Valor Christian High School — a private school in Highlands Ranch that recently attracted national attention after a volleyball coach said he was pushed out for being gay — has been named as one of six National Blue-Ribbon Schools in Colorado by the U.S. Department of Education.
The designation is the highest honor given by the U.S. Department of Education and recognizes high-achieving schools and those that close achievement gaps among students.
Public schools are nominated by a state’s chief state school officer and private schools are nominated by the Council of American Private Education. CAPE must make sure schools reach a certain threshold for test scores and other criteria. It completed its review process in June, according to a U.S. Department of Education spokesperson.
Schools are also recognized for creating safe, welcoming and affirming environments, according to a U.S. Department of Education press release.
“This year’s cohort of honorees demonstrates what is possible when committed educators and school leaders create vibrant, welcoming, and affirming school cultures where rich teaching and learning can flourish,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in recognizing 325 schools nationwide. “I commend all our Blue Ribbon honorees for working to keep students healthy and safe while meeting their academic, social, emotional, and mental health needs.”
Others, however, disputed the characterization of Valor Christian as welcoming, safe and affirming for all students.
Recently, students, alumni and former faculty have recounted stories alleging discrimination, punishment, bullying, harassment, and ostracism of students and teachers who are LGBTQ+, including a “disregard of the Valor community’s safety and mental health as a direct result of the school’s policies,” according to a letter sent last week to the school’s board and faculty by the nonprofit Valor For Change.
The group has sent the school a list of demands that focuses on accountability and systemic change. It is asking the school to acknowledge harm allegedly caused by the school, to form a department of diversity and inclusion that upholds anti-discrimination policies, and asks the school to neither ask nor disclose a student's or faculty member's sexual preference, among other demands.
The letter says if Valor doesn’t provide a response by September 30 that promises action, the organization “will take further action to ensure and protect equal opportunity, safety, and the dignified respect of its community.”
The U.S. Department of Education notes that National Blue Ribbon schools serve as models of effective school practices for state and district educators and other schools throughout the nation.
“I think with the way that Valor has treated students, with the way that Valor has treated faculty, staff, coaches, it would be a detriment to all of us if other schools were modeled after that behavior,” said alumna Amber Jackson.
The issue, which has received widespread national press coverage, first became public in August when a volleyball coach at the school, Inoke Tonga, a devout Christian, said administrators at the school forced him to quit because he would not denounce that he is gay. In a Facebook post, he shared how school administrators told him how being gay is a danger to the school and to the kids.
Another coach, Lauren Benner, said she was pushed out as head lacrosse coach in 2020 because she is gay. She said in an Instagram post that if she wanted to pursue a relationship with another female, she would no longer be in alignment with Valor’s culture statement.
In the school’s culture document, which outlines the “cultivation of a positive, God-centered culture,” it references “cultural corruption.”
It states that the greatest risk and damage to the school’s culture will come from “those who express commitment to our culture but were never aligned; and those whose alignment has changed over time. It is everyone’s responsibility to spot these inconsistencies and encourage alignment.”
Benner wrote after a meeting with school leaders that “I was bombarded with ignorant and irrelevant statements like, 'gay marriages don't last' and 'God made man and woman for the sole purpose of procreation.'"
If a student came out to her, administrators told Benner that she could welcome the student with "open arms" and offer to “pray with them to God to guide them to living a life of celibacy and self-control over their same-sex desires.”
Nearly 1,000 alumni, students and community members signed an open letter condemning the school's actions regarding the two coaches. They received no response from the school.
During an August protest outside the school, organizer and student Lucy Sarkissian told CPR that Valor isn’t a safe place for LGBTQ+ people and that she has witnessed homophobic behavior at the school.
“I've seen massive amounts of discrimination occur against fellow LGBTQ+ students,” Sarkissian said. “I think that in this moment with coach Inoke’s and coach Benner's stories being shared, we had a rare opportunity that had to be seized to have a discussion about Valor’s treatment of not just their faculty and coaches, but of their students and their culture as a whole.”
A Valor Christian alumnus told the Denver Post, while the school benefited him academically and artistically, he said he was discriminated against for his sexual orientation.
Other alumni say they are helping elevate student voices during their campaign for change while protecting them because some students have been the target of harassment.
“A lot of the students who have come out just even as allies to help speak in support of (former coaches) Tonga and Benner have reported to us that they've been targeted with harassment, being called slurs, being harassed online,” said alumna Amber Jackson. “Several students have said that even teachers have been isolating them from other students and not even coming to their defense and calling out these students for mistreating each other.”
Jackson, a 2013 graduate, said that when she attended Valor Christian, the school met the mark academically and in athletics, but it did not foster a healthy environment, which she described as “isolating.” There was “often shaming girls for having bodies, shaming the girls for being human beings,” inappropriate comparisons of women’s bodies to objects and the narrative that “women are responsible for the male gaze and women are the ones responsible for keeping pure,” she said.
“From what I've been told from the students that we've gotten to interact with, the culture is probably worse than I remember,” she said. “A lot of (current students) love that school, but they don't feel safe there. And so that's our main focus is we want to make sure that they can continue to enjoy this school, get an amazing education, be involved with these amazing athletics and feel safe.”
Lauren Benner, one of the former coaches, said Valor offers a top notch education, but she said students are subjected to the same treatment she endured.
“Therefore it is not an inclusive, safe and welcoming environment for all students,” she said. “It is a true tragedy what LGBTQ+ students are subjected to at Valor and no student should have to endure the kinds of conversations I was subjected to …. I know that is exactly what is happening and can not be denied based on the amount of similar stories shared by current and former students.”
Officials at Valor Christian declined to respond to CPR News’ questions about the National Blue Ribbon award or the list of student demands.
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