hearing with an arbitrator. After that, Russell would need to seek other legal remedies if he still disagrees.
Although Russell had already notified DPS of is intent to retire after this school year, he said he will fight this dismissal as far as needed. He believes he was wrongfully terminated, and this is not how he intends to end his 50-year military career.
“As far as I’m concerned, DPS has to substantiate the charge,” he said. “I do intend, if necessary, to file suit against Denver Public Schools and the young lady.”
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