26 September 2014
On Friday, Egan Walker, a sophomore at Standley Lake HighSchool in Jefferson County, Colorado, will go to school dressed as Martin Luther.
He is doing so not for homework or a class project, but as part of protest against what many see as a radical rightwing agenda of the newly elected school board in Jefferson County. Friday’s will be the latest in a rapidly escalating week ofprotests by teachers and pupils.
The unrest began last Friday, when more than 50 teachers staged a “sick-out” which closed two schools. By Monday, students across the county had taken up the cause, with 100 walking out of Evergreen high school, followed by 200 more from five different schools on Tuesday.
On Wednesday more than 700 more students walked out from Chatfield, Alameda International and Dakota Ridge high schools, gathering, according to CBS news, and chanting “education without limitation”. Thursday saw more than a thousand students leaving school and taking to the streets.
Jefferson County, in the suburbs of Denver, is one of Colorado’s most populous counties, and is the largest school district in the state, with 84,000 students. “In general, school board meetings are pretty mundane,” said Jim Earley, whose three children attend Jefferson County schools.
That changed, he said, last November, following the election of the new school board in Jefferson County – one with a conservative majority of three: Julie Williams, John Newkirk and the board’s chairman, Ken Witt.
The new majority swiftly set about making enemies. They appointed a new superintendent, Dan McMinimee, in a process that many criticised as opaque; and also allocated funds to bail out two ailing charter schools. They took a hardline stance on teacher evaluations, choosing to count the results from the test of a new evaluation regime that teachers had been previously told would not be included.
Earley and other parents followed the actions of the new school board with mounting alarm. “I’m worried,” he said. “I’m very worried.”
The spark which ignited the tinderbox was a proposal written by one of the conservative majority on the school board, Julie Williams. In it, she calls for a review of the Advanced Placement history curriculum using the following set of criteria:
“Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights. Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”
Williams gave an interview with Colorado’s Channel 9 News in which she made a statement that has since become a rallying-cry for the students, parents and teachers protesting against the proposal: “I don’t think we should encourage our kids to be little rebels.”
The plan hatched by Walker, along with his sister Emma, was that they – and others at schools across the county – would come into school on Friday dressed as famous historical rebels; figures who were responsible for just the sort of “civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law” that Williams’ proposal seemingly aimed to banish from the classroom.
Jefferson County has found itself front and center in a national debate about what should and should not be taught in American schools – and who gets to decide. The Advanced Placement course is an elective module which high school students can elect to take early. It is set by a national body, and is acceptable as college credit at more than 3,000 universities.
But the concept of any nationally-set curriculum raises the hackles of conservative activists, who are currently engaged in a vicious rear-guard actionagainst the Common Core standards.
In March, at a conference, the Republican National Committee adopted a resolution condemning the AP history course as a “radically revisionist” and anti-American view of history, and the Texas state board of education is moving ahead with plans which would effectively ban the AP history class outright, along with all other courses set above state level.
Rosemary Downs is a mother of four, two of whom are still in the Jefferson County public schools system. Her son Simon, a freshman at Lakewood High School, took part in a walkout Thursday morning.
Rosemary told the Guardian that she was present at the meeting where the old superintendent was “forced out” by the new conservative majority, whom opponents refer to collectively by their last initials: “WNW”.
“It was a farce,” she said. “The disrespect that WNW showed to the other two board members was obvious.” She said she was fearful for her children’s education.
Jonna Levine, the co-founder of Support Jeffco Kids, a pressure group set up this year, told the Guardian she found the language in the proposal “scary to say the least”. She thinks there is a conservative agenda at play in the school board. “You can’t help but assume that.”
“I think you could call it extreme. Extreme conservatism,” she added.
Earley thinks something sinister is at play. “It’s no secret that there’s a very aggressive movement that appears to link back to the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity that is putting money into local political races.” He pointed to neighbouring Douglas county, where, according to a Politico report last November, Americans for Prosperity spent more than $350,000 on the school board elections.
There is no evidence that the Koch brothers put money into the Jefferson County election, but there were several well-funded groups supporting Williams, Witt and Newkirk.
Egan Walker knew his school board was having problems, but he didn’t engage with the issues that much until the proposed curriculum review. Then, he said, “I started talking about it at school. I think it’s an important issue.” An online petition to stop the school board’s proposed review has nearly 27,000 signatures.
“This is going to affect all of the students in Jefferson County and across America,” he continued. “If our history textbooks are censored, we won’t have the right information. It would affect everyone’s education.”
“I think the dress-up idea is a way to peacefully protest that doesn’t involve missing any school,” said Egan’s sister Emma, who is in the 8th grade at Wayne Carle Middle School. “It also shows that we care enough about our history and look up to these historical figures that meant so much to our world and us personally.”
Emma plans to dress as Eleanor Roosevelt for the protest.
Pictures on the Facebook event show other students, from a multitude of grades at a different schools, trying out costumes and sharing ideas. Suggestions include participants in the Boston Tea Party, members of the Green Mountain militia, anti-internment campaigner and governor of Colorado Ralph Carr, abolitionist and women’s rights campaigner Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B Anthony and activist Molly Brown.
“Dumbledore’s Army”, suggests one post. Another says: “My [nine-year-old] wants to dress up as Rosa Parks. My [seven-year-old] suggested Elsa from Frozen. Got some work to do!”
Tempers are running high. When the mother of one fifth grader posted a picture of her daughter dressed as Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts, someone posted underneath: “You have been controlled by union lies.”
In an unpleasant twist, the Denver Post reported Thursday that the sheriff’s office is investigating threats made against the children of school board members, though no further details were made public.
The school board has not pursued punishments for student protesters. New superintendent Dan McMinimee said in a statement Wednesday: “I respect the right of our students to express their opinions in a peaceful manner.”
“It’s also important that our community understand that no decisions have been made regarding the curriculum committee,” he concluded. Despite repeated requests, no one from the board of education was available for comment.
Egan Walker said he was planning on dressing as Martin Luther because he believes the was “brave enough to stand up for what he believed in”.
“He started this whole movement – [but] was just this normal guy,” he said.
He believes Luther would be on board with his protest if he was alive today. “I think he’d be supportive that we’d be brave enough to stand up for what we believe in. We’re just normal students – it’s not like we have a huge amount of power – but we can still make a difference.”