A recent District 49 Board of Education meeting featured threatening letters to board members, community members outraged over social and emotional learning (SEL), and faith-based transphobia from board member Jamilynn D’Avola.
Tensions were running high after a March 23 board meeting addressing SEL, which opponents have wrongly characterized as a version of critical race theory, a college-level framework that is not taught in public schools. Critical race theory was used, successfully, as a wedge issue during the November 2021 board of education elections which saw school districts across Colorado flipped to a conservative majority. D49 was one of the first districts in Colorado to officially ban critical race theory in August 2021. Following the March 23 meeting, the D49 board instructed the district’s chief officers — Peter Hilts, CEO, Brett Ridgway, CBO, and Pedro Almeida, COO — to gather more information about SEL practices in the district and gather input from community stakeholders before taking action.
D’Avola and Treasurer Ivy Liu hoped to continue the conversation on SEL, but President John Graham insisted the meeting adhere to the agenda and noted that the conversation on SEL would continue at the board’s quarterly extra meeting. Prior to the start of public comment, Graham requested a point of privilege.
“Here is a letter that I received, anonymously, without a return address, with the address here taped on, like it came from an episode of ‘Columbo,’” said Graham, who read the following:
“John, your true colors are showing. You have a nose ring. Peter — I think he’s referring to Peter Hilts, he’s the only ‘Peter’ I know — is pulling on that nose ring so hard I’m surprised it has not torn through your nostrils. What deal did you make with liberal Casby and their director, Kevin — I actually don’t know who that Kevin is. You try so hard to sound smart but you are echo chamber for Peter. It’s pathetic and painful for everyone watching, man. Peter is using you and your two stooges. You are laughing stock to the meeting-goers and the three chiefs who laugh at you behind your back. Get a grip, man. Don’t be embarrassment to the Corps. The people told you what we wanted at last election. You are forsaking us as a board member and [against us as] puppet board president. You are screwing the community and we will not let it happen. Stand up or get the hell out. You and board have been insignificant and rubber stamped for too long. Start doing good for district or we will recall your ‘butt’ and the other two jokers. Stop screwing our kids, all 25,000 of them, and for crying out loud stop drinking or something. It shows. Make a clean start. This is from the stakeholders are gathering to hold you accountable.”
Graham then asked Secretary Lori Thompson to share a letter she claimed was sent to her home address. Thompson read the following, substituting some words in the letter due to profanity:
“Hey Lori, why are you even on the board? You ramble lots of words but say nothing important and you stand for nothing, just like your campaign. Do you think us stakeholders are stupid? You lucked out and won only by the wave created by real conservatives. We don’t think you’re stupid but you appear to be a mindless puppet of John and Peter and Rick. Please resign and let someone else get on who really cares about the kids. It’s very obvious you have no interest in education or kids. Pleeease say more intelligent things in the CEAC meetings. Either vote for the protection of 25,000 kids from indoctrination agenda or get off the board. Quit your snakey answers. Terrible CMAS scores, terrible SPED, woke training, pronouns surveys, SEL and more SEL. What more do you need to get rid of Peter? You either lied like crap at the forums or you sold out dollars for kids. You can be a hero or a traitor. The people voted you in and we can take you out if you screw with our kids. Quit saying you didn’t promise anything. Quit playing with words. It makes you look devious and crafty. People are not clueless we are getting tired of your sweet old lady act. The people told you what we wanted at last election. Show up or get the hades out. The stakeholders are gathering to hold you accountable. Dec. 2, 2021 thought June 2, 2022 six months.”
Graham expressed concerns over the content of the letters, and their potential to inspire acts of stochastic terrorism, or the public demonization of a person or group resulting in the incitement of a violent act, which is statistically probable but whose specifics cannot be predicted. “I do know who the letter is from,” he said. “At this point, some of this verbiage sounds awfully familiar. I’ve heard it before in meetings, I’ve heard it before in emails. It’s not the fact that you guys want to recall true conservatives that actually operate as Christians or anything like that, it’s the fact that some of these threats can be taken by some unbalanced person as a call to action or physical harm, and that’s why we’ve done what we’ve done. In my sphere of influence, when you use terms like ‘traitor,’ ‘Marxist’ and stuff like that, people feel they got to act. When you’re threatening to hurt children, people say, ‘I better act.’”
