Updated 6:42 p.m.
Hundreds of students wearing black from across Douglas County walked out of school today to protest the firing of the district’s Superintendent Corey Wise and proposed changes in the district’s equity policy.
Students from Highlands Ranch High School streamed out of classes at 1:10 p.m. They had cowbells and signs and a number of chants: “equity for all,” “support our staff,” “Justice for Corey.” Some students played protest songs from Green Day on a boombox on repeat.
When dozens of students from nearby Cresthill Middle School marched over to join the older students, the high school demonstrators erupted into cheers.
Students at Legend, Rock Canyon and ThunderRidge high schools also participated in the walkout. Many spoke out in support of Wise and condemned the actions of the school board.
“Everything was very unethical, the way that it was treated," said Asella Straus, a junior at Highlands Ranch High School. “He wasn't given any fairness when it came to it. The majority board we could see clearly did not care about the students' voices, about community's voices.”
She helped start a movement for the walkout using an Instagram account called educationoverpolitics. Students from other schools have taken to Instagram, starting an email writing campaign called Students4Teachers to support Douglas County teachers.
Douglas County school board controversy: A timeline of what led to the firing of the superintendent
The board voted in December to open the district’s equity policy to changes — another point of contention for the students. Highlands Ranch senior Katherine Simmons said that the community and Douglas County schools, in general, are in a bubble.
“They don't really have very much knowledge of anything other than white, and white privilege. Most people don't even know what white privilege is, so learning about other people and other people's experiences and what we don't have to go through, but others do. I think that's very important for us as a society,” Simmons said.
Many students want more focus on diversity and mental health
At one point, middle schoolers from Cresthill joined the protest at Highlands Ranch. Many were disenchanted with what they said was politics taking over school board matters. They want the board to be focused not just on education, but on the mental health of students and teaching students about diversity. Eighth-grader Emily McMahan spoke passionately about equality and fairness in schools.
“I do believe that the new board is going to no longer teach us about things like Black history and LGBTQ diversity, which I believe it's very important to keep in schools. We just want a fair, unbiased education without any politics,” she said.
Last week the district’s Student Advisory Group sent a letter to the school board admonishing them for considering firing Wise, “without raising legitimate concerns” and failing to consider the input of students, staff or the community. Several members of the group said they sat on the panel that conducted superintendent interviews a year ago and they said they found no one to be more qualified to lead the district than Wise.
“He leads with the students’ best interests in mind, and his intentions promote an excellent environment for education ... These malevolent actions of the board set a poor example of leadership to the student population the board is sworn to serve,” the letter stated.
District officials did not issue their own statement on the walkouts but board president Mike Peterson did.
“I recognize this is an emotional time for our community and want you to know I am committed to restoring peace and unity to our school district with a continued focus on educating our children.”
What's happened so far
Today’s walkout follows a week of tumult that ended in the board, after an emotional emergency board meeting laden with personal accusations, voting to fire Superintendent Wise on a 4-to-3 vote. Deputy Superintendents Andy Abner and Danelle Hiatt are serving as acting superintendents.
The backlash ramped up after a Monday public meeting where three board members disclosed that the board president and vice-president told them they’d met privately with Wise to give him an ultimatum: resign or they had the votes to remove him. They allege coming to a collective decision without public discussion violates Colorado’s open meetings law.
On Thursday, schools were closed as about 1,000 students, teachers and community members rallied in front of district headquarters to protest what they said was a lack of transparency on the part of the board majority regarding Superintendent Wise’s job status.
On Friday, a Highlands Ranch resident filed a lawsuit against four members of the board, alleging they broke Colorado’s open meetings law during discussions that led up to the termination of the superintendent.
As of Feb. 7, a petition in support of Wise and recalling the board majority had nearly 25,000 signatures. An official recall petition can’t be started until a board member has been in office for six months.
The controversy in Douglas County has attracted attention across Colorado.
More than 80 school board presidents and vice presidents from other districts have signed onto a letter so far highlighting their concerns about the way the termination was handled.
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