Denver School Of The Arts Vocal Teachers Are Out Following Investigation

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Jenny Brundin/CPR News
The Denver School of the Arts.
Photo: Denver School Of The Arts | Front Door - JBrundin
The Denver School of the Arts.

Published 07.25.208 9:13 p.m. | Updated 07.27.2018 9:40 a.m.

Two vocal instructors who were under investigation at the vaunted Denver School of the Arts are no longer with the school. In a letter to students and parents dated July 25, Principal William Kohut revealed the vocal teachers would not be returning.

Neither teacher was named in the letter, however a Denver Public Schools official did confirm to a parent complainant that their investigation concluded that Robert Styron and Scott Shively violated DPS Board Policy AC, which concerns nondiscrimination/equal opportunity.

Both instructors had been on administrative leave, for the second time, following accusations of discrimination, harassment and retaliation — particularly against students with emotional or mental disabilities. After the first investigation involving the teachers, they were brought back from administrative leave and allowed to return to the school.

Kohut’s letter acknowledged the considerable discussion and concern due to the investigations and public attention on the vocal department — which included CPR News’ investigations into both the vocal and dance departments at Denver School of the Arts.

In an interview, Denver Public School Superintendent Tom Boasberg said confidentiality rules prevent him from disclosing the nature of the teachers’ exit. He said students, parents and teachers should know investigators handled the situation with integrity.

Boasberg added there were “also many situations where different students and different parents have very different perceptions as to what has happened or is happening.”

DSA’s principal and both teachers have not responded to multiple requests for an interview. However, Kohut’s letter reiterated his commitment to ensure the “safety and dignity of all our students; that concerns that are raised will be looked into with care and integrity; and that our teachers are treated fairly and with respect.”

“This will be a year of rebuilding and visioning for our vocal music program,” Kohut wrote. “I recognize that changes in the program may be difficult for some, but with change comes the opportunity for growth.”

Students Were Split Over Vocal Teachers

Students’ experiences with both the vocal teachers appear to vary greatly, with some students saying they didn’t have a problem interacting with the teachers.

Parker Goff Chrisbens, an incoming junior and president of the Bellissima women’s choir, described her experience as generally positive.

“I don’t have any harsh complaints about how anybody’s treated me in particular.”

She described the teachers as “articulate” and “well-educated” and said DSA has taught her a lot about being a better performer. For her, it was difficult when teachers were on administrative leave the first time because students had to run classes and didn’t have a sense if their performances were improving.

“I think a lot of organization and calmness, like, came back to the department when Shively came back,” she said.

Students and parents filed at least 10 complaints in December 2017 and January 2018. The complaints against both vocal teachers alleged harassment and discrimination against students with emotional or mental disabilities, and retaliation.

Other complaints referred to allegedly racially insensitive comments, inappropriate teacher student interactions, and one teacher making sexually inappropriate comments in front of students. Several complainants allege both teachers angrily reprimanded students or questioned them about private mental health issues in a small room with the door blocked.

Jennifer Jordan, a mother of a student who filed a complaint, said the teachers showed an “intentional infliction of emotional distress” against her daughter. She choked up when she heard the news.

“I'm relieved that that part is finally over and that Kyla [her daughter] didn't do this for nothing,” Jordan said. “I'm so proud because she made such a change.”

What Led To A Second Administrative Leave?

Days before CPR News’ story about the first investigation was published, district and school officials called a meeting with vocal parents requesting comments and concerns about the department.

Parents who attended the April 27 meeting told CPR News that some voiced support for the department; others complained about a lack of communication from administrators; still others had concerns about alleged intimidation, retaliation and emotional abuse by the two teachers.

At the meeting, district officials asked any parents or students with concerns to submit formal letters of complaint. Days later school leaders placed the two teachers on administrative leave again.

District officials declined to say how many new letters of complaint or concern were filed, but in an email one administrator referenced “many letters and emails.”

The second investigation was handled differently, with district investigators taking the lead and handling complaints instead of school officials.

Allegations that came to their attention include sexual harassment of a parent, alleged intoxication of both teachers at vocal banquets and an allegation that Robert Styron threatened to kick a student out of the program when the family could not afford a mandatory school field trip costing thousands of dollars. District officials referred CPR News to district policies prohibiting these actions but declined to provide further details.

CPR News obtained copies of five of the new letters of complaint from students and parents who requested anonymity due to fear of retaliation. One student claims the “abuses committed by directors are far more profound, widespread, and destructive than has previously been disclosed to district officials.”

Students, in the second round of allegations filed with the district, allege the abuses committed by the teachers are widespread, with students enduring humiliation, racism, and character demeaning in an atmosphere dominated by fear.

In the new letters of complaint, several students allege teachers randomly docked grades without explanation, in retaliation for a student or parent’s complaint, or allegedly because a student was sick with a serious illness during a performance, or because they had requested a transfer into a new department.

“Families have no method of reporting abusive behavior in a way that makes them feel safe from retribution,” wrote one complainant.

District policy prohibits retaliation here, here, and here.

Administrator Accountability

Superintendent Boasberg said there will not be a change in school leadership.

“We have a high degree of respect and confidence in Bill Kohut continuing as principal of the Denver School of the Arts,” he said.

Principal William Kohut has continually had the backing of DPS officials for how he handled complaints against the vocal department. In previous interviews, officials wouldn’t say whether Kohut passed on complaints and allegations he received in May 2017. District policy requires that all verbal complaints be relayed to the district’s student compliance officer.

Unaddressed are complaints and concerns from both parents and students focused on the lack of communication from Kohut and other administrators regarding perceived problems at the school, communication between administrators and parents as well as Kohut’s response to multiple allegations and the teachers’ administrative leaves.

From the point of view of parent Jennifer Jordan, the investigation did not go far enough. After what happened in the dance department, and now with the vocal department, she’s surprised Kohut retains his position.

“After the dance instructors, now the vocal instructors, but he’s not being held accountable and I just feel that that it’s insulting,” she said.

Kohut’s letter to parents spelled out the next steps for the search to replace the departed vocal department teachers. The intention is for school leadership to form a committee, comprised of vocal department parents, by Sept. 15. The committee will provide input on vocal changes and vision for the future. Parents will be notified by email by August 27.

The letter also informed students and parents of a newly hired Dean of Culture/Students and the future hiring of a Parent/Family Liaison. Additionally, there will be parent principal advisory committees formed at both the middle and high school levels.

In closing his letter, Kohut also said that the Denver School of the Arts will be “engaging a professional facilitator beginning this semester to guide a conversation with families, staff, students and our school leadership team.”

“We want to work with you to find common ground as a community as we collaborate to unleash our students’ extraordinary talent,” Kohut wrote.

CPR News’ Jim Hill and John Daley contributed to this report.

Editor's Note: This story was updated to include comments from Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg and Denver School of the Arts parent Jennifer Jordan.