Long-simmering community anger in Douglas County school district hit a boiling point Tuesday night during a meeting about a recent school board investigation.
On Monday, the district released an investigative report that cleared school board President Meghann Silverthorn and Vice President Judith Reynolds of allegations that they had bullied and harassed Grace Davis, a Ponderosa High School student. Many frustrated community members wanted to discuss the investigation, but Tuesday’s meeting did not offer a formal public comment period. Instead, attendees shouted and chanted throughout the evening, which ultimately led to police intervention.
Silverthorn eliminated the opportunity for attendees to speak formally by changing the gathering from a board meeting to a work session; unlike board meetings, work sessions do not allow for public comment. After protesters repeatedly called for her and Reynolds to resign, Silverthorn ended the meeting early.
Protesters, many wearing “#IStandWithGrace” t-shirts in support of Davis, shouted at both board members. At one point, Silverthorn recessed the group to wait for police to calm down the angry audience and try to persuade them to stop shouting.
The room’s capacity of 125 was no match for the crowd, which spilled out into a hallway and down a flight of stairs. Echoing the shouting in the room, calls to “resign!” could be heard from the stairwell.
Friction within the district goes beyond that between the board and the community. It has also permeated the seven-member board itself, as evidenced by comments between board members Doug Benevento, who backs Silverthorn, and Wendy Vogel, who is part of a three-member minority coalition that has called on Silverthorn and Reynolds to resign.
This exchange, captured by KMGH after the meeting concluded, shows Benevento tearing into Vogel, calling her hypocritical and unethical, and promising to use the rest of his time on the board to make things difficult for her.
Vogel then wished Benevento a “good evening,” to which he replied “I can’t wish the same for you.” Benevento’s second term ends next year, and he is term-limited from running again. Vogel is a first-term board member, elected as one of the three new members supported by groups opposed to the conservative majority, last November.
Two board members were absent: Dr. Jim Geddes and David Ray. In a statement posted on his Facebook page prior to the meeting, Ray, a member of the minority coalition on the board, explained that he would not be there because Silverthorn’s decision to turn the board meeting into a work session was intended to block public comment on the report, he said.
Silverthorn’s actions are reprehensible, Ray said. “But most unfortunate is that these actions are grossly disrespectful and ultimately negligent towards one student and her family. We have completely lost sight of the true issue – the mistreatment of a child – and her unacceptable experience continues to be drug out and sensationalized.”
Ray said his attendance would only condone Silverthorn’s “inappropriate actions” and “condone the continued abuse of an absolutely undeserving child.”
Apologizing for his absence, Ray added “This has gone from the unacceptable to the deplorable and I choose not to participate in such absurdity.”
Board member Anne Marie Lemieux, also a minority member, temporarily left the work session and walked to the back of the room, following a terse exchange over Silverthorn’s running of the board. Lemieux accused Silverthorn of making decisions without any kind of communication or collaboration.
“We are a board of seven people and not one person dictates how this is to be run,” Lemieux said “Over the past several weeks it has been dictated to us rather than properly communicated. I have serious issue with that. Since I’ve been left out of the process I’m going to walk to the back of the room until you are done,” Lemieux said.
As she walked away, the audience applauded, prompting Silverthorn to warn that any further disruptions would cause her to end the work session early.
That end came in under 10 minutes.
Reynolds and Silverthorn then gave board member reports, both directed at the investigation.
Reynolds, whose voice broke numerous times during her comments, said that she found it “shocking that anyone would perceive her as a bully.” She called the personal attacks against her “hurtful,” saying, “I’m grateful to be granted due process through this independent investigation and this investigation found that no policy nor law were violated.”
Reynolds referred to the “deepening divide” within the district, where neighbors are pitted against neighbors — something which existed even before the Davis incident. “I continue to hope we can move forward,” she said. The board should be able to have conversations with the community that won’t always be agreeable, but that can be done without fear of retaliation for a difference of opinion or “imperfect words,” she said.
And though she didn’t refer to Davis by name, Reynolds criticized the student for recording a conversation that Reynolds said she believed would be private and not made public as “fodder for political opposition.”
Her remarks were met with applause from a handful of supporters of the conservative majority and few boos, followed by more calls for the two board members to resign.
Silverthorn, in her remarks, said the board needs to continue to take care of the district’s business. “We have so much good work ahead of us. Why don’t we work together and do the work?” She then criticized antagonistic social media comments that have plagued various board members for months.
That was met with more calls for her resignation and requests to let the public comment.
“This is Exhibit A,” Silverthorn said, referring to yet another disruption, and ended the meeting.
Davis sat quietly in the audience during the session.
About 125 to 150 people gathered on district grounds prior to the meeting to chant their support for Davis and to speak with the media. “What directors Silverthorn and Reynolds did to Miss Davis is unforgivable [to me] as a parent and indefensible to taxpayers,” said demonstrator Julie Lamb.
So what’s next for the deeply divided board?
Silverthorn and Reynolds could face censure, a formal disapproval from the board that carries no disciplinary action. They could also move on without any action at all.
But one course of action seems clear: Despite recommendations from the report, the school board is unlikely to implement a policy governing conduct between its members and students.
Silverthorn’s objection to such a measure was practical: “I would want to know the enforceability of such a policy,” she said.
Lemieux simply felt it would be unnecessary. “We can’t micromanage everything” that goes on in the district.
In short, she said, common sense should be enough.
Photo credit: Marianne Goodland