How A ‘Stubborn’ Student’s Secret Recording Led To Calls For School Board Resignations

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Photo: Grace Davis, Protest Posters
Grace Davis and some of the posters used at the protest she organized earlier this year at Ponderosa High School.

Photo: Grace Davis, Protest PostersGrace Davis, a sophomore at Ponderosa High School in Parker, says she didn’t imagine that less than two months after she organized a school protest that she’d be standing alone at a microphone before a Douglas County Board of Education meeting, listening to board members bickering over Robert’s Rules of Order.

But during the April 19 meeting's public comment period, Davis had called for the resignation of the board President Meghann Silverthorn and Vice President Judith Reynolds. She accused the two of bullying and harassing her in a private meeting. And she had made an audio recording of the meeting, which she sent to board members, some of whom listened to it.

The recording caused an uproar. The board minority was backing Davis up, and immediately called for the board leaders' resignations. Other board members were trying to figure out what to do next. Among them was Doug Benevento, who argued that the motion calling for resignation needed to first be added to the agenda.

There were no resignations that night, though. Instead, the board called for an investigation into Silverthorn and Reynolds.

Teacher Turnover Worries

Davis is a typical high school student in many ways. She studies, plays golf, volleyball and sings in the school choir.

"Proactive and stubborn," are the two words she uses to describe herself. She also says she likes things done as well as possible, as quickly as possible, "and in a way that works for everyone."

That meant that unlike many students, she decided to take action when she discovered that about three dozen teachers at her school had left their jobs over the previous three years -- 15 in last year alone. That put the turnover rate at Ponderosa High last year at 21.1 percent, up from 12.7 percent in 2013-14.

"Why are so many teachers leaving?" Davis said. "Why are all these teachers leaving who are so great at teaching and who engage students and they’re not being fully appreciated by their higher ups?"

Kids build relationships with teachers, she says. They tell them about their lives, their homework. And sometimes teachers tell the students about their jobs. She says she got the sense that a fair number of teachers at Ponderosa were unhappy, mainly about how the district’s evaluation system works and the district’s market-based pay scale.

"Teachers deserve more. They’re doing so much for our community and they’re not being treated with the utmost respect when they should be," she says. "They’re the people who create the knowledge in children -- everyone in America -- to succeed."

A Planned Protest, And A Phone Call

The school district offered to set up a forum on the issue in which Ponderosa students could have their questions answered and voices heard. But that didn't satisfy Davis. She suspected teachers would be too afraid to voice their concerns. So she planned a protest to raise awareness. She had hours of meetings with school and district administrators about her plans in order to make the protest as safe as possible, like changing the time and agreeing to have it on the school soccer field, not the sidewalk.

Photo: Grace Davis, Ponderosa High School Protest
Grace Davis at the student protest she led at Ponderosa High School earlier this year.

Photo: Grace Davis, Ponderosa High School ProtestLiz Fagen, the district superintendent, reached out to meet with Davis before the protest but Davis declined.

"It wasn’t just about me," she says. "It was about all these other people who had voices too, that weren’t being heard by her."

Davis says she wanted to capture students’ views at the protest so she could represent their views in a meeting that was arranged with Fagen after the protest.

Then came the phone call a week before the protest from a number she didn’t recognize. It turned out to be the school board president requesting an off-campus meeting.

Davis says she thought it was strange that Silverthorn believed it would be more convenient for Davis to meet off campus.

"I was 15. I don’t have a license, I’m not going to be able to go off campus unless I call my parents from work and they come and pick me up and take me somewhere. I did think that was strange."

Davis instead agreed they could meet at school. On March 4, Silverthorn and Reynolds arrived at Ponderosa High and asked the principal if they could have a room. Davis was on her passing period and thought the meeting would be just a few minutes.

First Amendment Rights

Davis chose to record the meeting and Colorado law stipulates that the recorder doesn't have to let others know about it. Davis said she recorded all her meetings with administrators because she wanted to remember everything.

"Freshman year, I was really into criminal justice and I already knew it was legal so I wasn’t worried about it," she said.

