JeffCo students practice civil disobedience, interrupt board meeting

Photo: JeffCo security guard
A security guard approaches a student speaking out against the Jefferson County School Board majority at a meeting on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2014.

Security personnel escorted about a dozen Jefferson County students out of a school board meeting Thursday night, after students tried to disrupt the meeting by reading from history text books.

The disruptions started when board members refused to let students speak, after they didn’t speak in the order they were called, or spoke on behalf of another student with their permission. The board has previously allowed people to speak on behalf of others in other instances. A few minutes later, one student after another stood up in the public meeting, reciting historic acts of civil disobedience from history text books.

The students are upset that the conservative board majority approved a curriculum review committee that’s expected to have a review of high school Advanced Placement history as an agenda item.

When asked to leave the room, students at the podium left or were escorted out peacefully. After another group of students read aloud from history books and were escorted out, about a dozen students stood up in the packed meeting to read the pledge of allegiance. They then filed out.

Though students were roundly applauded, not everyone was pleased.

“We find it ironic that students complaining their voices are not being heard would choose to interrupt community members as they attempted to speak before the Board of Education,” said Sheila Atwell, Executive Director of Jeffco Students First, who was one of the community members signed up to speak Thursday night.

Security guard threatens students

Along with the students were “legal consultants,” law students from the National Lawyers Guild and the Colorado Student Power Alliance taking descriptive notes of the scene. That didn’t please one security guard who lobbed several insults at the law students, telling one, "you need to shut up." The guard threatened to suspend two of the students.

“None of the students were suspended,” said district spokeswoman Melissa Reeves.

Standing in a circle outside the education building, a set of sprinklers suddenly came on. When the students moved out of the way, the sprinklers there came on. The pattern repeated until all the sprinklers were on, but the students didn’t leave. A security officer came out and informed the group that they were trespassing. District officials say the sprinkler system coming on at the time and in the pattern students moved was coincidental.

The district has the right to ask disruptive people to leave public buildings, but Mark Silverstein of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado says asking kids who are peacefully assembled to leave the grounds of a public building is an unexplored legal area. He noted that in some cases, under Colorado’s constitution, a person may exercise their right of free expression on private property even over the objections of the owners.

Photo: students at Jeffco board meeting 1
Security guard follow students out of the board meeting.

The students said the goal of the action was to educate the board on the role of civil disobedience in the nation’s history. They say they want uncensored history education.

Board member Julie Williams originally proposed the committee to ensure AP history curriculum promotes "patriotism and ... the benefits of the free-enterprise system." That sparked a wave of protests in the district.

Students make demands

The students have four demands, including a repeal of the controversial committee.

More specifically, the board voted to expand two existing curriculum review committee that already include teachers, administrators and community members. The change calls for including students on the committees but also allows each board member to appoint two people to the committee.

Students say they are upset that the committee will now report directly to the school board rather than the district, and by the fact that the board voted for a new structure despite large student protests and 40,000 petition signatures against the original resolution.

“It’s a board committee and that’s why we are so concerned,” said student Ashlyn Maher.

That they “amended to other existing committees is completely redundant and unnecessary because the two committees are already focused directly on curriculum and how it is implemented,” said student Thomas Sizemore.

The district says the make-up of the balance of the committee is to be decided in the near future, but board members agreed on the need to have a well-rounded and inclusive committee, representative of the entire district.

Committee notices and minutes will be accessible to the public, and the meetings will be open to observe, according to the district.

Initially, the resolution stated that the committee’s initial projects will be a review of the AP U.S. History or APUSH curriculum and elementary health curriculum. But late in the evening, when the school board officially approved the Content and Resource Review Committees, no curriculum review requests are currently being considered.

The Colorado constitution gives local school boards the ability to make decisions on issues such as curriculum, personnel, budget, school calendars, graduation requirements and classroom policy.

Students want apology

Students also want a public apology from the board majority for referring to the students as “union pawns” and “and suggesting that we are being influenced by teachers in our actions when we are just purely concerned students who want to further our education and make sure those opportunities are available for future," said Garrett Hjelle, clad in a red-white-and-blue suit.

When asked if she believes students are union pawns, board member Julie Williams said “no [but] I think they’ve been seriously misled. This is a review committee. There will be community members and students. And this is the first time ever in Jefferson County that we are involving our parents, our community members and our students. Shouldn’t our students be able to weigh in and let us know if our curriculum is exciting and motivating for them to want to learn?”

Reflecting on the night's events, student Thomas Sizemore said: “I feel disrespected. I’m somewhat pleased that we were heard, we stood up for what we wanted but it was demeaning for [board chair Ken Witt] to refuse to allow us to speak on behalf of someone else when the board has allowed that in the past."

Other student demands include:

  • Incorporate community input in future decisions “instead of outside corporate interests and ideological leanings.”
  • Allocate resources to in-class instruction rather than board expenses that perpetuate an agenda to privatize JeffCo schools.