Employee fears of intimidation, retaliation shroud Douglas County Schools

In wake of several incidents, educators fear that criticizing board puts them in personal, professional jeopardy

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Josh Ilano walked through one of Legend High School’s parking lots on his way to school when he noticed flyers on several school employees’ cars. At first the 18-year-old chuckled. He thought teachers had gotten some sort of ticket. Then he took a closer look.

“Most teachers are good and we appreciate them! You are bad! Get out and leave,” the papers read. “ALL teachers unions are bad! Teachers unions are not for the kids and not for the parents! The whole nation sees that!”

Ilano snapped a photo. Then he bolted.

He sprinted into school and found two of his English teachers to tell them what he found. They started alerting other staff and went with him to the parking lot, where they found the school principal and two other teachers already taking down the signs, Ilano said.

The flyers appeared targeted toward vehicles that still bore chalk messages from the November school board election supporting progressive candidates. Still, some expressed non-political messages and a general support for teachers, he said.

The high school senior remembered being at a loss for words.

“It’s just the utter lack of nuance of going, `You are bad,’” he said. “It was an unaimed attack at not what they are teaching but of their character.”

Teachers in the spotlight

At a Feb. 16 special meeting, school board President Mike Peterson called the flyers left on school campuses “very upsetting” and said district security was looking into the incident.

“This is no way to move forward as a district. Our teachers should be respected and supported for the work they do for our student every day,” he said.

It was not the only controversy directors addressed as fears of intimidation and retaliation toward DCSD staff who criticize the board are running rampant in a deeply polarized district.

Earlier in the week the district notified staff that someone submitted a public records request for the names of employees who were absent on Feb. 3. the day of a teacher “sick-out.”

More than 1,500 staff called out of work that day, forcing the district to cancel classes and have a “no student contact” day, where buildings were open for employee workdays but not for school.

Hundreds of employees, parents, students and community members rallied outside district headquarters to protest reports that majority directors planned to remove former Superintendent Corey Wise. The board later fired Wise in a 4-3 vote on Feb. 4, a move that critics of the conservative board majority said was a political decision.

The protesters also protested making any changes to the district’s equity policy and urged board transparency amid allegations that majority directors violated open meeting laws. Those allegations will be settled in court after a community member filed suit.

The district notified staff who were absent Feb. 3 that it intended to provide the information to the record requester by end of day Feb. 16. Peterson followed up that email amid widespread reaction with a letter to employees saying he was trying to look into who made the request.

During their Feb. 16 special board meeting, directors held an executive session regarding the public records request and confirmed afterwards the district would not be releasing names of teachers who protested.

A district spokeswoman confirmed the individual who submitted the records request had withdrawn it.

For one Douglas County Schools assistant principal, the records request filled her with “complete anger. Just absolute anger.”

The administrator, who asked not to be named for fear of losing her job, was not protesting that day. She was at home in quarantine after contracting COVID-19. She requested a sick day well before the rally had been organized.

Now her name was on a list that would not specify why she did not go to work on Feb. 3, she recalled thinking.

She worried about every employee who was absent that day. Teachers who participated in the rally to raise their voices. Teachers who had voted for the newly-elected board majority who were genuinely ill. Any employee who was out of office for myriad reasons during the protest.

Parents who had already been disgruntled before the teacher protest would have one more reason to harangue district staff who were absent that day, she said.

“After the years that these teachers have dealt with, the absolute just hell that they have been through in the pandemic,” she said.

A call to release names

Releasing names of protesters was widely condemned among people who supported teachers that rallied, while some high-profile community voices had advocated heavily for the names to be publicly available.

Radio hosts including George Brauchler, the former DA for the 18th Judicial District and a Douglas County School District parent, publicly called for teacher names to be available to parents who wanted to confront teachers about why they rallied instead of going to work.

That stance generated swift brushback, but the information is public record, Brauchler said.

“It’s not just me who says so. It’s the law in the state of Colorado, both by statute and by case law,” Brauchler said, referencing the Colorado Open Records Act and a Colorado Court of Appeals case out of Jefferson County Schools in 2014, which determined teacher sick absences are public record.

He also pointed to a recently adopted anti-doxing law in Colorado, which did not prevent releasing names of law enforcement or public health employees.

“These were, just to be clear, these were public school teachers who made a publicized decision. This wasn’t a secret decision,” he said.

Brauchler said the sticking point for him was that protesters shut down schools after students lost a day already that week to a snow day, and after the learning loss caused by the pandemic.

DCSD employees could have rallied outside school hours, at a board meeting, or some other time that would not have interfered with classes, he said.

Brauchler said there would not be “any of the gnashing of teeth” about releasing nameshad the school district been shut down because a bunch of teachers wanted to go attend a Trump rally or some white supremacist rally.”

“Had those things happened, I would have said, absolutely, publish the names,” he said.

When asked about using a white supremacist rally as a comparison, Brauchler said his point was not about the “rightfulness or wrongfulness or the popularity” of the reasons for a protest. Any teacher rally that shuttered schools, held for whatever reason, would be wrong in his eyes and warrants making their names publicly available, he said.

Brauchler also said he was not the person who submitted the records request and that he did not know who had.

“Guess what else gets to be made public,” he said. “The person who made the CORA request.”

Brauchler said releasing teacher names is not the same as doxing, and “I absolutely oppose any abuse of this information,” he said. He said fear about intimidation or retaliation is not sufficient reason to withhold information that is legally public record. People who used the names for illegal purposes should be jailed, he said.

“If anyone were to use that information to seek additional

information of criminal harassment, of intimidation, I’d be the first one to say let’s publicly and purposefully prosecute them,” Brauchler said.

‘Our system is crumbling from within’

The flyers, the call for names, firing a district veteran such as Wise and community backlash toward teachers critical of the board have all sparked deep fear among many employees, said Kevin DiPasquale, president of the local teacher’s union Douglas County Federation.

The flyers left on employees’ cars sparked concerns that teachers are not only being jeopardized professionally if they speak out, but that they may be vulnerable in the community too, he said.

DiPasquale said some employees’ “resolve is stronger than ever,” but that he expects others will leave the district “because they don’t believe in being treated the way they are being treated.”

Withdrawing the record request for sick-day teachers’ names was “the right thing to do,” he said.

“However, it never should have gone in to begin with, with the intent of being used to intimidate and jeopardize the safety and well-being of our staff,” he said.

In response to criticism of the Feb. 3 rally, DiPasquale said teachers felt strongly about protecting the district’s equity policy and urging compliance with open meeting laws.

“Our community deserves to know what is going on behind the scenes in our school district, and while some people in our community are concerned with a day that interrupts instruction, staff is concerned about the interruption of our school district by the long term,” he said.

Doing something “that draws attention” to problems in the district is more important than allowing intimidation and politically motivated decision making, he said.

DiPasquale said majority board members are being dismissive of the issues that galvanized people behind student walkouts and the teacher “sick-out” and that it is the board’s job to unite the community.

“Our system is crumbling from within, and I don’t know how the district is going to move forward without addressing these issues,” he said.

Reporter Elliott Wenzler contributed to this story.

douglas county school board, teacher intimindation in douglas county, corey wise

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