Graham is not alone in his concerns. The recent conservative trend of applying the term “groomer” to LGBTQ adults, or to teachers who affirm LGBTQ students, or to supporters of SEL programs, has also raised concerns about violence against LGBTQ people.
Graham addressed a question to D49’s legal counsel, Brad Miller. “What is it that we can do if these words are coming from either an employee of the district or someone associated with the district in another way, possibly a board member?”
Miller responded, “The things you do in good faith, the things you do in support of students, in response either to legal counsel, advice from your chiefs or from experts like our auditor and so forth, you’re very well protected for your personal responses sitting at the dias. We’ve had instances where there’s been efforts to make grievances rise up to the board level and frankly, in my view, what you do as you sit here is protected under that limited governmental immunity shroud. For employees, let’s say it’s a chief or a principal or a teacher or a custodian, the same principal pertains within the course of their duties, but just as is the case with you, when you walk outside of this place, if you reflect things that you’ve learned as board members in confidence, when you take actions that are personal in nature, let’s say in the case of the letter that Lori got, if this came from someone associated with the district that would be a personal decision, and it wouldn’t be protected under the limited governmental immunity, so as I’m holding this piece of evidence here, if this were to be pursued by Lori or if there was something said about a chief or me, as unlikely as that is possibly to be the case, those individuals would have a personal cause of action and could sue. It would be under what we call torts. You’ve heard of defamation claims, interference with contract … That would be personal, it wouldn’t be protected.”
Liu compared the letters to social media posts. “It’s like Facebook attacks,” she said. “You can either ignore it or make a big deal out of it.”
Miller said that wasn’t accurate. “It’s not necessarily the venue or the media, it’s whether it’s been published is typically the first element of a defamation claim,” he said. “Was it published to the public as opposed to an interpersonal communication? In the case of an anonymous letter or a Facebook post, both cases I’d call that to be published. In this case there’s an effort to threaten or intimidate or to bully. In a Facebook post it might be to defame.”
Graham then read a social media post from Liu. “We need people to speak at board meetings please, or you can write in. This is Ivy Liu’s own words. It’s easy to retreat into your busy lives but the future of the district and 25,000 kids depend on you making sure D49 is under conservative leadership. Right now we have Peter Hilts — ‘Hits,’ a misspelling — who brings in indoctrination — an accusation — and call it character development with the help of the three board members.”
Graham then called for an executive session next week to address board conduct and consider censure of a board member. Graham clarified his statements in an email. “I should clarify that I think I know who might have sent these ‘anonymous’ letters based on past correspondence with someone in the community,” he said. “I am not insinuating or accusing Ivy of sending the letters. Some of her past dialogue, however, seems to have been captured by the author of the letters. That is why being a Board Director requires thoughtful contemplation of what we say and how we say it. In regards to D49, that is captured in our Cultural Compass of how we treat each other and our work, our policies, as well as our Big Rocks concept.”
In an email, Liu denied authorship of the letters or knowledge of the author. “Anyone of the 60 – 65% of the constituents could have written that letter,” she said. “These people’s views, whether you side with it or not, is the majority of the community.”
During the board member comment period, Vice President Rick Van Wieren addressed Liu’s conduct. “She is repudiating the very culture of our district that she defended so clearly just a few months ago and is personally opposed to some of the things that are taught in such programs,” he said. “Things like respect, kindness, truthfulness, following the rules, working as a team, patience, positive affirmations and values like what our t-shirts read with that honor our thousands of military kids, apparently are not positioned to her personal values. While claiming to want to ‘Save the kids,’ her conduct has been something that I am ashamed and embarrassed for kids to even see.”
Graham spoke in support of the district’s existing SEL program. “Anybody who says there isn’t any good SEL doesn’t understand education, doesn’t understand what the teachers are going through,” he said.
