A costly legal investigation has cleared two Douglas County Board of Education members of harassment and bullying allegations, finding that district anti-bullying policies apply to students but not to adults.
The probe, which will cost Douglas County taxpayers $163,696.25, yielded a 69-page report that was released Monday. It looked at a March 4 meeting between two DougCo board members, Chair Meghann Silverthorn and Vice-Chair Judith Reynolds, and Grace Davis, a Ponderosa High School sophomore.
Davis organized a March 9 protest at her school to draw attention to teacher turnover there. According to the report, Silverthorn contacted Davis on March 3 to request a meeting to discuss the protest. (Full audio of that meeting, which Davis recorded, is available here.)
In a March 15 board of education meeting, Davis called on Silverthorn and Reynolds to resign, claiming they had attempted to bully and intimidate her into cancelled the rally. That call was echoed by hundreds of parents and teachers in the district, both at board meetings and on social media.
The district, in response, hired Investigators from the law firm of Sherman & Howard. In their report, they stated they were unable to “locate an express policy, procedure or other legal authority that Directors Silverthorn and Reynolds violated in conducting the meeting” with Ms. Davis. The report redacted all mentions of Davis’ name.
Davis told The Colorado Independent Monday evening that “Ethically and morally, the board members don’t recognize that what they did was wrong.”
The report shows nothing but “how awful our school board’s policies are,” she continued. “I expect Silverthorn and Reynolds to try and push the truth under the table for as long as possible. They bullied me and until they are disciplined this is going to be something every student in DCSD is going to be afraid of.”
The district did not contact Davis nor provide her with a copy of the report before releasing it Monday evening. Davis found out the report had been released from The Independent.
“I’m glad the investigation is over and that it cleared me as I hoped it would,” Reynolds told The Independent.
Silverthorn did not immediately return a call for comment.
The report cited several reasons for clearing Silverthorn and Reynolds of all accusations related to the March 4 meeting.
First, the board members’ “conduct and all allegations arising from this [March 4] incident must be viewed against the backdrop of the fundamental duty of safety dictated by state law and associated District policies,” it found. Davis was never in any threat of danger from either of the two directors, the report said, although fellow board member David Ray later claimed in a board meeting that she was.
Secondly, there is “no evidence that the [board members] violated an existing policy in meeting with students on campus, whether in the open or in private,” the report said.
That’s because board members have open access to school grounds, where the meeting took place. Investigators pointed to the March 9 protest that was attended by Ray and fellow board member Anne Marie Lemieux. School board members regularly visit the schools in the district, the report said.
In addition, the report pointed out, Davis consented to meeting with Silverthorn and that the meeting would take place at school instead of off-campus, as Silverthorn suggested.
Did the directors have an obligation to ask Davis’ parents for permission to meet with their then 15-year-old daughter? According to the investigation, no.
“We have not located a requirement that parents provide advance consent to a meeting between a student and a Board member,” the report said. Everyone interviewed agreed no such policy existed, but most interviewees believed asking for permission would have been a matter of good judgment rather than protocol, according to the report.
Next, the investigation looked at the content of the March 4 meeting. Investigators reviewed the tape with the understanding that Davis felt intimidated and attacked by the two board members.
The conversation covered several topics, including board members’ concerns about safety and educational issues, and questions about Davis’ goals and plans for the protest. It also included, the report said, “inaccurate statements” by Silverthorn about incidents at a Denver Public Schools protest and “inaccurate statements concerning potential liability for Ms. Davis and her parents from wrongdoing perpetrated by others.”
The investigation looked at the district’s policies on discrimination and harassment, noting that those policies apply only to protected categories such as race and gender. No one interviewed for the investigation could identify a specific discrimination policy that was violated. “It appears there was no evidence of actionable harassment or discrimination implicated” under the district’s policies, the report concluded.
On the claim of bullying, the report stated that district policy only applies to students, not adults. In addition, the policy requires that the perpetrators intends “to cause distress upon the bullied student.”
“Almost everyone interviewed agreed that the two board members did not intend to bully or harass Davis,” the report said.
Thirteen of the 17 people interviewed in the probe were either school board members or district employees, including all seven board members, then-Superintendent Liz Fagen, the district’s chief financial officer, two assistant superintendents, and the principal and vice-principal of Ponderosa.
To violate the anti-bullying policy, the report said conduct must be severe enough to create a hostile learning environment, which Davis never claimed.
The report did note that the board adopted an anti-bullying resolution on March 15, one that requires the Board of Education and school district staff to “provide a safe, supportive and accepting environment for all students and staff, and will not tolerate behaviors that are damaging to the environment.” But that resolution doesn’t specifically define bullying or mistreatment, the report said.
Intimidation? No policy on that, too, as it applies to adults or even to board members. Investigators could not find any policy on intimidation. But even if Silverthorn and Reynolds intended to discourage the protest, “the great majority of witnesses said it was an appropriate function of the District to discourage activity that was not in the interest of the District,” the report said.
Some individuals claimed the tone and content reflected poor judgment by the board members and “was reasonably perceived as intimidating” by Ms. Davis.
“Tone is a matter of judgment, not policy, and our review confirmed there are no existing policies legislating tone,” the report said.
Silverthorn’s inaccurate statements over a Denver Public Schools protest where a police officer was injured are okay too, according to the report. “People have a First Amendment right to be wrong,” the report said.
The DougCo board is scheduled to review the report publicly on Tuesday in a work session. In a public statement last Friday, Silverthorn committed to a public and transparent process regarding the report, making a statement that public comment would be taken at the board’s July meeting.
According to Lemieux, public comment will not be allowed at Tuesday’s meeting.
Update: The Colorado Independent received a more detailed invoice on 6/21 that showed an additional discount of $18,000; amount changed from $177,779 to $163,696.25.
Photo credit: b3d_, Creative Commons, Flickr