Candidate Kory Nelson was recently subject to social media backlash after the local group Douglas County Parents, which is registered with the state as a political committee, circulated comments he made on Facebook in February 2018 regarding armed teachers.
Nelson’s post discussed differences in gun culture among urban and rural areas and rebuked gun-free zones, but two lines in particular drew ire. The comment regarded teachers affiliated wtih the Democratic Party, which some community members found divisive from a candidate in a nonpartisan election.
“The best solution for a bad guy with a gun is a good guy or gal with a gun who wants to have one and is trained to use it,” Nelson wrote. “Let the D teachers wear the safety vest with the label ‘I don’t care to defend myself or my students’ with a bullseye.”
Douglas County Parents — which has publicly endorsed and made campaign contributions to Nelson’s opponent in the race, David Ray — believes Nelson should apologize for the comments and withdraw his candidacy, said spokesman Jason Virdin.
“Our takeaway is that anybody who has that much disregard for teachers, regardless of their political affiliation, if they have that little respect for teachers, they have no business within a leadership role within the district,” Virdin said.
The committee opposes armed teachers and considers school resource officers a better approach to school safety.
Nelson said the statements were taken out of context and misunderstood. His 2018 post also shared a link to a story from The Denver Post regarding then-Gov. John Hickenlooper’s comments on arming teachers.
Nelson said he was specifically responding to the idea of state-mandated, gun-free zones and he believes districts should decide whether or not to arm staff.
Ray called Nelson’s comments “reckless, irresponsible and insulting to our teachers.”
“Our educators make great sacrifices to protect our students on a daily basis. To suggest that their political affiliation (‘the D teachers’) would make them less likely to do this, is absurd,” he said. “It was a very divisive comment.”
In August, debate swirled around Lone Tree charter school Ascent Classical Academy as it negotiated a transfer of its charter from the Douglas County School District to the state so that it could continue a program allowing staff, including teachers, to carry guns on campus.
The school board said Ascent’s program violated the district’s safe schools policy, while Ascent maintained it was acting within the confines of its contract. The board ultimately chose to allow Ascent to pursue authorization under the state and not the district, but the issue sparked debate over charter school autonomy.
School board President David Ray, who is seeking reelection, said charter schools can request waivers from state statutes or district policies. The waivers are granted when the charter school has a replacement policy or a rationale for why a particular policy does not apply, he said.
But the district has not received a waiver request from any of its charter schools, Ray said, and with no waiver in place, he believes the charter’s contractual duty is to follow district policy.
“I believe this is indicative of our charter schools wanting to ensure that safety practices and procedures meet the same high standards as all of our district-run schools,” Ray said.
Board candidate Elizabeth Hanson agreed. She said the lack of waiver requests from charter schools show that “generally, we agree that the district’s comprehensive best-practice approach is appropriate.”
She said each charter school’s contract contains processes to address questions about autonomy and if a charter wants exemption from portions of district policy it should follow those procedures. Candidate Susan Meek also said charter schools should follow district policy.
Ray has said the issue with Ascent was not a debate over arming teachers but instead one over what district policy and the charter’s contract did or did not allow.
Candidate Kory Nelson felt differently. He called the district’s handling of Ascent “harassment.”
As an example, he criticized comments made by Superintendent Thomas Tucker at the state Capitol in which Tucker said the district would “fight tooth and nail” if any school wanted to arm staff.
Nelson said that stance is acceptable for district-run schools but called it an overreach regarding charter schools.
Candidates Andy Jones and Franceen Thompson also prefer leaving the decision over arming staff to charter schools. Jones said the state respects the right of charter schools to make safety and security decisions, and he supports that right as well.
Thompson said security should be a component of school choice in Colorado.
“If a charter school is producing acceptable academic outcomes there is no reason for the district to meddle in the charter school’s security processes,” Thompson said. “The district should not stifle parental choice.”
As the Nov. 5 election draws near, three candidates running in the Douglas County School Board election have taken a strong stance against the prospect of arming teachers and staff in local schools, while three others say they are open to discussing it.