Graham also expressed concerns for D49’s teachers. “Teachers are afraid,” he said. “They’re afraid of — from what I hear from teachers, and I hear parents telling me their teachers are afraid of how some of this board behaves. They’re afraid of you guys — some of you guys — going after them. If someone’s going to go after Peter Hilts, are they going to go after me? If someone goes after an executive assistant, are they going to come after me? That’s what I’ve heard. That’s not a conservative value. That’s not a Christian value. That’s not an American value. I’m sorry. You may want to clap about that, but there’s some behavior out there that’s atrocious, and I’ve been receiving it.”
D’Avola used her board comment time to read an excerpt from David Barton’s book, America’s Godly Heritage. The Southern Poverty Law Center describes Barton as “a self-styled ‘historian’ who has acted as a key bridge between the mainstream political right and radical-right religious ideology.” D49 recently received a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, alleging violations of separations between church and state, due to statements made by D’Avola about transgender people and the “Word of God.”
After reading an excerpt from Barton on the separation between church and state, D’Avola lamented the lack of religion in the classroom.
“In schools today you can talk about all sorts of violent and evil things, no problem,” she said. “You can talk about being a boy one day and a girl the next, how you can choose your gender, all 72 of them and counting, how you can use different pronouns. Forget about teaching grammar, and adults can talk about inappropriate sexual topics to children and that killing your baby is your choice, and you can tell children it’s OK to lie and keep secrets from their parents, but if you talk about the mighty name of Jesus, oh no. It’s an absolute end of the world. We should be talking about things that are true, honest, pure, just, righteous, lovely and of good report. We should not be talking about debased things and things that will hurt our children. Children are being influenced by wickedness, and that has got to stop. We are normalizing immorality. We should be teaching them the truth about who they were created to be. … Some [students] have even become ‘feral.’ It is because we have lost our way and replaced God with woke progressivism. We need to get back to the moral compass, solve the moral problem.”
D’Avola went on to criticize a classroom survey that asked students their preferred name and pronouns, and accused school counselors of recruiting students into Gay Straight Alliance clubs. She described these actions as “Marxism,” to resounding applause from the audience of meeting.
Inside Out Youth Services, a Colorado Springs-based nonprofit that serves LGBTQ youth, responded to D’Avola’s comments. They issued the following statement:
“Board of Education members have the duty to represent all students. It is unacceptable and, to be frank, cruel, to label a student ‘evil’ or ‘wicked’ because of who they are. Decades of research shows this rhetoric does measurable harm to all youth – not just those in the LGBTQIA2+ community. D49 Board of Education Director Jamilynn D’Avola has seemingly determined that her personal religious beliefs should be the laws that govern our public institutions, regardless of a student or family’s secular or religious beliefs.
At the most recent board meeting, D’Avola said students who are afraid to tell their parents their chosen name and pronouns are “lying and keeping secrets.” What she fails to recognize is that outing a young person to a family member is a violation of their legal rights. Moreover, it can be dangerous. Certainly we have seen cases where disclosure of identity has resulted in significant child abuse and neglect, and even in the worst cases, resulted in death.
D’Avola asked why teachers should help prevent suicide among their students: Because all of us are responsible for preventing suicide. It is not only the right thing to do, it is the school’s legal obligation. D’Avola is essentially saying we should do away with the legal protections that ensure child welfare and safety.
To use D’Avola’s own words: Here’s what’s “true” and “honest”: a young person being affirmed, respected, and given all the tools necessary to achieve success.
And in the words of one of our students themselves: ‘If we are against bullying, then why is it okay for our school board members to be bullies?’”
In an email, Graham emphasized D49’s adherence to federal and state anti-discrimination laws, and wrote, “Any statements made by individual BOE Directors represent their own opinions and do not necessarily represent the BOE as a whole nor that of the District. The Board speaks with one voice only when we vote in the majority or in majority consensus to direct a task of the Administration. D49 welcomes all students who come to us to learn. They are loved and cared for when they are with us. We are proud to team with all parents and legal guardians to meet the educational needs of their children in a safe and welcoming environment.”