Students and a teacher violated certain Durango School District 9-R policies when a student-led rally and march about climate change ended with a few high school students making vulgar gestures at people in a downtown yogurt shop, a school district investigation determined.
An announcement about the event was permitted on Miller Middle School’s public address system and flyers about the gathering were allowed to be distributed at the school, both of which make it hard for the district to maintain the gathering was not a school-sponsored event, said Superintendent Dan Snowberger.
In addition, a teacher who attended on personal time and wore a Miller Middle School face mask and school ID added another factor that Snowberger said would have led observers to assume it was a school event.
“We’re in a very divided world, and our job as a public school district is really to remain apolitical,” he said.
Because the school must remain apolitical, Snowberger said the incident provided the district an opportunity to remind staff members that during school hours they must avoid taking political stances. Teachers’ jobs, he said, are to fairly and accurately represent and convey arguments and evidence in favor of various public policy controversies and issues and allow students to determine for themselves their positions.
“It doesn’t hurt, especially in a hot, hot election season, to remind staff that as public school employees, during work time, we do not have the freedom of speech that we do as private citizens. And in our schools we do stay apolitical,” he said.
Snowberger said the district is committed to taking appropriate steps to address any violations of its policies among both staff members and students, and all educational and corrective actions will remain confidential.
Ryan Bartholomew, owner of Top That Frozen Yogurt, said it was unfortunate students agitated by political signs in the shop’s window supporting Republican candidates assumed the shop was not committed to reducing global warming.
The shop has changed all its light bulbs to LEDs; it maintains its heating and cooling systems at peak efficiency to reduce electrical use; and it has replaced single-use plastic containers, cups and lids with paper replacements.
“The students weren’t here (for a conversation). They saw our signs in the window. I couldn’t tell you what they were thinking, but I’m sure outside influences played a role in that,” he said.
The district’s Facebook page had 284 comments about the event with many contributors attacking each other. Snowberger said the district determined it was best to delete all posts rather than try to police individual comments.
“You know, this is a politically charged season,” he said. “So it got to the point that it was easier to remove the posts than to try to deal with each post individually.”
As for the event itself, Snowberger said the district must ensure balance and fairness in presenting all sides of political or social movements and issues and allow students to come to their own conclusions.
“My concern is we used the mic, we allowed flyers to be distributed,” he said. “Are we going to be offering that to another social political movement or issue? Are we going to do that every time someone wants to advance a position on an issue or movement? That’s something we’re not in a position to do. We must remain apolitical.”