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Are Outspoken, Black Teachers a Threat?
Teacher Alleges Abuse from School District

Posted 12-10-05


(NOTE: A version of this article appeared in the Dec. 8 Denver Weekly News)

AURORA, CO - The Aurora Public School (APS) System is guilty of harassment and discrimination according to a long-time teacher and a supportive representative of the Aurora NAACP. Jacqueline Sowell taught physical education at Central High School for 17 years before being forced to become the instructor of a health course this year. No longer allowed to guide students in course plans based on her area of specialty and in a gym setting, she now finds herself teaching in a former auto-mechanics garage where snow removal and other motor operated equipment are stored; "classrooms" are not separated by walls but curtains or medium-height partitions reinforced by inverted tables and desks; an ROTC drill team can be heard practicing a few feet away; students serving in-school suspension time meet nearby and cause further disruption; and near chaos reigns rather than an orderly and educationally conducive environment.

Sowell, who began teaching 23 years ago fresh out of the University of Northern Colorado, said her troubles began in 2000 but worsened to the point of her first suspension in 2003 stemming from a male student's accusation that she threatened him. The 45-year-old teacher maintains the allegation was false and also unreasonable considering the student was over six feet tall and on the school's basketball team. The athlete may have found little need to attend gym class because his instructor noticed his poor attendance and confronted him about it in front of a witness.

Sowell recalls that the young man cursed and threatened her before reporting the incident to the athletic director. As a veteran teacher, the physical education specialist was certain she had handled the situation professionally and with tact but was surprised when told she had broken the law by threatening the student, pulling him to the side and not informing administration of the issue. She was not allowed to defend herself or present the witness of the encounter. After five days being out of work, APS administrators issued a letter of reprimand and she was fined two days pay. She expressed her disagreement with the decision in, what she believes, was a professional, yet bold, manner and wonders if that caused administrators to be intimidated by her.

Meanwhile, the student began spreading rumors about Sowell's sexuality, which she found to be a form of sexual harassment that APS did nothing about despite her repeated complaints and requests that the student be reprimanded.

2nd Suspension

The following year, a female student began spreading similar rumors and accusing Sowell of a number of offenses which the instructor adamantly denied. Sowell said she repeatedly reported the student, as she had previously been told was the correct procedure, and requested the teen be removed from her class. The young student, Sowell claims, even took the rumors to an assistant vice principal who did nothing to address the inappropriate behavior and opted instead to take the student's side after which time, Sowell was again suspended, for not following a "directive" and was fined 10 days pay. Her suspension ran from March 2005 through the end of the school year.

Sowell said that after many exchanges with the assistant vice principal, she took her complaints to her teacher's union representative, then on to the human resource manager for the school district, then to the assistant superintendent, and finally all the way to the superintendent of schools, yet no one addressed her concerns about being sexually harassed and discriminated against.

In the fall of 2004, she had taken her grievance to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and later received approval to pursue a lawsuit against the district for discrimination and the sexual harassment charge. Her complaint alleged that she was being treated by a different set of rules than her White counterparts, some of whom she had witnessed cursing students, or physically handling them - things she said she never did - yet those teachers and administrators were never fined, reprimanded or suspended.

3rd Suspension

After her second suspension, she returned to the school for the start of the 2005-06 school year, prepared to make the best of being forced from her specialty into a subject she was unfamiliar with and had been denied training in. At the first teacher assembly, she recalled being marched out of that meeting - in front of all teaching staff - and being told to again leave the premises under suspension, this time for making "lewd" comments to an administrator, or allegedly calling the official a "coward." She was fined 15 days pay and only returned from the punishment in early October.

The dedicated educator is firm in her view that APS has never given justification for her repeated suspensions; has never shown that the "directives" she has been accused of violating are found in any district manuals, policies or even in her employment contract; and no one has been able to explain to her where the money deducted from her paychecks for fines has gone.

"If you are taking thousands of dollars, it better be written somewhere, "she said recently at the local NAACP office located a few blocks from the school. John Marshall, State Legal Redress Chair for the organization, was by her side and said it is undeniable that she has been the victim of unjust treatment and in his investigation, said he had interviewed 15 of her co-workers, none of whom condone the way she has been treated by APS officials. "We know she is being treated differently," he said. "It is our belief that she is being discriminated against."

