Feds investigate district's handling of Columbine Elementary
Daily Camera News
Feb. 02, 2009


Office for Civil Rights looks into allegations of retaliation

— The U.S. Department of Education is investigating complaints that the Boulder Valley School District discriminated against parents, students and teachers at Columbine Elementary.

The department’s Office for Civil Rights will try to determine if the district discriminated against “language minority” parents during a visioning process for the planned new school building or retaliated against teachers who advocated for students learning English as a second language.

“Several complaints have been submitted. ... All but one allege violations of racial discrimination laws on the basis of Hispanic national origin, as well as retaliation on the basis of Hispanic and limited-English national origin advocacy,” Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, said in an e-mail. “Opening a complaint for investigation in no way implies that (our office) has made a determination on the merits of the case. Rather, the office is merely a neutral fact-finder.”

In December, teachers and other staff members at the Boulder school, where the majority of students speak Spanish as their first language, were told they would have to reapply for their jobs if they wanted to continue working there next fall.

That announcement came after the school failed to meet “adequate yearly progress” — a metric based on state-mandated standardized tests — for the third year in a row and after “offensive comments” at a racially charged “visioning” meeting for Columbine’s new school caused the district to restructure the public-input process.

Hundreds of outraged parents protested the policy to have the staff re-apply at a meeting with Superintendent Chris King, who then reversed his decision in January, calling it premature.

“I actually think (this investigation) is constructive and healthy, and I’m looking forward to having a third-party, objective organization like the (Office for Civil Rights) take a look at what’s going on here,” King said Monday. “We’ve got a story to tell about our efforts to improve student achievement at Columbine, including to the federal government. They’re more than welcome to poke around here and see what’s going on.”

The U.S. Department of Education has asked the district to provide a long list of documentation about the school, including the availability of translation services during meetings where the vision for the school was discussed, and the process surrounding the replacement of the school’s principal, Lynn Widger, who some parents suspect was forced out.

Kori Jew, a Columbine parent, said she’s glad that someone is looking into the way parents and staff members have been treated.

“I don’t understand why the district continues to treat the school like it’s a red-headed stepchild,” she said.

If the U.S. Department of Education finds that the school district violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the department could, in the worst-case scenario, ask that federal funds to the district be cut off.

Columbine timeline

Sept. 24, 2008 — School officials restructure the visioning process for Columbine’s new building and curriculum after the first meeting devolves into off-topic discussions on the school’s diversity, comments called racist by some.

Oct. 1, 2008 — Columbine Elementary School fails to make “adequate yearly progress” — defined by the federal No Child Left Behind Act — for the third year in a row, requiring the district to take “corrective action.”

Week of Dec. 8, 2008 — Columbine staff members are told they must re-apply for their jobs if they want to continue to work at the school. Superintendent Chris King announces that Columbine’s principal, Lynn Widger, will retire and the district has hired Cindy Kaier, principal at Kohl Elementary in Broomfield, to take over.

Dec. 16, 2008 — Hundreds of parents and students show up at a meeting hosted by Superintendent Chris King to ask the district to reverse its decision.

Dec. 19, 2008 — King calls the decision to have the staff re-apply “premature,” and he says he will consider other options.

Jan. 6, 2009 — The Colorado Department of Education releases its audit of Columbine, which analyzed the school in nine areas.

Jan. 13, 2009 — Staff members at Columbine are told they won’t have to re-apply for their jobs. The district also announces that Columbine parents will have an extended deadline to decide whether to open-enroll their children out of the school.

Jan. 29, 2009 — The U.S. Department of Education announces that it is investigating possible civil rights violations by the district in its approach to Columbine.