Hundreds packed the Arapahoe High School theater on May 2 for a special meeting to discuss a group's allegations that the school has a toxic culture that prioritizes high achievers and disregards struggling students.
The Arapahoe High School Community Coalition, a mostly nameless group said to consist of students, parents and teachers, has called for "leadership change" and an outside investigation into the school's climate and culture.
The group has critiqued school administration's response to the 2013 shooting death of student Claire Davis, several student suicides, the recent arrests of two teachers on suspicion of sexually assaulting students, and what the group calls a culture of bullying and drug abuse.
The group encountered a barrage of criticism at the meeting, as dozens of students, parents and teachers rebuked the group for what many called a misguided attack on school administrators.
For most of the more than six-hour meeting, the majority of speakers called the group off-base, with many taking exception to the group's calls to fire Principal Natalie Pramenko.
“I want to make clear there's no administrator I've ever had who's more positive than Natalie Pramenko,” said Arapahoe High School senior Paul Gordon.
Gordon called the group “people who are afraid.”
“I get it,” Gordon said. “Sending your child to high school is scary. But it's not Ms. Pramenko's fault that these tragedies have befallen our community… Dividing our community and trying to pull one of the greatest leaders I've ever been led by in my life is not the way to improve it.”
The group has widely publicized the results of a “community stakeholder” survey it conducted, which it says demonstrates widespread dissatisfaction with leadership at the school following a spate of student suicides and other issues.
“No matter the amount of listening or receiving of our concerns, the responses have been inadequate or unsatisfactory,” said Jessica Roe, a parent of an Arapahoe student and member of the coalition, who said she spoke on behalf of numerous students, parents and teachers who are fearful of retribution for speaking up.
Olivia Wilson, Arapahoe's current student body president, said district leaders shouldn't be too quick to dismiss the group's concerns.
“Pause and understand: this did not come from nowhere,” Wilson said. “The idea that a student who is struggling with their mental health can and will easily go ask for help is an oversimplification of problems many teenagers face.”
Difference of opinion
School board members at the meeting took exception to the group's approach.
“In your presentation, you present a list of requests, a timeline, and next steps involving (plans to file complaints with) Colorado Department of Education,” said board member Jim Stephens. “That frankly sounds more like coercion than a genuine desire to sit down and greet problems using not only your viewpoints but more and work together to implement solutions.”
The board of education plans to respond to the group's allegations at the May 9 school board meeting.
Laura Mutton, who said she is a parent of an Arapahoe student and a member of a district accountability committee, said the AHSCC's survey questions were biased and its data is fundamentally flawed, and that more rigorous survey data compiled by the district committee shows students and parents are largely satisfied with the school.
“The data doesn't support that there's as much of a crisis as we're being led to believe,” Mutton said, though she urged the school board to seriously consider the comments amending the survey.
“It will help you understand the struggles this community is undergoing,” Mutton said.
Some students said the AHSCC's efforts did more harm than good.
“This anonymous coalition and its survey have torn apart this community in the same way these tragic events have,” said Sara Turner, a student who created an online petition to support school administration. “Until you have cried real tears in the cafeteria with Natalie Pramenko, you have no right to try to destroy this community.”
Student Jiana Ugazio said she conducted an informal survey of her own, and while she said she didn't find widespread condemnation for school administrators, she said many fellow students told her they find school counselors unable to provide adequate individual attention.
Some speakers said the challenges faced by young people are far bigger than school administration.
“Suicide rates are going up in this country,” said Amanda Wilson, the parent of student body president Olivia Wilson. “That's the way it is… I don't think there's a person who disagrees we don't need more (funding for mental health resources). Call your legislators.”
Wilson said that school leaders can help by thoughtfully creating a school culture that is authoritative but not authoritarian, and building robust lines of communication between parents, students and faculty.
One parent toward the end of the meeting backed the coalition. Jennifer Arthur, who said her son is fearful of retaliation for her comments, said she spoke previously with Superintendent Brian Ewert about what she called Arapahoe's “leadership or lack thereof.”
Arthur called student suicides, the recent arrest of two teachers on sexual assault charges and the 2013 shooting aberrant.
“This is not normal,” Arthur told the board. “Be curious. Try to figure out what is different about this school that tragedy after tragedy happens.”
Amanda Crosby, who heads the Littleton Public Schools' teacher's union, said the community as a whole should band together to address issues impacting youth.
“If we fire an educator because bad things have happened, I don't think we're getting to the point,” Crosby said. “If we blame a school system for society's failures, then we are lost.”
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