Encounter with Dishonest Activist

Sowell sought assistance from the civil rights group in late September when she was at her wits end and after having spent thousands of dollars on consultation fees for various lawyers none of whom felt her case was worth the time or money she would have had to invest. In her vulnerability, she also paid over $1000 to a Denver civil rights activist a friend referred to her but who did little to help her cause. She signed a contract to retain the outspoken activist's services after he convincingly told her of his "expertise." Unfortunately, she had to terminate the contract after two weeks when friends informed her the activist's own legal troubles were the subject of newspaper articles and newscasts.

"He was not honest with me, he never told me about his legal issues" she said. "What he did was wrong. He made a lot of promises that he could not keep because he was in jail or court." She described the man as "headstrong" and said he became very upset when she informed him that she was terminating the contract.

After the experience, in addition to the series of other discouraging events, Sowell had thoughts of giving up completely but decided that she would not allow negative forces to break her spirit. She said APS made it clear how they felt about her in seemingly wanting to put the "Negro in the garage, demean her, take her professional dignity and break her spirit." She asserts that she was used as an example for other teachers as to what would happen if they got out of line with administration. Apparently the tactic is working because she finds that teachers who used to be friendly with her now barely acknowledge her presence or speak to her.

Loved By her Students

Sowell proudly boasts that 99% of her students have a favorable view of her, enjoy her classes and have great respect for her which may be another reason some view her as a threat.

"My rapport with students is to be reckoned with and that could be another reason why administration has a problem with me," she said. "I am able to do what they cannot do with students, in a proper way. They have to yell and scream [but] I can speak to them and get them to do what is right and acceptable."

She is confident that she is a positive and necessary role model for the demographic of students at the school and credits prayer and her Christian faith for helping her be able to withstand all that has occurred over the past few years.

One of her students voiced strong support for his favorite teacher.

"She's a wonderful [physical education] teacher and that's what she does best," the junior said. "She is the best teacher I have had at Central [because of] her teaching skills. She is kind with kids and pushes them to their max so they can do their best and achieve their goals."

The 17-year-old started a petition to get her back into her specialty and has thus far obtained over 100 signatures and plans to continue the effort until Sowell is reinstated to what he believes is her rightful place in the physical education class. He is slated to take that course next year but says he will not if Sowell is not going to be the instructor.

The Struggle Continues

Sowell plans to continue the fight but said she still goes to work every day with a smile on her face and giving her best professionally. She has spent many hours, especially during her last suspension, contemplating what motivates others to work in opposition to her.

"I spent sleepless nights trying to figure out how so-called human beings could treat another as cruelly and inhumanely as they have treated me and for no reason," she said. "I think [APS administrators] systematically made an attempt to destroy my career, professional dignity and my life and that is really sick."

In response, APS spokesperson, Georgia Duran, said she was not at liberty to discuss Sowell's specific personnel matters but added that the district maintains the instructor has been treated equitably.

"When we have employees who express any type of concern about treatment, we look into it fully and believe we respond fairly," she said. She went on to say that because of the over enrollment at Central High and the resulting large student body, "nearly all" teachers at the school are teaching in areas for which they "are not qualified." She said other teachers trained in physical education are teaching health courses as Sowell is and that they do meet state requirements in regards to appropriate training.

The converted auto mechanics garage is a building other teachers, from various specialties, have used in past years, Duran said, while adding that she did not know why Sowell was transferred from her area of expertise but suggested it was to fill a teaching need. "Our perspective is that we have teachers in the appropriate place. They are qualified to be teaching in those particular subject matters," she said.

- Adeeba Folami -
Original Post

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Originally posted by Blacksanction:
How was she outspoken or did I miss something in the article? -fighting for your job and unfair traetment is not being outspoken. Atleast not to me.

Clearly there is more to this story...

yes, there is more to the story and a sign of her outspoken-ness is indicated by this:

....She expressed her disagreement with the decision in, what she believes, was a professional, yet bold, manner and wonders if that caused administrators to be intimidated by her.

