COLORADO SPRINGS — About three months after a Colorado Springs school board president used a video posted on YouTube to urge parents to search school libraries for “objectionable material” and “take several others with you who are like-minded,” the district superintendent has decided to retire and teachers are now calling for the president to resign with some having filed formal complaints against him.
Tensions ratcheted up across Academy District 20 on Thursday, with more than three dozen parents, school staff and community members protesting ahead of the bimonthly board meeting. More than 60 people spoke during the meeting — some who praised the board president, Thomas LaValley, and many others who indicated his message intimidated and discouraged teachers — before the district superintendent, J. Thomas Gregory, announced his retirement. He will work until June 30 after serving as superintendent since July 2019 and serving the district for 32 years.
“It’s my time,” Gregory said. “It’s time for a new leader to take over and move this district forward as it faces new challenges.”
The disruption in Academy District 20 — El Paso County’s largest school district with close to 26,650 students — is the latest example of how politics have become a dominant force in schools, from politically charged school board elections last fall to controversies over how children learn about race, history and gender identity. The criticisms lobbed by parents and community members have led to demands for some books to be removed from library shelves.
The rancor was fueled by the early days of the pandemic, when schools turned to remote learning and parents took on a front-and-center role in their child’s education, and reflects a widening partisan divide in the U.S. Now, more parents are being more vocal about what they believe teachers should and should not teach — so much so that Republican legislators during the last legislative session proposed a curriculum transparency bill that would have required Colorado school districts to post learning materials online for parents to see. The legislation failed.
Gregory says he was not pressured by anyone, including board members, to retire.
“This decision was a personal and family decision and was not influenced in any way by, I’ll call it, ‘any outside forces,'” Gregory said.
LaValley, who said Gregory has been “a great superintendent” who “will be missed,” is a fierce advocate for more parent involvement in education. In the YouTube video, he directed his words at parents.
“I would like to urge all parents who hear this to, in the words of Ronald Reagan, trust but verify what your … children are being taught,” LaValley said. “I believe parental rights are paramount in education. You have every right to see every handout … view every video and know all the details of what your children are learning. Look at the handouts. Watch the videos. Hold the teacher, school and district accountable. Stroll through the school library. If you see objectionable material, go to the teacher or librarian or better yet take several others with you who are like-minded. If you don’t get a satisfactory answer, then go to the principal, superintendent or bring it to our attention on the board of education.
“Please partner with us. We need your eyes and ears in the classrooms. We want our classes delivering academic excellence, not woke agendas,” he said in the YouTube monologue. “Our job is to challenge kids to think, not tell them what to think. You, the parents, are so important to help us know what is going on in your children’s schools.”
His remarks sparked fear and outrage among educators, many of whom keep their classrooms open to parents but are wary of parents inserting their personal beliefs or politics into lessons. The district received seven emails about the board president’s comments, four of which were deemed official complaints, district spokesperson Allison Cortez said. The other three emails were labeled emails of concern and/or grievance, Cortez said.
Reached by The Colorado Sun on Tuesday, LaValley declined to comment. In an emailed statement, he said his “intent was simply to encourage parents to be involved.”
“I never intended to upset or offend anyone,” LaValley said in the statement. “Teachers are the backbone of this district and I have nothing but respect and admiration for each of them.”
LaValley read his statement aloud during Thursday’s board meeting.
So far, one parent has asked for books to be removed. The district has a process to assess books that draw scrutiny and is reviewing the parent’s request and expects to be done in November, Cortez said. A committee, appointed by the principal along guidelines outlined in the policy, is reviewing each book and votes to keep it or remove it from the school library. The principal supports the committee’s votes. The parent can appeal, which moves the case up to the superintendent or designee, Cortez said.
The parent wants five books removed from the library at Chinook Trail Middle School because they “encourage support for controversial issues, to include (Critical Race Theory), political stances, LGBTQ, anti-police and have graphic content or statements from individuals with a history of making explicit or vile comments,” Cortez said in an email, citing a book challenge form related to the parent’s request.
Some individuals have also raised concerns about books during public comment periods at board meetings this school year, Cortez said.
Students like Amelia Rose, an eighth grader at Chinook Trail Middle School, protested alongside mostly parents and community members outside Academy District 20’s administration building Thursday to stand against book banning.
