Investigator: Twin Peaks Academy entitled to “editorial control” over graduation speech

Screen grab of Evan Young from Democracy Now!

Twin Peaks Charter Academy didn’t violate valedictorian Evan Young’s legal rights when Principal BJ Buchmann barred the student’s graduation speech, an outside investigation found.

At the urging of Congressman Jared Polis and others, the Twin Peaks school board hired attorney William Bethke to look into accusations of illegality.

Over the course of around two months, Bethke interviewed Principal Buchmann, Buchmann’s assistant, the Twin Peaks dean of students, Evan Young’s parents and a former Twin Peaks teacher. Young, who is 18, opted not to speak with the investigator.

In total, Bethke concluded that the controversy in May and its fallout were the result of a big misunderstanding. Lapses in communication, coupled with high emotions, are what caused the antagonism. And for that, Bethke wrote, “both the student and the school should take some ownership.”

The 24 page report released Monday focuses on two central questions: Did the school discriminate against Young on the basis of his sexual orientation and did the principal violate Young’s privacy rights by preemptively outing him to his parents before the speech?

At the outset, Bethke says the district is entitled to “editorial control” over students’ speeches as long as it’s “reasonably related to pedagogical concerns.” Those concerns can include “discipline, courtesy and respect for authority.”

So the school can censor. The issue is what it censored and why.

In this case, the principal’s concern was that initial drafts of Young’s speech contained potentially offensive humor. In particular, he took issue with Young’s flippant attitude toward English class, reporting to Bethke that “the student had read summaries of certain assigned books (instead of the books themselves), did not understand the purpose of the study of literature, and intended to never read a book again in his life.” Buchmann was also worried about how an anecdote about unsuccessfully asking a female classmate on a date would go over. Even without her name, “in a graduating class of 28 students, it was very likely this girl remained personally identifiable.”

Granted, Buchmann was uncomfortable with the prospect of Young using the stage to come out as gay. That is undisputed in the report. “It is clear that the principal intended to at least discourage and perhaps to flatly prohibit any mention of the student’s sexuality,” Bethke wrote. And that’s legal.  “The school is not required to ‘endorse’ even sincere and heartfelt expressions of personal identity.”

This is where discrepancies between the different accounts start to arise.

Buchmann felt inclined to give Young’s parents a heads-up that their son planned to come out as gay at graduation so they wouldn’t be hearing the news for the first time in front of the whole school community. Buchmann did so without his student’s explicit permission.

“The principal reports he did mention this and that the student gave a noncommittal reply (perhaps “alrighty then”), which the principal took to indicate there was no strong objection to this contact.”

Bethke acknowledges that because Buchmann was the first person Young came out to, that move was a huge betrayal of trust.

“This was a long-thought-about moment for the student and having it questioned to any degree was no doubt difficult.

Even still, Bethke found that because Young’s coming out was public by design, what Buchmann did shouldn’t really be considered outing. “The student’s immediate subsequent distribution of his speech and public appearances made it clear he was indeed in the process of relinquishing all expectation of privacy in his sexual orientation.”

Either way, whether the principal improperly outed the student is not a question of legality, Bethke wrote. The statute it falls under — the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act — applies to information in official student records, not “every bit of information a school official happens to know (or thinks they know) about a student.” So outing a legal adult in the public school system to his parents was legal in this case because the document containing the information isn’t considered an official school record.

The report faults Young for going AWOL after rapport with his principal soured. The student was cagey about his second draft, dodging office staff except to deliver a hand-written note that didn’t address any of the concerns about inappropriate humor. Instead, it was “a point-by-point and and well-argued defense of the student’s decision to ‘come out.'” The principal took this to mean Young had no intention of editing his speech whatsoever.

Bethke found a caveat here: Young was making edits to the speech in a shared Google document, but Buchmann was expecting a new draft via the school’s Infinite Campus system. So the student thought his principal was accessing his edits, which he made up until three hours before graduation, while the principal thought the student did nothing.