Yes however that was in response to her getting rooked for 2 days pay and a letter of reprimand.
I know I would have thrown a twister if it was me.

There is some strange dynamics here. Being a phys-ed does not meant your a dyke... not that there is anything wrong with that. So there is some sort of personality conflict and clearly the union is not helping either (surprise there-not)

I have read that in Japan they do not fire employees they just put them in a basement with nothing to do.
this is a followup, of sorts, to the above story since it pertains to issues going on at the same school. a version of this article appeared in the 12-22-05 denver weekly news.

School Administrators Receive Failing Grade from Parents/Students

AURORA, CO - Favoritism, dishonesty, intimidation, discrimination and targeting of Black students were some of the allegations a group of adults and teens made against a number of school administrators and authority figures of Central High School (CHS). Tracy Groves and her children, Stephen, 16 and Stephanie, 18; and Lori Fontenot with sons Ronald, 17 and Ryan, 16, voiced their grievances this past Monday. Their complaints, they said, have not been satisfactorily addressed and school officials like Principal Dean Stecklein, Assistant Vice Principal Celi Leggett, along with some of the student deans, have a wall of silence in place behind which they cover-up and refuse to acknowledge any wrongdoing on the part of CHS staff members.

The Fontenot family made a strong allegation against one of the school's assigned police officers who they say pulled a gun on the teen boys after they were off of school grounds and were walking home. The incident took place the day they came to register for their first day of classes for the 2005-06 school year. Mrs. Fontenot recalled that her sons, who had just returned from a family summer vacation, were registering late but had all the necessary and completed paperwork to present at the school. The teens were of age and therefore she did not need to accompany them for the process.

Ryan recounted an exchange that took place between the school receptionist and his brother, which resulted in her getting "upset," throwing papers at him, then telling him to "come back when he had some respect."

The teens said they were then approached by AVP Leggett, who ordered them both to leave the building and then called for a security guard to escort them out. As they were leaving, one of the two school police officers got involved and began cursing and yelling at them. Shortly thereafter, and accompanied by his partner, the officer followed the teens off the property at which time the teens claim one of the authority figures pulled out his gun and made threatening statements to them. Ryan stated that the situation ended when the officers allowed his brother to walk home and told him he could return to the school to register.

Mrs. Fontenot said that her 16-year-old son called her on his cell phone at the time of the incident and was hysterical about the officer drawing his gun. The next day, she went to the school to discuss the situation with the adults involved but was taken aback by the lack of professionalism of some CHS staff members.

AVP's Unprofessional Behavior?

In a meeting with Leggett, the administrator is said to have denied that the receptionist acted inappropriately, she described the 17-year-old as "rude," suggested he could be transferred to another school, and told Mrs. Fontenot that he could "talk to her like that at home" but not to officials at the school. She also antagonistically responded to the teen's question about why the receptionist apologized if she had done nothing wrong.

"[Ms Leggett] walked up to [Ronald] like she was going to hit him so I jumped in front of him," the mother said. "All I envisioned was myself in handcuffs because it was like I had to protect my son and I did not know what was going to happen after that."

She then told the AVP she no longer wanted to deal with her and that she would be filing a complaint, which she did later by phone. Additionally, she found that Christopher Vann, one of the student deans, in a subsequent meeting exhibited a lack of willingness to impartially listen to the allegations her son brought.

"As [Robert] explained about the gun, the dean said, ˜That did not happen,'" Mrs. Fontenot explained. "He then asked me how did I know it happened." She soon realized how fruitless the conversation was and scheduled a meeting with the school principal the next day. That encounter was more encouraging but the family has yet to learn if her verbal complaint was ever investigated. Her son Robert was allowed to finally register but in October decided to stop attending the school because he found the classes to be "boring." He also acknowledged that his change of attitude about attending CHS did not occur until after the negative experiences and also because the police officers told him they would give him a "hard time" if he stayed. His mother is planning to enroll him in another school but has encountered long waiting lists in addition to other difficulties which have prevented Robert's re-enrollment.

Another Family Speaks Out

After listening to the Fontenot's story, Groves was more incensed about the targeting of certain Black male students, including her son, that appears to be common place at CHS.