Amelia, who held a sign reading “we support our teachers” in red and white lettering matching the colors of her shirt, doesn’t see any reason to ban books, especially with how much knowledge she has to learn and creativity to draw from them. Banning books will rob her of new perspectives, new knowledge and part of the joy of reading, she said, and she wants board members to listen to her and her peers.
“You need to take into account what the students want or need, like the knowledge they want or stories they want to read. … They should really take into account the students’ perspective,” Amelia, 13, said.
“Adding fuel to a fire that is already burning”
The scrutiny of books and other learning materials has been amplified by grassroots organization Advocates For D20 Kids, a group that formed earlier in the year “to achieve academic excellence through parental rights, school choice and strong character,” said Brian Moody, chairman of Advocates For D20 Kids.
Moody, who has seven kids who have attended Academy District 20 schools, supports LaValley’s message encouraging parents to play a leading role in determining what is taught in schools.
“We want parents to be able to have a voice,” he said. “If they see something objectionable, they should have a say in whether that’s being taught to the children.”
Moody, who said Advocates For D20 Kids has garnered the support of about 700 people, said that his organization is not “anti-teacher.”
“Advocating for one is not advocating against the other,” Moody said. “We’re a partnership, and we just want the perspective of both represented.”
The organization is grateful for teachers’ hard work in the classroom, he said, but parent voice is a necessity.
“They’re our children, and we want to have our role as parents and the final authority in their lives fully respected,” Moody said.
The organization escalated community tensions when one of its members, Derrick Wilburn, exposed personal details about principals during a presentation held at Church For All Nations in Colorado Springs on Sept. 14. A presentation slide listed principals’ names and their political affiliations and was later posted to YouTube, angering many parents and educators.
The parent group is also concerned about gay-straight alliance clubs in schools and organized a petition earlier this school year nudging the district to reclassify gay-straight alliance clubs so that they could no longer be school sponsored, Moody said. The petition collected about 430 signatures.
“We don’t view the content of a GSA club to be a part of a curriculum, to be part of school curriculum,” Moody said, adding the organization doesn’t want any distractions from the district’s focus on academics.
The district received a letter from Advocates For D20 Kids on Aug. 14 expressing concerns about posters, fliers and other paraphernalia that gay-straight alliance clubs were displaying throughout schools, according to Cortez.
Fliers focused on gender and sexuality “have no place in our schools and certainly should not be placed in hallways,” Cortez said, citing what was stated in the letter.
Without being school sponsored, gay-straight alliance clubs would not be able to post their promotional materials in school buildings. The district will not be reclassifying the clubs, and they will continue to be sponsored by schools, Cortez said.
Emily Heinrich, a sixth-grade math and science teacher at Discovery Canyon Campus Middle School in Colorado Springs, said educators in her district are angry, scared, feel a lack of support and no longer trust their board president.
“Parents absolutely have a right to come into the schools and to see what’s happening in our schools, and I wish that more parents would come into our schools and see what we’re doing,” said Heinrich, who attended Thursday’s meeting but did not participate in the teacher-led protest. “My fear comes from the idea that it’s parents coming into our schools with an agenda instead of an open mind.”
Heinrich, who has worked for the district for nearly 11 years, sees no place for politics in schools. She says Advocates For D20 Kids has fanned political flames in classrooms.
“I think that they are adding fuel to a fire that is already burning,” she said. “In the wake of a pandemic when we have students who have significant learning gaps and we have students who have significant social-emotional challenges, whether it’s a result of the pandemic or not, making schools a place where teachers don’t feel safe teaching is a mistake.”
Heinrich is also afraid for her job as she is the sponsor of her middle school’s gay-straight alliance.
Licette Smith, a sixth-grade science teacher at Discovery Canyon Campus Middle School, was at the board meeting to show support for fellow teachers and colleagues as well as people who identify as LGBTQ. Her son is gay, and she knows the struggles gay students face in feeling safe and accepted. If gay-straight alliance clubs disappeared from the district, she worries there would be an increase in suicides among students.
“I feel for the students who don’t have a safe place at home and who don’t have a safe place really anywhere,” said Smith, who welcomes parents to visit and observe her classes. “I just want to be that place. I am here for you no matter what and I want you to know that I’m your safe place, and if you just want somebody to see who you are, I am that person.”