So in the end, Bethke found that neither “acted out of any ill-will or malice,” but that both messed up. The principal shattered trust with his student, and the student evaded the principal and staff thereafter, according to the report. “The resulting confusion was genuine and, with the benefit of hindsight, understandable. It is not, however, well understood or credibly explained as acts of discrimination.”

The school board, on its part, sent a letter to the community saying it’s “pleased” with the findings of the investigation. “As the school reported all along, the student submitted a draft valedictorian speech that was condescending towards teachers and classes, was designed to embarrass a named female student and discussed his sexual preferences,” the letter says, reiterating that the principal exercised lawful editorial control.

The school board’s letter also offers three comments on the situation.

First, it says the Board of Directors found Young’s decision to stay out of the investigation “frustrating” considering he “charged the institution, on national television, with discrimination and ‘trampling his rights.'”

Second, the letter calls efforts “to twist this situation into a politically polarizing gay and lesbian issue […] shameless.”

And lastly, it calls both national and local coverage of the whole saga a “disgrace to journalism.”

The letter wraps up with a big statement: “As a school we would like to caution the national education community. When government officials, especially those who have no authority over your school, presume the right to push their personal political agenda without due process, it is a threat to the educational system’s ability to equally support all students, regardless of race, gender, religion or sexual orientation.”

In response to the implicit call-out, Rep. Jared Polis’s press secretary Laura Ryan said the congressman “appreciates Bethke’s exhaustiveness and thorough examination of the manner, as well as his unbiased and professional approach to the investigation.” An objective third party investigation is “exactly what he and other local leaders had called for from the beginning,” so he’s “glad to see this question resolved.”

Don Young, Evan’s father, told The Daily Camera he thought the report was “honest and fair” but was disappointed by the board’s letter. “The board has not done anything to show they are going to make changes going forward. Nothing is going to change until they change.”

Executive director of OutBoulder Mardi Moore told The Colorado Independent that having read the report, “It seems on all levels that the lawyer they employed did his job.” But she said it was never about the legality for OutBoulder, the LGBTQ advocacy group that’s supported Young throughout the ordeal. It’s always been about school climate.

The part of the report that gave her pause was about Buchmann outing Young to his parents. “No law was broken when the principal contacted the parents, but that doesn’t mean it was the right thing to do,” she said. “Luckily Evan has really super duper parents who have handled this all really well. But what if he had been in another situation?”

Moore stressed the importance of respecting individuals’ autonomy when it comes to communicating their own sexual orientation or gender identity.

That the report acknowledged the principal’s discomfort as fact also raised flags for Moore. “I think it shows there’s still work to be done for our schools to be safe environments for LGBT youth.”

The St. Vrain school district is having Twin Peaks conduct a school climate survey that will look at things like bullying and harassment. Moore said that’s a promising step.

The investigation’s findings will be discussed at the next school board meeting in August.

For now, Moore said she thinks Young has earned some “breathing room” and that his “bravery has created some real change.”

 

Screenshot of Evan Young delivering his speech at an OutBoulder event in June via Democracy Now! broadcast.

1 COMMENT

  1. Straight from the website of Kutz and Bethke LLC:

    “Kutz & Bethke LLC specializes in representation of Colorado charter schools, particularly in matters of school law.”

    While it’s appreciated that someone with an educational legal specialty took on the investigation, if the firm does work representing charter schools on a regular basis, then…

    Props to the young man for remaining silent. While difficult, things have a way of being taken out of context in these types of investigations. I’m also disappointed, along with the LGBTQ group, that the climate was not addressed in any serious way, being the real issue. And one has to question how effective a climate survey will be, when this was specific to a small setting, and an even smaller population that felt uncomfortable?

    It’s a common smokescreen tactic to say “well, we’ve done our due diligence and that’s that”, but what what long term change will there be? I urge that board to rethink their policies and *gasp* learn something, maybe even make some changes from this ordeal.

    In regards to the outing to the young man’s parents… it’s a sad truth that ethically questionable things can be done in legally sound ways. I hope he is doing well.

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