"It is amazing to me when I hear other stories because if this was not happening to me, I would not believe that [CHS administrators] are that insensitive and do not care about the kids," she said. "I would never have believed it."

She declared that her son, in spite of his desire to leave, would remain at the school and graduate as his sister is scheduled to do next spring. "I teach [them] to fight for what is right and do not run."

Her son Stephen, a junior, has been suspended a number of times and for various reasons including: watching a fight; dancing; and cursing a security guard. The outspoken mother said only one of the suspensions, after review, was found to be valid but even that one, for watching a fight, is also invalid in her estimation. She came to that conclusion after reviewing the school's policy book where she found it only prohibited "initiating" a fight but said nothing about watching one.

She sees a double standard in place when comparing the punishment her son received with that of the school basketball player who forcefully dragged her daughter down a hallway last year.

"I complained about why my son was suspended for three days for watching a fight when this [ballplayer] actually had physical contact," she recalled, adding that to her knowledge the player was never suspended nor was a report of the incident on record when she asked CHS personnel to research.

Her belief is that certain pupils are favored at the school, including Hispanics who make up 65% of the student population and also Black athletes who appear to fall under a separate set of rules than those applied to other Black students. She, like Mrs. Fontenot, has also encountered the administrators' wall of denial when speaking in defense of her children.

Evidence of a ˜Good Ole Boy' Network?

As an example, she cited the outcome of a meeting she had with Ron England, another student dean, and her son in response to the allegation that the 16-year-old cursed a security guard. Groves said when the female guard entered the office she immediately voiced that Stephen was not the youth who had disrespected her but apparently England had concluded otherwise and was persistent in the matter.

"[The guard] said it was not [Stephen] but [Mr. England] kept forcing it," Groves explained. "He stood up and said,' Yes, it is [him]. Look at him, you said [the student] wears jerseys and [Stephen] has on a jersey."

The teen's mother said at that point she instructed her son to go to his class while she proceeded to Principal Stecklein's office to voice her complaint about what she had just witnessed. She found the principal unwilling to even consider that what she was reporting was the truth.

"[Mr. Stecklein said], ˜I doubt [Mr. England] would do that because he is my friend and we do not handle our business like that."

Disrespect of Parents

Groves and Mrs. Fontenot allege that CHS administrators have little respect, not only for students but their parents as well and they say that has to change. Mrs. Fontenot added that AVP Leggett spoke to her as though speaking to a teenage student or to her own child instead of a mature adult. She is concerned that her son, Ryan, will be targeted as a result of the family speaking out but felt it important to bring the trio's complaints to light.

Groves agreed and encouraged more parents to break their silence. "Parents have to stand up and stop being scared," she said. "I know [CHS] is intimidating but as long as you hide and do not speak what you feel, they will continue to intimidate - even your younger children coming in."

The young students also hope to see positive changes at the school as a result of their stories being brought to light. Stephen's message to Principal Stecklein is that the school would improve if all students were treated equally by administrators and staff. Ryan added that he also hopes to see change at the school but in the form of the current administrative team being replaced by officials who would not encourage or overlook the favoritism and discrimination he observes at the school now.

Although the school's student population is predominantly non-White, the administrative and teaching staff are 84% White with only eight Blacks and 10 Hispanics sprinkled amongst the nearly 130 CHS employees.

Response from School District

Diane Lewis, a spokesperson for the school district stated that due to the holiday break, CHS administrators and other representatives were unavailable for comment. She shared that the police officers assigned to the school were employees of the Aurora Police Department which was responsible for handling complaints against their personnel. Due to the limited staff on duty she was also unable to state whether or not CHS administrators have any complaints on file from parents or students, however, she explained that the established grievance procedure for parents entailed first contacting school officials, then district administrators and then members of the school board if necessary.

Groves stated that she followed that process and encountered the same partiality and denial even from Superintendent Bob Adams and found that the school board was reluctant to take action as well.

"I have talked to the superintendent and all he ever says is, ˜We are all friends. [Principal Stecklein] would not do that,'" she said. "I have talked to board members [who] have told me what was going on was not right but nobody stepped up to do anything."

- [size=9]Adeeba Folami[/size] -

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