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Jeffco board member apologizes for sharing link to “hate group” on Facebook

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Jeffco Public Schools board member Julie Williams.

Jefferson County school board member Julie Williams said late Friday that she was “sincerely sorry” and that she would remove a link on her personal Facebook page that she shared that encouraged families to keep their students home Friday and “away from perverse indoctrination” of the“homosexual-bisexual-transsexual agenda.”

“To be honest with you, I didn’t read the article,” Williams said.  “I just saw it and thought I was sharing information with parents.”

The link, like most on Williams’ wall, was posted without comment. It directs Facebook users to a newsletter published by SaveCalifornia.com, but neither overtly endorses nor condemns the group and its message.

Friday is the national “Day of Silence.” It is organized by GLSEN, an organization that supports lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender students and teachers in schools. The aim of the protest is to raise awareness about LGBT bullying. Students who participate in the protest attend school but remain silent. Some put tape over their mouths.

SaveCalifornia.com describes itself as a “frontline pro-family leader standing strong for moral virtues for the common good.” But the Southern Poverty Law Center considers the organization a hate group, akin to the white supremacy political party American Freedom Party and Westboro Baptist Church.

Williams said she was not familiar with the group and that she was “rattled” after learning it was recognized as a hate group.

The newsletter reads, in part, “The Day of Silence postures every person who identifies as a homosexual or cross-dresser as a victim of ongoing, unrelenting harassment and discrimination (being ‘silenced’). While some incidents like this do occur, this event is an overwhelming exaggeration in an effort to manipulate our kids’ natural sympathies. The result ironically is that youth develop favorable views about a controversial, high risk behavior.”

Williams said she does not support the statements in the newsletter read to her by a Chalkbeat reporter.

“I believe in choice — who you are and want to be and what you want to do,” Williams said, distancing herself from the newsletter that paints LGBT students as “unnatural.”

A screen shot of Williams' Facebook post.
A screen shot of Williams’ Facebook post.

Last fall, Williams gained national notice for suggesting the school district review an advanced high school history course. She wanted to make sure the course was “patriotic.” Her proposal incited weeks worth of student protests.

The board ultimately dropped plans to review the course, but did make changes to how curriculum would be reviewed.

Williams is part of the conservative three-member majority on the Board of Education. The majority has been criticized for many decisions — a new teacher compensation program, giving more money to charter schools, and hiring a new superintendent — by a vocal group of parents, students, teachers and community members.

The board’s critics also claim the majority does not value diversity.

Williams’ post, first revealed Friday afternoon by the political blog ColoradoPols.com, will likely provide grist for her critics.

“Julie Williams and the rest of the board are not LGBT, and they will never know what it is like to feel adversity based on who they love and how they identify their gender,” said Arvada High School student Leighanne Grey. “Because she doesn’t understand our experiences, she has no right to tell us that not speaking is a “perverse” act of the gay agenda.”

Grey is the president of her school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. She led her group in protests over Williams’ proposal to review the Advanced Placement U.S. history class.

The post on Williams’ Facebook page does not represent the opinion or policy of Jeffco Public Schools, said Superintendent Dan McMinimee.

“As Jeffco Schools always strives to foster an environment that encourages students to feel safe, to learn, and to thrive, we respect students’ rights to participate in Day of Silence, a student-led effort, and to express themselves as they prefer.” McMinimee said in a statement to Chalkbeat. “We celebrate freedom from bullying.”

Earlier in the week, Jeffco officials provided schools with guidance on how to respect students who were participating in the Day of Silence. The guidance was approved by the Jefferson County Education Association.

Schools were encouraged to provide “reasonable accommodations” for students who choose to participate. But “staff should not solicit, proselytize, advocate for or against of a non-school sponsored event.”

Colorado is considered by many to have some of the most robust protections for LGBT people among the states — including an anti-bullying law. But that doesn’t mean bullying has been eradicated.

One reason may be because several school districts have failed to align their anti-bullying policies with state law.

According to a review of bullying policies from 166 school district in the state, 107 school districts, or about 64 percent, include sexual orientation in their anti-bullying policies and are in compliance. Only four school districts include gender identity in their anti-bullying policy. The scan was done by One Colorado, the state’s largest LGBT advocacy organization. 

Jeffco includes sexual orientation protections but not gender identity protections in its policy, One Colorado found. 

“I think it would be helpful for Ms. Williams to know the challenges LGBT students face every day in school, which are pretty appalling,” said Dave Montez, executive director of One Colorado.

Seven in 10 Colorado students said they were verbally harassed based on their sexual orientation, according to a 2013 survey conducted by GLSEN. Eight in 10 student regularly heard other students in their school make negative remarks about how someone expressed their gender.

Students here also reported hearing anti-LGBT language from school staff, according to the survey. Nearly 20 percent regularly heard staff make negative remarks about someone’s gender expression, and 8 percent regularly heard school staff make homophobic remarks.

“The numbers have to change. And that’s part of what the Day of Silence is all about,” Montez said.

Montez said as more students come out bullying will decrease and that will create a climate and cycle that will lead to more students feeling comfortable about coming out.

While Grey, the Arvada High student, said she’s aware many of her peers experience harassment, she considers her school to be an anomaly.

“It’s a pretty supportive school,” she said. “No one ever walks out or boos us when we participate in assemblies. A few teenagers might say some stupid things like ‘no-homo.’ But they’re cool with us being happy.”

Colorado LGBT climate survey

Decision day

Unity prevails: Jeffco incumbents easily beat back challengers

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Meredith Van Deman signs the back of her 2014 mail-in ballot outside the Columbine Library in Littleton before turning it in.

