Names of Douglas County teachers who rallied against school board members might be publicly released

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Supporters of Douglas County Schools Superintendent Corey Wise rally in front of the department’s headquarters in Castle Rock on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022. Wise’s supporters say he is being forced out of his job by a new conservative majority on the board accused of meeting in secret to make the move, which they say is a violation of the Colorado’s open meetings laws.

The names of some Douglas County teachers who attended a rally to protest actions by the school board majority may be released publicly soon, and they say the prospect terrifies them.

“There's a sense of fear especially for teachers who have kids in the district and who live in the district,” said one teacher who didn’t give her name because she fears retaliation. “A fear of community harassment and intimidation.”

She said many teachers felt OK going to the rally because of “safety in numbers, it was a collective,” noting that many Douglas County teachers aren’t members of a union. 

“And so all of a sudden having this individual naming names, it takes it from being this collective stance to like a very individual one. And I think that scares a lot of people.”  

Douglas County school board controversy: A timeline of what led to the firing of the superintendent

The district notified staff members Tuesday that someone requested information about all employees who requested to be absent from work on Feb. 3, the day of the protest. That individual requested the information, including emails, absence request forms, paid time off requests and related correspondence, under the Colorado Open Records Act. It told staff that it intends to respond to the request — not necessarily release the information — by the close of today’s business day.

More than 1,500 teachers requested absences before the school board voted to fire Corey Wise, formerly the district’s superintendent, and earlier voted for a resolution requesting that the district’s equity policy reflect new principles.

The Douglas County teacher said there is also anger among teachers about why the district is not fighting the request to release names.

“Like what priority are we for the board, for the district?”

She said she attended the rally because she believes that all students should have the same opportunities as others and that everyone should have a voice. 

“We try to keep politics out of the classroom. And I think when parents are saying, ‘Oh, you weren't at school, you don't care about my kids.’ I care about your kids, which is why I went,” she said. “Your kids deserve a good school district. Your kids deserve great graduation rates. Your kids deserve everything.”

Douglas County school district does not have a collective bargaining agreement with the local teacher’s union, Douglas County Federation.

Teachers are worried about intimidation and harassment

Wednesday morning some teachers at least four schools found flyers on their cars stating “You Are Bad. Get Out and Leave!....ALL Teachers Unions Are Bad!” No group claimed responsibility for the flyers and there were no indications of where they came from.

Legend High teacher Meg Gray helped collect the flyers off teachers’ windshields this morning. She said it’s uncomfortable to be told that someone has requested the teacher's absence information, but some teachers also knew it was possible.

“I showed my husband (the letter from the district) and said, ‘This is an intimidation tactic. They’re trying to scare us. They want to make us feel worried and I refuse to let them know I feel worried.'”

In 2016, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled that a public-school teacher’s sick leave isn’t part of a teacher’s confidential personnel file. A lawsuit tried to block the release of the names of several teachers at four Jefferson County high schools. They had called in sick over two days in 2014 in protest over proposed changes to the district’s history curriculum and a compensation proposal.

The history issue spurred large district-wide student walkouts. The names were released to the parent who requested them, but by then, the school board majority proposing the changes was recalled.

The president of the Douglas County Federation said in Douglas County’s highly polarized, rancorous environment, the release of names appears directly related and solely for the purposes of intimidation and harassment of employees who are engaged in a protected activity.

“Intimidation tactics are never OK,” Kevin DiPasquale wrote in an email to the Douglas County Federation’s members Tuesday night. “Expressing our constitutional rights are protected actions. We know any attempt to further intimidate staff erodes the false claims of wanting to build trust and respect with staff and the community by the new board majority.”

It said the federation’s attorney would be reaching out to a district attorney.

The Legend teacher Gray said it’s heartbreaking the number of teachers who have told her they are looking for jobs elsewhere.

“I think teachers have felt a severe amount of pressure and burnout due to the last two years of our working environment,” she said. “But when you don’t have a united front and you don’t have a support system that has your back that is putting you first too, it makes it really hard to want to stay.”

An email sent by the school board president raises more questions

The district is already reeling from allegations that members of the board’s majority — which swept decisively into power in November — had secretly decided to remove the superintendent without public discussion or knowledge of all seven board members.

An email sent to district staff Tuesday night by board president Mike Peterson is raising new questions about Peterson acting unilaterally without the rest of the board.

Peterson sent a letter to district staff late Tuesday, informing them that he has made inquiries as to who filed the CORA request for teachers’ names and why. He said he understands that there may have been all kinds of reasons why staff called in absent on Feb. 3, and that many did so only after the district announced that it would be a no-student contact day for that date.

“As your Board president, I will not tolerate or condone retaliation against any teacher or other employee in this district by any staff or community member," he wrote. “I recognize that there is uncertainty right now, and hopefully, that will be resolved in the near future. In the meantime, please know that I am extremely grateful for the world you do for our students every day.”

The district recently began requiring individuals who file open records requests to cite their name. The district posts those on a monthly basis and has not yet published the February requests. CPR asked whether one has to wait until the February log comes out to get the name of the requester of the teacher’s names and was told to file a CORA request for the answer to this question.

Board member Susan Meek is concerned Peterson sent the email to staff without consulting other board members.

“His job is to serve the board, it isn’t to make decisions on behalf of the board. This is highly irregular. It is certainly not our practice in this district to have board presidents sending individual messages on their own behalf,” she said.

As the board heads into another special board meeting Wednesday night to discuss hiring a new superintendent on a tight timeline — and the future of the district — Meek is discouraged.

“The environment that has been created right now is just unacceptable ... we are doing everything to amplify anxiety and stress at a time when our society is at record high levels of stress ... I believe that as a board we need to work together.”

Other community members respond in support for teachers

The attack on teachers is upsetting to some community members, who have posted their concerns on social media.

Parent Kate Gould recently started a community organization Hand In Hand that hosts free community events and matches teachers and staff with community members who are willing to listen or drop a coffee or lunch off to the teacher’s school.

She sent two dozen doughnuts and a note of appreciation to Legend High School, where some teachers found threatening flyers Wednesday morning.

“When communities become as divided as the one in Douglas County, people need to step up and offer reparative solutions. I created Hand in Hand to empower, support, and show appreciation for the teachers and staff of the district, in hopes that creating a community of care around the very core of our community, can be restorative.”

Previous coverage of the Douglas County School District controversies: