Two Durango School District 9-R employees issued separate letters Sunday in response to an incident last month at Needham Elementary School where a district administrator had police called on her for reportedly trespassing.
The letters by Superintendent Dan Snowberger and Needham Principal Jennifer McKenna came after The Durango Herald reported last week about an Oct. 19 incident, in which McKenna directed her assistant to call 911 because the district’s spokeswoman, Julie Popp, was not allowed at Needham and was trespassing.
Snowberger and McKenna refused to discuss the incident when the Herald asked each for comment and even denied an incident took place at the elementary school.
The Herald provided Snowberger and McKenna with a call detail report from the Durango Police Department and an audio recording of the 911 call to police dispatch.
Snowberger denied that Popp was banned from Needham and disputed that the incident took place.
In an email McKenna sent to the Herald on Nov. 5, she wrote: “I have no knowledge of such an incident at Needham.”
But in the letters sent Sunday by Snowberger to 9-R staff and McKenna to Needham parents, both acknowledge an incident took place, and both provided some details about what they say happened. But both letters also contradict the call detail report and the 911 dispatch recording.
“There was a call placed to law enforcement from Needham on October 19,” McKenna wrote Sunday in her letter to parents of Needham students. “I requested the call because I believed an officer could better communicate with a parent than I could.”
McKenna goes on to explain that in certain circumstances, the school involves law enforcement to mediate situations with parents or students.
“In more than a few of these conversations, heightened emotions have spurred me to stop a conversation and continue it a later time, sometimes with the help of a facilitator,” she wrote.
This is in contrast to why her assistant – who used her personal cellphone – said she was calling 911: That Popp was banned from the school’s campus and Popp was aware of the ban. The police call log and 911 call recording did not include information about an escalated incident.
McKenna did not respond to the Herald’s request for comment Monday.
Snowberger first wrote in an email to the Herald on Nov. 5 that he had “no clue” about the situation with Popp. On Nov. 15, Snowberger maintained that the situation “is foreign to all you claim to be involved.”
“Do you live in a world lined with conspiracy theories?” Snowberger wrote. “... Your attempt to slander an individual without evidence is sad and despicable. ... I will not be threatened into providing false information about an incident to feed your desired story.
“The facts are clear. There is no police incident report, which means that despite police being sent to Needham according to the call log you have provided, no incident had taken place.”
Snowberger, however, details the situation that took place at Needham in a letter he sent to 9-R staff on Sunday.
“In our world of divisiveness, it is not uncommon for passions to create uncomfortable situations between parents and school staff,” he wrote in the letter addressed to “parents & staff.”
“Sadly, sometimes those situations become challenging and we work to separate parties until cooler minds can prevail.”
Snowberger wrote that he withheld information about the incident, in part, because of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The Herald’s attorney, Steven Zansberg of Ballard Saphr LLP, said this is a misinterpretation of the act.
“FERPA is intended to protect students from having their ‘educational records’ – grades, tests, etc. – disclosed without their consent,” Zansberg said Monday. “It does not apply to public records that discuss the conduct of school employees ... discharging their official duties.
“Even if any students are named in such records, the School District is entitled, under FERPA, to redact those names and provide the public with information concerning the official conduct of public employees.”
Snowberger did not respond to the Herald’s request for comment Monday.
Nancy Stubbs, president of the 9-R Board of Education, said the board is concerned about the district’s handling of the situation and plans to meet with Snowberger on Tuesday.
“You weren’t given a coherent response,” she said. “And we’re looking into how we can help you with that.”
David Ottman, a 9-R parent who is also a prosecutor for the 6th Judicial District in Durango, wrote a letter to Snowberger on Sunday saying it appears the school district was lying in its responses to the Herald and did little to look into the situation with Popp.
“Frankly, whether your actions were deliberate or done out of ignorance is deeply troubling,” Ottman wrote. “As a parent and taxpayer of the Durango School District, I am seriously concerned about your lack of professionalism, honesty and leadership in your written responses to the Durango Herald.”
Ottman went on to say Snowberger’s responses were troubling and lacked professionalism, especially since McKenna confirmed there was a situation with Popp in her letter to parents.
“(The Herald’s) questioning never merited such an unprofessional attack to the point at which you accuse them of being conspirators, and threaten to cut them off from access to the District,” he said.
“Your total lack of professionalism, candor and leadership in this matter gives me serious concerns about whether (my children) will be safe while at school.”
Ottman provided the Herald with Snowberger’s response to his letter, which Ottman called “inadequate and unresponsive” to his concerns.
Snowberger wrote: “It is not uncommon for parents to become emotional and for tempers to rise when an issue with children arises. To ensure the safety of our campus, principals often request an officer to respond to ensure that parties are separated before situations become intense or create a negative environment for students, staff and the public.”
Snowberger also included in the letter to Ottman details about the incident involving Popp that Snowberger previously told the Herald were protected by confidentiality laws. Snowberger wrote that the situation rose after an “emotional conversation involving her children” and she was then asked to leave.
The police incident log and recorded call to dispatch, however, indicate Popp was previously banned from Needham and that she was aware she was not allowed on school grounds.
Snowberger also wrote to Ottman that he was questioned by the Herald only about police contact with a parent/employee and a possible threat on campus.
The Herald, however, asked several questions regarding the situation with Popp, including why Popp was reportedly banned and why police were called in the first place to Needham. Snowberger never answered these questions.
The Herald filed a Colorado Open Records Act request on Nov. 9 seeking records involving Popp’s ban from Needham. The release of those records were denied by the district Nov. 14.
Zansberg wrote a letter challenging the district’s denial. As of Monday, the district had not responded.
email@example.comAn earlier version of this story misstated the name of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.