Elizabeth Middle School was lit up on the evening of Nov. 15 as a forum with Superintendent Dan Snowberger was about to get underway. Credit: PHOTO BY NICKY QUINBY

One week after parents received an email revealing that four Elizabeth Middle School staff members were on leave amid an investigation, Elizabeth School District Superintendent Dan Snowberger held a public forum to address the situation.

About 50 people attended the forum held Nov. 15 at the middle school, where Snowberger was joined by Elizabeth Police Chief Jeff Engel. School board members Rhonda Olsen and Mary Powell also were present.

On Nov. 8, district parents received an email notifying them of the ongoing investigation at EMS. The email read, in part: “Earlier in this school year, Elizabeth School District administration learned of complaints made last spring by Elizabeth Middle School students. Such complaints require staff members to report immediately under C.R.S. 19-3-304 .…

“In cooperation with law enforcement, district leadership has been conducting an investigation related to the incidents that students brought forward last year. During the course of the investigation, four members of the EMS staff were placed on administrative leave as determined appropriate by the superintendent.”

Parents and community members listened patiently while Snowberger explained what he could about the situation. He expressed frustration that the alleged incident occurred during his tenure, which began in March 2023, but was not reported at the time to the board or administration.

How investigation began

Snowberger said he received a call from Engel on Sept. 26. Engel explained that a parent contacted him about a situation that occurred last school year that seemed worth passing on to law enforcement.

Engel spoke briefly to explain why the Elizabeth Police Department wasn’t conducting the investigation. Especially in a small town, EPD wanted to ensure there would be no conflict of interest and that the investigation was “fair and impartial and unbiased.” The district attorney’s office for the 18th Judicial District is conducting the criminal investigation instead.

That same afternoon of Sept. 26, the investigator from the 18th Judicial District called Snowberger and requested details and information sheets that the school district readily provided.

Parents were not notified of the allegations that day but the staff member was told to come see Snowberger immediately the following morning. On Sept. 27, the staff member was placed on administrative leave. ESD also received another request for data from the investigator, which included emails, reports, and notes from the Infinite Campus portal, on the same day.

Snowberger explained that when allegations involve a staff member, administration wants to separate the staffer from the district for their protection as well as to protect students.

The investigator asked that the school district postpone its own investigation and Snowberger agreed, as he did want to interfere in any way with the criminal investigation. Snowberger said this resulted in a “holding pattern” for the school district.

Investigation takes time

Because the alleged incident took place months ago, the investigation is a slow process. Snowberger said he prefers to deal with incidents like this quickly, resolving the issue in a matter of days. In this case, some staff from last year no longer work for ESD and have to be tracked down. “My concern is this was expressed and not investigated,” Snowberger said. He went on to say that it’s unfair to ask teachers and students to try to clearly remember things so far in the past.

Snowberger was optimistic that the criminal investigation would be over by the end of fall break but on Friday, Oct. 20, he was notified that the investigator needed more time.

On Oct. 27, Snowberger was given permission to conduct his own interviews of staff. On Oct. 30, staff interviews were completed and he was given permission to reach out to the seven students involved. Three families agreed to let Snowberger interview their children and two of those set a meeting for Nov. 6. Four families chose not to meet with him.

Snowberger said there are now parallel investigations in process. One is the criminal investigation to determine what happened between a staff member and students. The other is the district investigation looking into whether or not EMS staff fulfilled their obligation as mandatory reporters.

After completing those interviews, Snowberger completed his investigation summary and met and discussed his findings with staff on Nov. 7, with the final meeting occurring after lunch.

In response to questions about whether or not the situation was withheld until after Election Day — which was Nov. 7, the same day as the meetings with staff — Snowberger says it was during those meetings that he determined it was best to place staff on leave and that it was not a foregone conclusion. He took that day to put a plan in place for staffing at EMS and on Nov. 8 he announced the situation to parents in the aforementioned email.

No decisions about employment will be made until the investigations are completed, Snowberger said. He added that the final outcome of the investigations will determine who could come back and that the decisions would be based on fact, not innuendo. Snowberger hopes decisions can be made after Thanksgiving break but since the investigation is active, there is no concrete timeline.

Questions from attendees

Forum attendees were encouraged to ask questions after Snowberger spoke.

A high school parent expressed disbelief that the district wasn’t aware of the incident until recently. She said EHS students were discussing it last spring. Snowberger acknowledged that the district should have been made aware.

One parent asked if administration and staff were adequately trained in their role as mandatory reporters. Snowberger responded that staff are required to sign a statement indicating they’ve read pertinent policies but that, going forward, there would be more robust training in place.

Another parent asked about the mandatory reporting process itself — who reports to whom. She expressed concern that if students aren’t clear who they should speak to, they won’t tell anyone at all. Across the room, this worry was echoed by another parent: “What steps are the schools taking that they (students) feel comfortable and understand when something is appropriate or inappropriate and who to tell?”

Snowberger pointed to Safe2Tell, an anonymous reporting system, as one option and agreed that the reporting process should be made clearer for students, parents and teachers.

In regards to community trust being eroded, one attendee said she felt parents were “being pushed around and not really being told anything.” She added that “we don’t feel like we’re being told the truth.”

Snowberger reiterated that the details of the criminal investigation are confidential and that “everyone has a right to due process.” He emphasized that those being investigated are innocent until proven guilty. He clarified that mandatory reporters are not responsible for determining the accuracy or validity of claims, just to report them. Reporting in and of itself does not imply guilt, he said. He also said he’s trying to be as transparent as he can and earn trust back.

Further updates will come from Snowberger in direct emails. In the interest of transparency, he will give a final summary of what he knows and what action was taken. If an employee comes back, it will be with a clear explanation.

If parents don’t feel that schools are adequately handling concerns, Snowberger told parents to contact him directly. “Please understand,” he said, “we have to know if there are concerns being unaddressed.” Superintendent Dan Snowberger can be reached at dsnowberger@esdk12.org and 303-646-1836.

In this particular situation, Snowberger mentioned that students did not relay information to their parents. Instead parents found out incidentally, long after the alleged incident. He encouraged parents to support the district by engaging with their students. “Go home tonight and talk with your child. Open those doors of communication.”

Safe2Tell reports can be made at safe2tell.org or by calling 1-877-542-7233.

Concerning incidents can also be reported to The Colorado Department of Health and Human Services by calling 844-CO-4-Kids (844-264-5437).

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