The different approaches to security come amid a school year that kicked off with debate over armed-staff policies after a local charter school began a program allowing some employees to carry firearms.
Near the end of last school year, in May, a shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch thrust the community into conversations about school safety. One student died and eight others were injured during the incident.
The following is a look at the six candidates’ views on arming teachers and staff at schools in the county.
Candidate Kory Nelson said arming teachers is not a priority for him but he’s open to discussing it for Douglas County schools. His opponent, incumbent and board President David Ray, stands staunchly opposed.
Nelson stressed he’s more focused on bolstering the school resource officer program in Douglas County than he is exploring an armed-staff policy. But he’d be open to considering the issue as a board member if it’s of interest to the community.
He doesn’t believe the majority of teachers want to carry firearms at school — his parents were teachers in Nebraska and his wife teaches in the district — but he’s not sure how the broader community feels on the topic. Nelson said armed teachers and staff is not a conversation the sitting school board has allowed to take place.
“Do I think it’s the right decision, or the wrong decision? That’s not my priority. I’m willing to listen,” Nelson said. “I don’t know what our parents think because they haven’t been heard from.”
Ray opposes arming staff in Douglas County public schools. Ray was traveling outside the U.S. at the time of the reporting of this article and answered questions via email.
He said the responsibility to provide safe schools goes beyond school staff, and also includes first responders, fire departments, mental health providers and law enforcement agencies.
“None of these agencies recommend arming staff, other than those that are trained and hired for the specific purpose of security,” Ray said. “Given that they are the experts in these areas, I support their recommendations.”
He believes the district has “cohesive relationships” with the sheriff’s office and municipalities and said, “we take their lead in recommending safety practices for the public and community.”
Ray said he “might feel differently” about armed staff in areas where law enforcement coverage is sparse, but he does not support such a policy in Douglas County.
Nelson said he opposes state-mandated gun-free zones because rural schools may have less law enforcement coverage and should be allowed to decide at the district level whether or not to arm staff.
Candidate Franceen Thompson, parent of a former STEM School student, is open-minded toward arming teachers.
Thompson said via email that children’s safety is too important to “allow irrational politics to take any option off the table without thorough consideration.” Thompson’s daughter was a senior at STEM at the time of the May 7 shooting that left senior Kendrick Castillo dead.
“I believe all security options must be on the table, including allowing certain staff who are willing and properly trained — and in cooperation with law enforcement — to be armed,” Thompson said.
When speaking with Colorado Communtiy Media by phone, Thompson said experiencing the STEM tragedy is why she chose to run but she’s always supported considering all secruity options.
Thompson’s position on the matter became the “tipping point” that Elizabeth Hanson, her opponent, said pushed her to run.
Hanson said she chose to run mostly in hopes of improving the district’s employee retention and work culture. She has a background in labor and employment law.
But arming teachers is an issue Hanson said she’s passionate about addressing. She’s firmly against armed staff “under any circumstance,” she said, and as she considered a run, learning Thompson is open to the idea of arming teachers and staff helped sway her toward adding her name to the ballot.
She called arming teachers and staff reckless, dangerous and “a misguided effort to keep our children safe.”
“There’s just such an element of potential human error,” Hanson said.
When asked if he supports arming teachers and staff at local schools, candidate Andy Jones said he’ll work with various stakeholders to evaluate school security practices. Jones was traveling outside the U.S. at the time of this article and answered questions via email.
“If I am fortunate enough to be elected to this school board, I look forward to working with my fellow board members and listening to staff, experts, the community and law enforcement to determine the best ways to keep each of our kids in every one of our schools safe,” he said.
Jones’ opponent, Susan Meek, supports current district policy, which says the only people who can carry firearms at school are those hired specifically for security. She opposes allowing teachers and staff to carry firearms at school or school functions.
Meek, who ran for school board in 2011 and worked as a spokeswoman for the Douglas County School District from 2009-11, said school safety is a key issue in this election and top of mind for those running.
“I think it’s extremely important for all the candidates,” she said. “I’ve heard all candidates talking about it.”
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