Colorado

Jeffco school board member censured

Jefferson County school board members on Thursday censured one of their own – board member Laura Boggs – for “unethical behavior” after Boggs reportedly threatened to derail a $32.8 million federal grant and to “tear this county apart.”

The threats, relayed by Superintendent Cindy Stevenson after a meeting between the two on Dec. 10, were described by board members as just the latest in a string of inappropriate behavior by Boggs since her 2009 election.

“I believe that if we don’t do something now we’re going to be looking at three more years of this and I think that is not acceptable,” board member Paula Noonan said before the 4-0 vote to censure.

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Boggs, who was not allowed to vote on the censure motion, said Stevenson’s characterizations of their meeting as described in a Dec. 13 letter to board members are “grossly misstated.”

“Do I think it was a nice meeting? Absolutely not,” Boggs said, adding that she believed a ‘he said, she said’ rebuttal was pointless. “I am going to … vehemently deny the accusations in that letter.”

A censure is essentially a formal public rebuke of Boggs but it carries no other weight. Noonan proposed also removing Boggs from committees on which she serves as a board representative but delayed that motion until January.

Boggs declined comment today, citing the board’s policy of having its president, Dave Thomas, deal with press inquiries. She typically has declined to discuss reports of her impropriety with the media for that reason.

Shortly before Thursday’s board vote, a community group led by Jeffco parent Eric Westerhausen called on board members to request Boggs’ resignation, saying they could no longer sit idly by while her behavior tarnished the reputation of the board and the district.

Westerhausen today called the censure “long overdue.”

Jeffco school board member Laura Boggs

“I originally voted for Laura Boggs and I think it’s a clear example of somebody who campaigns in a certain way to achieve kind of a centrist, populist view to get votes so that she gets in office,” he said. “Her actions certainly following that have not supported what we expect of an elected official in this county.”

Thursday’s call for Boggs’ resignation follows similar public speeches in past months.

Last March, Kerrie Dallman, head of the Jefferson County teachers’ union, called on board members to curb Boggs’ behavior. The union also began a newsletter called “Boggs Watch” to record her “rogue” antics.

In June, a group that included former state Sen. Norma Anderson and former school board member Hereford Percy registered complaints and one, Phyllis Albritton, requested a censure of Boggs.

Among the actions cited by Westerhausen, board members and others as inappropriate:

  • Boggs voted with the rest of the board to oppose the anti-tax ballot initiatives 60, 61 and 101 but then publicly endorsed the measures
  • Boggs publicly suggested the district refrain from hiring principals with young children
  • Boggs entered a classroom at Green Mountain High School and, during a lesson, linked the words “school” and “stupid” on the white board
  • Boggs inserted herself in individual school issues, including a contentious boundary dispute in Indian Hills

But Martin Richardson, an Indian Hills resident and key proponent of the boundary change, said Boggs neither orchestrated nor was heavily involved in the issue.

“We are in the district where she got elected. Isn’t she supposed to be part of that community and represent that community?” he said. “It’s insulting to me because we did all the work.”

Much of Thursday’s discussion, however, centered on what was said in the meeting between Boggs and Stevenson. In her letter, Stevenson wrote that Boggs said she was going to call Washington, D.C., in an attempt to endanger the district’s grant for teacher performance pay.

Jeffco school board president Dave Thomas
Jeffco school board president Dave Thomas

“If the allegation is that one board member was going to try to interfere with the largest grant this district has ever received, unilaterally… I am really concerned,” said Thomas, the board president.

“I am equally concerned that for the past 12 months, the dynamics of this board have changed dramatically … the relationships between board members and between at least one board member and the superintendent have become extremely acrimonious, in my opinion, and it has prevented this board from moving forward.”

It’s the first time a board member in the state’s largest school district has been censured, according to district spokeswoman Lynn Setzer.

Jeffco board members have asked a sitting board member to resign. That occurred in July 2008 when members asked for the resignation of Vince Chowdhury, after he entered a guilty plea to misdemeanor assault for slapping his teen-aged daughter.

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.