On the recording, Silverthorn can be heard telling Davis near the start of their meeting, "What you believe to be your First Amendment rights may not be correct.”

“You have not articulated what you believe your First Amendment rights to be…either in your press releases or today with us."

"It’s on our petition page. There’s a link…" Davis can be heard replying.

"I’ve seen that," Silverthorn interjects. "You went to the ACLU. That is not a student protest document. It is an adult protest document."

The two board members then ask Davis a series of pointed questions about how she got the idea for a protest, why she is protesting, how she thinks it will help the teachers, and who she thinks will participate. Davis says she expects students will participate.

"And you don’t believe that students should be spending their time in class?" Reynolds asks. "I don’t believe that you belong out on Parker Road or even on Bayou Gulch or even in the parking lot."

"We’re not protesting in the parking lot or the streets," Davis replies.

Photo: Grace Davis, Email Message To Parents From School Board"Where are you holding this protest?" Reynolds asks.

"On the soccer field closest to the football field in between..." Davis replies before Reynolds cut her off. "OK, well that’s not an appropriate place to be. You’re supposed to be in class."

"OK, I understand that," Davis replies.

In an interview later, she says, "I kind of tried to not say anything that would anger them."

But the meeting went on for another hour and a half.

Davis thought her parents had been notified of what was going on, and found out later they didn't know about the meeting. Davis herself missed a full block of Spanish. And she says she was shaking inside.

"I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, these people could potentially suspend me," she says. "They have so much power and I don’t know how they could use that."

'Safest Possible Environment'

In an interview last week, Silverthorn says she asked for the meeting because she wanted to understand what Davis' concerns were. She also wanted to make sure the protesting students understood, that there could be consequences for students who protest -- the school had already informed students that they would receive an unexcused absence for participating in the protest.

Silverthorn's position is that the First Amendment does not give students immunity from school discipline.

"I completely understand and believe in a student who wants to express him or herself," Silverthorn says. "I was most mindful in that regard of the safety. We in the district were very focused on making sure they had the safest possible environment."

After receiving several emails from parents worried about disruptions for their children who wanted to stay in class the day of the protest, Silverthorn says she also felt an obligation to make sure the learning environment would continue.

"There are parents that said, ‘Why are you allowing this?" and I said, ‘It’s not about an authoritarian response, it’s more about helping everybody come to the best possible solution."

In the private meeting, Silverthorn can be heard telling Davis that any adult could show up, someone who might try to control what the media coverage is, or someone with malice who targets a police officer, or someone "angry or distracted or just otherwise indisposed citizens wreaking havoc."

Then Silverthorn tells Davis about a police officer who was patrolling a student protest in Denver last year: "He was struck by an angry motorist and he was in the hospital for almost two months."

In reality, the Denver officer was struck by a motorist near the protest who has having a seizure, and Silverthorn says in a later interview that she mistakenly conflated incidents in which people have been hit by motorists.

"I sincerely believed that those two events were combined and they weren’t and I was made aware of my mistake later and so that was a sincere mistake on my part," she says.

Reynolds can be heard on the tape telling Davis that if anything at the protest goes wrong, the costs "may land squarely on your or your parents’ shoulders since you are a minor."

That information is also incorrect, according to Mark Silverstein, legal director of the ACLU of Colorado.

"The First Amendment case law is clear that the organizers of a rally or demonstration are not responsible for the illegal conduct of persons who come on and do whatever they do," he says. "The organizers at the most are liable for conduct that they have authorized and ratified, not for conduct that is unconnected with their actions and unconnected with what they encouraged people to do."

Silverstein says the audio tape gives the appearance that the board members were hoping to intimidate Davis and chill the exercise of her First Amendment rights.

"To scare a student with tales of potential legal liability with actions that she can’t control is certainly chilling in its own right," he says.

In the latter half of the private meeting, the women quiz Davis on what she knows about the teacher evaluation system in Douglas County and what her ideas are for improving it.

