Independent Investigation Clears Dougco Conservatives… And Raises Important Questions

Remember that student protest at Ponderosa High School in Douglas County back in March? I wrote then:

The cynical side of me believes that this is but the first step in the march toward a full-blown assault on Dougco’s (now one-seat) conservative majority in 2017.

As is usually (and depressingly) the case, my cynicism was well founded. The protest spawned a fabricated “bullying” fiasco that became the first major political play in what I believe is a wider game to purge conservative thought and policy from Douglas County School District. Now, however, it’s become clear that this particular political maneuver didn’t pan out as the establishment-minded board members Anne-Marie Lemieux, David Ray, and Wendy Vogel had hoped.

But I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. We haven’t talked about the Dougco “bullying” controversy, so a little background information is in order. Ahead of the March protest—which was announced through a press release encouraging students to “ditch class” for the day—administrators and district leaders worked hard to make sure students were safe. Understandably, large gatherings of unsupervised minors make those responsible for ensuring their safety a little nervous.

Those safety concerns led to a number of meetings between school and district administrators and Grace Davis, the Ponderosa high school student who organized the protest. One of those meetings was between Douglas County Board of Education members Meghann Silverthorn and Judi Reynolds, both of whom are part of Dougco’s conservative school board majority. As we’ve discussed a number of times, most recently in the context of Superintendent Liz Fagen’s departure from the district, the policies Silverthorn and Reynolds helped champion are producing results.

The meeting between Silverthorn, Reynolds, and Grace Davis resulted in Davis’s allegation, made quite some time after the meeting itself, that the two board members “bullied” her. You can listen to the entire conversation, which Davis secretly recorded, here. I’ve listened to it numerous times and reviewed the accompanying transcript, but I have never been able to find anything that even comes close to bullying or intimidation. Davis never appears distressed, no voices are raised, and no overtly hostile statements are made.

As far as I can tell, Grace Davis took on the adult responsibility of organizing and running a protest involving potentially hundreds of students on school property and during school hours, and the board members subsequently attempted to make her aware of the adult responsibilities and potential risks that came along with such a decision. Not all of the information they provided was correct, but being wrong or misspeaking is hardly the same as intentional bullying.

Anyway, all of this culminated in the board agreeing to conduct an independent, third-party investigation into the situation. That investigation is now complete, and a full report has been issued by the independent investigator. To the surprise of absolutely no one exercising even a tiny smidgeon of critical thinking, it completely exonerates Silverthorn and Reynolds of any wrongdoing under district policy and state law.

In fact, the report notes that board members are explicitly permitted by policy to meet with students, that those board members are background checked and credentialed by the district, and that the three establishment members themselves often interact with students on school grounds in the absence of parental knowledge or consent. Additionally, the report finds that Davis agreed to meet with Silverthorn well before the meeting took place (and apparently failed to tell her parents for some unknown reason), and that the principal of Ponderosa High School himself offered the two board members the office in which their meeting with Grace took place. Listen to the beginning of the recording linked above if you want to hear how concerned Principal Haggerty sounded about the meeting. Short version: not at all.

The investigator also notes that the establishment board members’ apparent desire to regulate their political opponents’ speech, media contacts, and “tone” raises serious First Amendment concerns—which is rather ironic given the moralistic preaching about Davis’s First Amendment rights by those same members. As it turns out, students actually don’t have a First Amendment right to compromise student safety or disrupt the normal educational operations of a school or district. Go figure.

But by far the best part of the report comes at the very end, when the investigator notes that the three establishment members may have violated the district’s code of conduct by ignoring the established process for dealing with accusations of policy violations and effectively censuring Silverthorn and Reynolds in the absence of an investigation.

Those interested in digging deeper should read the full report. It’s absolutely packed with good information and analysis, and I have a feeling we’ll be talking about it a lot in the coming weeks. For now, we can sum up by stating that the two conservative board members did absolutely nothing wrong by any objective standard. Every single accusation raised against them was deemed unfounded and inaccurate after investigation. In many cases, the board members themselves agreed that no policy or legal violations had been committed.

Some may “feel” differently—as evidenced by hysterical posts from the establishment board members and a couple of potshots from the Davis family—but we live in a nation of laws, and laws trump feelings. The establishment members, on the other hand, almost certainly violated the district’s code of conduct in the course of their ambush.

To say that this was not the result in anti-majority activists in Douglas County were hoping for would be a serious understatement. The report is utterly devastating to them, and it serves to shine light on their increasingly ugly political agenda. It’s no wonder they’re trying desperately to discredit the report and build a different narrative to avoid saying “we were wrong.” Notably, none of them seems able to refute the report’s findings on substantive grounds.

But honestly, the folks who should be most irritated with this entire farcical exercise are Douglas County’s taxpayers. This politically motivated witch hunt, which I believe was meant to be the first step in a Jeffco-style political coup against elected conservatives, cost Douglas County schools about $163,000. Depending on salary levels, that’s the equivalent of anywhere between two and four teachers in a district where the establishment constantly tells us there is a shortage of great teachers thanks to a “mass exodus” from the district. That claim is based on inaccurate numbers and mostly falls apart once you get beneath the rhetoric, but hey, the other side seems to think it’s true.

Regardless, $163,000 is not a small chunk of change. The fact that the district has to pay it at all raises two important questions. First, shouldn’t these establishment members be putting the interests of the district at the top of their priorities list rather than engaging in such costly political distractions? Second, now that the establishment members have gotten to play out their self-aggrandizing political maneuver to unsuccessful conclusion, shouldn’t they foot the bill?