Woodland Park teachers defy ban on speaking out publicly; allege district’s policies are harming students

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Woodland Park school board at a meeting on April 12, 2023.

Dozens of Woodland Park teachers spoke out at a press conference Thursday to ask district officials to restore mental health supports for children, reinstate state-approved social studies standards, and remove a gag order that prevents them from speaking about district matters publicly or risk losing their jobs.

Teachers and staff also sent a letter to district officials alleging that Superintendent Ken Witt and other district leaders are “actively harming students and the community of Woodland Park” through “the current administration’s attack on students’ learning environments.”

“It pains us to write this because we deeply love our students and the community of Woodland Park,” states the letter signed by 81 teachers and staff in the district, who are barred from speaking to the media without prior district approval. “But it has become abundantly clear to us that the direction that Ken Witt and the school board are taking our schools is unsustainable and detrimental to our students and our greater community.”

Teachers said about 40 percent of staff signed the letter, but that many more were too afraid to sign it.

“I left a teaching position I loved because I could not stand by and watch Ken Witt and the school board ruin Woodland Park’s school district,” said Nancy Godwin, former Woodland Park middle school special educator. “The current school board’s callous decisions have negatively impacted the learning outcomes of students receiving special education services.” 

In a statement, Superintendent Ken Witt called the press conference a “union tactic” and “political maneuvering” and refuted each of educators’ concerns. However, the letter was signed by both members of the teacher’s union and nonmembers.

'Devastating to a lot of kids'

Earlier this year, Superintendent Witt refused to renew $1.2 million in grants that funded 15 mental health adjacent positions at schools including school counselors and social workers. In contentious meetings at schools, Witt told teachers that they were not the Department of Health and Human Services, and “delivering social services through school tends to deter a lot of focus on the children.” He reiterated his academics-only focus, despite research showing access to mental health services leads to better academic outcomes.

Mental health experts, who have since left the district, said a lack of resources in rural areas like Woodland Park means students have more untreated mental health disorders, as well as higher rates of parental abuse and neglect, as well as more youth with behavioral challenges.

At Thursday’s press conference, teachers spoke into a microphone one after another, addressing the lack of mental health support for children and other board policies they say are negatively impacting children.

Middle school teacher Anna Hand addresses a crowd of more than 200 in Woodland Park. Standing beside her are other teachers who signed a letter to the district asking for a restoration of mental health supports for students and for the district to allow teachers to speak publicly.

Anna Hand, who has been a middle school teacher for 15 years, said schools used to have a full team of support. Sometimes they helped in crises. For example, the one-year anniversary of a student’s death is coming up and Hand is watching students and staff struggle with ongoing grief — without support.

She said there are also students who had ongoing behavioral plans who were monitored for progress on strategies — like behavioral coping techniques or self-regulation skills — in order to participate in class. Hand said last year those students were fully engaged with their education, with the help of weekly check-ins with social workers.

“Now they're struggling to manage that stress and they don't have those supports,” Hand said. “They're struggling just to cope day to day. Their grades are down, their participation in extracurriculars is not happening.”

Teachers called the decision not to renew the grants “dangerous,” and that current supports are “woefully inadequate” to meet demand.

In his statement, Witt said mental health services are often “utilized for gender confusion and sexual identity matters instead of the counseling and character development that our schools ought to pursue.” He said there is one counselor in every school and the district has a partnership with Mindsight for additional mental health support if needed.

Teachers say social workers and counselors work with students to address issues such as truancy, behaviors like aggression, social withdrawal and the effects of special physical, emotional or economic problems. They also help students develop resiliency, self-regulation and self-esteem skills so they can learn in class.

Newly adopted social studies standards aren’t rigorous enough for credit, teachers allege

Educators also criticized the school board’s adoption of conservative social studies standards, called American Birthright, that were rejected by the state school board, as being inadequate to meet Colorado law. Those standards require social studies curricula to reflect the history, culture and social contributions of the state’s minority communities. The turmoil last year prompted 35 percent of Woodland Park staff and teachers to resign, including middle and high school social studies teachers and others.

“It is our students who are suffering the most because of that loss,” the letter stated. Teachers say many social studies courses that students took in the past are no longer NCAA-accredited, meaning students can no longer count the new unaccredited classes towards being eligible to play college sports. They also worry middle school social studies curricula based on American Birthright standards will leave students ill-prepared to succeed in AP social studies in high school.

“The American Birthright Standards do not measure up to the rigorous academic standards that Woodland Park has prided itself on in the past,” the letter states.

In his statement Ken Witt said the district moved away from a social studies course taught last year that centered on the role “civil disobedience” has played in American history. He said the district has added a World Geography course.

It accused the teacher’s union of disavowing capitalism, “the free market which makes this nation the envy of the world, while they quip communist tropes.” He asserts that the American Birthright standards meet or exceed state standards, and “so have no real risk of losing NCAA accreditation.”

Despite a multi-year effort to pass new state social studies standards, state education officials do not have the power to enforce a district’s education standards.

“Our community is tired of teachers believing they have the authority to determine what is taught,” Witt said. “This is the responsibility of the people, through their elected representatives, the board of education.”

Teachers say gag order has damaged morale and the district

Also last year, the Woodland Park school board passed a policy that banned teachers from speaking to the media or posting on social media about district matters. The teacher’s union filed a lawsuit in August alleging the ban violates teachers’ First Amendment rights to free speech and to free association. It also accused the district of violating state open meetings laws when it revised the policy. Both sides agreed to allow a federal mediator to help them compromise, but that’s been pushed back to late October.

In a legal document, the district argued that lifting the ban on talking publicly about schools “would embolden dissident School District employees to make public statements” and "would limit the school district’s ability to direct and govern its staff.”

Hand said teachers are frightened. They’ve seen their friends fired or pushed out for their views. She was afraid to speak at the Thursday press conference. But before the meeting, she said teachers have been silent for too long.

“I have to speak for those students that I see dealing with grief over losses in their life or losses of their beloved teachers,” she said, her voice breaking. “I don't want to speak now. I'm scared. I'd rather stay safe, but I really feel like I have to. I want to stand by what I teach my kids, which is that if there is wrong happening, staying silent is the wrong choice. That speaking up is so important, and that's why we have a First Amendment right. It's that important.”

Witt said the district isn’t seeking to suppress anyone’s First Amendment rights, but district employees say they are expected to portray the district aims positively when working in their capacity as employees.

He accused teachers of wanting “a return to sexual politics, anti-capitalism and a hatred for America.”

Those accusations baffle teachers, they said. During their press conference, educators pleaded with district officials to get politics out of their classrooms so they can return to focusing on teaching reading, writing, mathematics, social studies, arts and sciences, and to care for and educate young people.