Opinion: Denver’s board of education broke the law and violated our trust

Denver’s Board of Education met privately to discuss, develop and vote on a crucial school safety policy in clear violation of Colorado law. Video just released by the district following a judge’s orders also showed the board and school officials using the meeting to openly express contempt for the public they serve, stew about their public image, and, in the case of one board member, make shockingly insensitive and racially charged comments.

Colorado’s media has served the public well in making sure that this meeting was made public. It took a lawsuit, a judge’s orders, and then a surprisingly brave vote from the board members to bring this recorded meeting to light.

And the Denver Public School board members, Superintendent Alex Marrero and legal counsel Aaron Thompson, certainly were not shown in their best lights. The meeting makes everyone involved look conniving and political. During a crisis – especially a school shooting that left two employees seriously injured and resulted in a student’s suicide – we’d expect these school leaders to rise to the occasion. Instead, these men and women convened in secret to plot how best to quell the growing public backlash.

After listening to this meeting, we now understand the “Resign DPS” signs that have been popping up in yards across the city and in hashtags on social media. This is not a board serving the public or even taking school safety seriously. The members engaged in an egregious abdication of their responsibilities as elected officials.

The conversation made one thing clear – in the days after Austin Lyle shot two administrators at East High School, board members, and school officials were more concerned with their public perception than they were about how to make schools safe.

“Everyone has made the seven of us the enemy, including you, and that’s not fair to us,” said Auon’tai Anderson (who formerly went by Tay), appearing to include Marrero. Anderson deserves credit for asking for clarification during the meeting about how they could craft a public policy during an executive session.

“Because we are talking about suspending policy, this conversation doesn’t need to be public?” Anderson asked.

Thompson – who clearly does not understand Colorado’s open meetings law —  advised the board several times that the conversation was OK and seemed to be interested in helping the board find a way to hold a private vote on the matter.

A Colorado judge who considered the lawsuit brought by The Denver Post and other media organizations ultimately ruled that the board members did violate the law and that the video should be made public.

The ruling and the outcome should send a message to all public officials that Coloradans will not tolerate negotiating and voting on public policy in private.

To be clear, the board could have been justified in using an executive session so district officials could fully inform the board about the details of the shooting – an update that would likely include private medical information about the survivors and student privacy concerns if other students were named or involved.

A small portion of the meeting was redacted because just such private information was discussed.

But the bulk of the meeting centered on crafting a memo responding to the shooting – with the prime goal expressed by board members and Marrero being to save their own personal image during a wave of intense public criticism.

Recently appointed board member Charmaine Lindsay erroneously said “minority students” were the ones bringing guns into schools and needed a police presence as a deterrent. We’d like to remind Lindsay that white students have also perpetrated school shootings. Her words were inaccurate and hurtful.

Denver deserves a board and a superintendent who take student safety seriously and spend their time openly and honestly crafting policies and a budget that reflects the safety needs of students, teachers, principals, and staff.

For example, the board considered including language in the memo about mental health but opted not to go down that road because they couldn’t fund or deliver on those options.

The board considered including in their memo demands on the training of the police officers working in schools but decided not to do so because they worried about liability.

The board talked about how staff members should not be searching students for weapons but took no action to prevent that obviously dangerous job from falling to teachers and principals.

The board expressed sorrow about how the shooter Austin Lyle was being “painted in a horrible light” but also dithered about whether it was worth the blowback to try to humanize Lyle publicly.

“We’re going to get pushback. We’re going to get blowback. But I’m ready for it,” said board member Michelle Quattlebaum.

Those words ring hollow coming in a closed meeting from a board and a superintendent that made it clear they will spend hours behind closed doors to save face in public.

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