The status quo has held in Jeffco Public Schools.

Two incumbents facing opposition easily defeated two challengers, ensuring that the governing board of the state’s second largest school district will remain united 5-0.

In District 1, incumbent Brad Rupert won by 20 percentage points over against Matt Van Gieson, a parent and former president of the parent teacher organization at a Jeffco charter school, Golden View Classical Academy.

In District 2, incumbent Susan Harmon claimed a similar margin over Erica Shields, a conservative Jeffco parent.

Current board president Ron Mitchell ran unopposed. The other two seats are not up for a vote this election.

The current board, supported in large part by the teachers union, was elected in 2015. That election, voters recalled three conservative board members and voted in five new members who have since hired a new superintendent, signed an extended contract with the teachers union, given some pay raises and voted to close an elementary school.

The school board incumbents raised considerably more money than the challengers, including thousands of dollars from the teachers union.

 

Keeping the peace

Jeffco voters to decide whether school board will remain united or include dissenting voices

Students at Edgewater Elementary School in Jefferson County work on iPads during class.

With little controversy, no national media attention and control of the school board not at stake, this fall’s school board race in Jefferson County has centered on whether a board that is consistently united could use a dissenting voice.

Three of the five board of education seats are up for grabs, but only two of the incumbents have challengers — a single one in each race.

A win by the two challengers, both conservatives who oppose much of what the current board has done, would not change many of the votes or direction of the school district, but it could change the conversations. Some voters now say they are weighing whether to vote to keep the stability of the current board, which often vote unanimously, or whether more diversity of thought is needed. One question is whether different voices would repeat the drama of the previous, split, school board that saw conservative members ousted in a recall election.

“Everyone in Jeffco wants us to commit to maintaining civility,” said Ron Mitchell, the board president, who is the member running unopposed. “I don’t see that changing.”

Some who support the current board say even one dissenting voice could slow down progress, distract from the current work or create doubt in voters if the district asks for a tax increase soon.

“I believe that even one or two detractors on the board will stagnate progress,” said Jeffco parent Kelly Johnson, who helped recall previous board members. “Our district has already paid too much in lost opportunities with the chaos of the past.”

Erica Shields and Matt Van Gieson, the two challengers, say they want to work with the current board.

“We are not there to disrupt,” Shields said. “We are not about that. We don’t want to return to the old type of board mentality. We want to make things better.”

The incumbents have a huge money advantage.

Those current members running for re-election — Mitchell, Susan Harmon and Brad Rupert — supported by the teachers union, have raised large amounts of money as of the last finance reports filed two weeks ago. The two in the contested race each had more than $40,000 raised, compared to about $3,200 raised by Shields and $2,300 raised by Van Gieson.

Mailers and yard signs for the incumbents advocate for all three together.

Since their election two years ago, the current board members have hired a new superintendent in Jason Glass, approved an extended contract with teachers union, given teachers a pay raise and advocated for better school funding.

Opponents Shields and Van Gieson say, recent events pushed them to consider running for school board independently, but now both also are running together, asking for voters to support them as a team.

Shields said she is running after realizing the work she does as a volunteer helping homeless people doesn’t address the root causes of the problem, which she now sees as a lack of good education opportunities for everyone.

Van Gieson, said that he hears too often from people who feel they no longer have a voice on the current school board. He said he official decided he wanted to run after a spring board meeting in which several community members asked the board not to close their schools.

School closures have not been a major issue for voters, most say, because Glass has said he would pause any school closure recommendations until district officials can create a better system for evaluating if a school should close.

Instead, campaign messages and questions at forums have centered on typical political divisions such the sources of campaign contributions, the support of teachers and positions on charter schools or private school vouchers.

“Sometimes I think there are issues created by others that are really just divisive wedges,” Mitchell said. “For example, charter schools. Every year we seem to try to drive the charter school wedge into the election.”

Mitchell said the current board is not against charters schools. In previous board discussions, Jeffco board members have expressed a desire for more authority to decide if a charter application is good enough for Jeffco, instead of just legally meeting its requirements to open.

Van Gieson, who is on the parent-teacher organization of a charter school in Jeffco, said he thinks charter schools are treated differently in Jeffco, and if elected, wants to help all schools have similar accountability.

“Where a charter school has to come in front of the board and answer for lower achievement, it would be beneficial to do the same things for neighborhood schools,” Van Gieson said.

The campaign also has included an increased focused on equity.

Joel Newton, founder of the local nonprofit Edgewater Collective, joined Jefferson County Association for Gifted Children to hosted, for the first time, a forum just for discussions on the needs of diverse learners. In previous years, the Jefferson County Association for Gifted Children has hosted a similar forum alone.

“I don’t think that was part of the conversation in the past,” Newton said. “The interesting thing now is both sides have a piece of the puzzle. One side talks about school choice…the other side makes the argument that poverty is the real issue.”

Glass, the superintendent, has emphasized the importance of the school district working with community partners to tackle poverty and other out-of-school factors that impact learning.

Tony Leffert, a Jeffco parent who lives in Golden and supports the new superintendent, said the issue on his mind is keeping the current board on track. He said adding a dissenting voice to the board, could set up a possibility for the minority opinion to take control of the board in two years.

“Given the last school board election that we had, every school board election is important in Jeffco going forward,” Leffert said. “We do not want a repeat of that again.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to note that a forum on the needs of diverse learners, which was hosted for the first time with the Edgewater Collective, has been hosted in the past by Jefferson County Association for Gifted Children.