Unions Suspected

About 100 kids showed up for the March 9 protest, which turned out to be peaceful. Then Silverthorn was invited by KHOW’s Ross Kaminsky to appear on his talk show. There, he asks Silverthorn if she believes "those people [teachers unions] are behind the scenes manipulating [the protest] the way they did in Jefferson County?"

"Absolutely," she answers. "They’ve made it clear on a number of occasions that they continue to be involved."

In a later interview with CPR, Silverthorn says she couldn’t expand upon that except to say "certain statements were made in certain places" and she would share that with the investigator looking into her meeting with with Davis.

A teacher’s union representative says they have had no involvement in the Ponderosa High School matter.

Taking Issue To School Board

After her private meeting with Silverthorn and Reynolds, now 16-year-old Grace Davis says she was numb, then angry. She wanted the board members to resign and apologize to the school, for thinking teenagers don’t care about issues affecting their teachers or their school.

Her parents tried to resolve the issue with the board members privately with no luck. In a letter they sent to the school board, they said Grace "was greatly disturbed by the way she was treated and the threatening remarks that were made."

They were also upset about Silverthorn’s appearance on the radio show in which they believe the board member spoke "disparagingly" about their daughter and included the "false accusation that Grace had been encouraged and supported by the teacher’s union."

And then a few weeks ago, Davis made her case before the entire school board.

"The board members were very harsh with their tones," she says of Silverthorn and Reynolds to the board at their April 19 meeting. "They made me feel little and basically told me that since I am a student, I am not properly educated to practice my First Amendment rights as an American."

Board member Anne Marie Lemieux supported Davis’ call for Silverthorn and Reynolds resignation.

"I have listened to the recording of the meeting between the student and the directors and was shocked and disturbed by the misleading and intimidation of our students," she says. "The statements made by the two adults were clearly in violation of district policy as well as completely false in some instances."

Lemieux says she believes Silverthorn and Reynold’s conduct violated the board’s policies on ethical conduct.

On March 15, the board amended a resolution 'Condemning the Intimidation and Mistreatment of Staff' to include the actions of board members. It states that that staff (and board members) will "strive to provide a safe, supportive, and accepting environment for students and staff, and will not tolerate behaviors that are damaging to that environment."

"Anyone found in violation of the policy be subjected to discipline up to the removal from their position," the resolution says. "The board commits itself and its members to ethical, businesslike, and lawful conduct, including proper use of authority and appropriate decorum when acting as Board members."

'Robust' Discussion, Or Intimidation?

"I’m sorry that you felt intimidated," Reynolds tells Davis at the April board meeting. "I was not there to intimidate."

"I know that passions were very high at the time. My intent in speaking to you was to understand why you felt that a protest was the appropriate way to start a discussion," she says. "I was not there to intimidate."

Silverthorn hasn't apologized, and has a different take on the discussion.

"I frankly thought that we had a robust discussion," she says. "I thought that you were well-spoken in regards to what your opinions were. We discussed what your thoughts about improving the situation with teacher evaluation were… you helped us understand what some of your ideas were and how we could improve some of that and I thought that some of those were quite well-thought out and we discussed that, I thought, at length."

Investigator's Links To Board

At the end of a tumultuous board discussion, the members agreed to an independent investigation into the matter. The district has since hired attorney Gordon "Skip" Netzorg.

As recently as 2015, he was on the board of directors of ACE Scholarships, a non-profit founded by three men who have all donated to Silverthorn’s school board campaign, and two donated to Reynold’s campaign, according state campaign finance documents. Netzorg also sat on the board of trustees with the men. Silverthorn herself has contributed to ACE.

Reynolds was suspended from her role as a volunteer with the Girl Scouts of Colorado pending the results of the school board investigation. She subsequently resigned from her Girl Scout position.

As for Grace Davis, she’s frustrated.

"It’s just worrisome that they’re still working around kids and in activities and things like that where I feel like another student could still be treated the same way I was," she says.

Silverthorn expects the investigator’s report to be finished before the end of the month.

The district declined to comment for this story but provided communications it released to parents. Ponderosa High’s Principal David Haggerty was also unable to comment pending the investigation into the incident.