BY FREDA MIKLIN
Last week, we reported on statements made by students and parents, as well as community members, at the May 8 meeting of the Cherry Creek School District Board of Education, about acts of antisemitism in area schools, particularly Campus Middle School (CMS).
As the school board meeting began, board member Kristin Allen and Superintendent Chris Smith addressed the issues they knew were going to be raised later in the meeting.
Allen pointed to the importance of “teaching our children about celebrating our differences and discovering that those differences make us stronger,” and how CCSD educators “are working tirelessly to combat discrimination based on race, religion, ethnicity, sex, gender, sexuality, and ability.”
Referring to the incident at CMS, she said, “The school’s response was swift and comprehensive,” and “As we deal with increasing issues of anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim hate, racism, and all other kinds of intolerance, we must continue and expand our proactive work to ensure every child feel safe, seen, valued, and represented in all academic subjects,” pointing out that, “Any community that is vulnerable to hate crimes against people of the Jewish faith is a community that is vulnerable to hate crimes toward people of other faiths.” Still, she acknowledged, “We do not do school in a bubble. Students are in school only part of the time. Beliefs are influenced by social media, peers, parents, and community. Students come to school with those beliefs and act on them.”
Smith, who met earlier in the day with two mothers whose children experienced antisemitic incidents, said that anyone involved in the recent incident at CMS was facing disciplinary consequences because, “We do not tolerate hate in this district of any kind against any group,” adding, “I am not naïve to think that this only happens at CMS.” Addressing himself directly to students who suffered acts of discrimination, he said, “I’m sorry that these are the things that happened to you in our district.” He committed to working in partnership to make things better.
It has long been the policy of CCSD and most other elected boards and city councils that they are not required to respond from the dais after public comments are made at a meeting. It is understandable that they would not want to get into a back-and-forth with anyone using the opportunity for public comment to make accusations or similar statements. Still, board members are not legally barred from commenting in response to what they have heard. None did so at this meeting, despite having heard things from students and parents that were difficult to recount. Some parents told us they were stunned that neither Kelly Bates, president, nor any other school board member, offered one word of acknowledgement, let alone compassion, for the students and parents who had testified. At their request, we asked the school board why none of them said anything in response to what they heard.
A parent whose child was one of those who experienced antisemitic behavior at school told us, “I had friends at the meeting who asked me afterwards what the next steps are with the school board. I told them that I have NO idea since they didn’t respond to one single comment! Aside from Kristin Allen approaching me after the meeting as a friend, I was also appalled that no one said a word about next steps. Parents and two students had the courage to stand in front of hundreds of strangers and tell their difficult stories and as soon as the two-minute timer went off, not a single word was said to the speakers and we left the meeting without any notion of how we’re moving forward from here as a district! Will there be a change in the district curriculum? Additional teacher training around the Holocaust? Consequences for the students who drew swastikas on themselves and school property?”
Rikki Mor, one of the parents who met with Superintendent Smith earlier that day, felt encouraged after that meeting. She told The Villager, “I would say that the district has been extremely responsive to everything we’ve brought up with them. Maya Shalev (another directly impacted CMS parent) and I met with the superintendent on Monday afternoon and he agreed to doing everything we had on our call-to-action plan. He asked for some time to get things done correctly and plans on working with us on a timeline and measurable benchmarks. I believe that will happen.”
Andrea Hyatt, who describes herself as a “44-year volunteer in service to my community and grateful for every opportunity to sit at the table of ideas and to be counted as a contributing member of society,” attended the meeting with other community volunteers to support parents and students who came to share their experiences.
After the meeting ended, she told The Villager, “I have never attended a school board meeting before but the one I attended in the Cherry Creek School District on May 8th left me less than impressed. I was focused on the parents and students who specifically presented their stories regarding deeply disturbing antisemitic acts that happened in different schools within the same district to Jewish students in all age groups. It was upsetting to sit there and listen to the stories that have left a mark on each of the individuals and their families but, what was equally disturbing was that after revealing the level of hate crimes that were experienced the school board members did not offer any words of comfort or sensitivity to assuage even a modicum of hurt the students and parents are feeling. It was palpable to sit in that room at Cherokee Trail High School and hear of such acts of cruelty. Words can hurt and words can heal and words of compassion were what was missing from the members of the school board.”
CCSD responded to The Villager, telling us, “As members of the Cherry Creek School District Board of Education, we stand with the district in the strong commitment to providing a safe and inclusive learning environment for all students and staff. We will not tolerate antisemitism or hateful, discriminatory behavior of any kind. We want to ensure all voices are heard and appreciate hearing from our community as we continue working with students, staff, and families to create a learning environment that is accepting and respectful of every student, in every school.”
Abbe Smith, CCSD chief communications officer, told us, “Since we first learned about the antisemitic behavior at Campus Middle School, district and school leaders have met with parents and had conversations about how to address this unacceptable behavior. The board members use their time at the beginning of meetings to address community matters. The public comment section of the meeting is not meant to be a question-and-answer session, but rather a time for the board to hear directly from parents and the community. It is the role of district and school administrators to follow up with parents who raise concerns and address those matters at the school level. There are many opportunities for parents to engage with the Board of Education, including at parent engagement group meetings, which board members frequently attend.”