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Student as role model in fight against Douglas County's incumbent school board majority

November 8, 2017 Updated: November 8, 2017 at 5:11 pm
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Grace Davis (Courtesy photo)

A handful of students from Ponderosa High School who spoke to Colorado Politics before the polls closed in Douglas County Tuesday night didn't have much to say about the school board election.

But there was one student who followed the election results with more than just a passing interest.

Grace Davis is now a senior. She's already enrolled at the University of Northern Colorado, where she's planning to study business and minor in American sign language, the latter in hopes of continuing her work with deaf, hard of hearing and special needs children in Wheat Ridge.

It's a far cry from where she was just 18 months ago, when she became the flash point for a community's anger over the direction of the school board.

Davis, then a 15-year old sophomore at Ponderosa High School, was concerned about teacher turnover at her school, which she attributed to some of the school board's policies. The district's teacher turnover rate was more than double that of some neighboring school districts, and that percentage had increased since a conservative education reform board was elected in 2009. A 2015 survey, conducted by the district, showed that 62 percent of teachers who responded would not recommend Douglas County as a place to work.

So Davis decided to organize a protest at the school. But it didn't sit well with several members of the board of education, including Board President Meghann Silverthorn and Vice-President Judith Reynolds. The two board members went to the school and met with Davis in a closed-door meeting on March 4, 2016. Davis' parents were never asked or even notified that the meeting would take place.

Davis recorded the meeting, claiming that Silverthorn and Reynolds attempted to bully and intimidate her into canceling the protest, to no avail. It went forward as planned on March 9.

But her claims of bullying went far beyond the high school, and rallied a community already frustrated with the way the board was doing business, whether it was cutting funding for academics in order to fund a multi-million dollar computer software program, or the turnover issue, both for teachers and principals, throughout the district.

Davis' supporters began packing the board meetings, angrily and loudly demanding that Silverthorn and Reynolds resign. Meetings became so heated that deputies from the Douglas County Sheriff's Office became a regular presence in order to quell the disruptions.

The board hired a law firm to investigate the allegations, which cleared Silverthorn and Reynolds, in part because there was no board policy prohibiting bullying by school board members. The only district policy against bullying deals with student conduct. The investigation cost the district more than $163,000 and did little to quell the community anger.

Davis talked to Colorado Politics Tuesday night after the first election results were posted and is happy about how things turned out. Davis said a candidates' forum at the high school a month ago was well-attended. She's gotten to know several of the CommUNITY candidates, particularly Kevin Leung, and is looking forward to what Krista Holtzmann, an attorney who works on child advocacy issues, will bring to the board.

"Interest (in the election) has definitely been more heightened than it was in the past," Davis said, but attributed that to parents more than students. She noted numerous cars painted with the candidates' names around the county, something both supporters of both slates did during the election season. "It's very encouraging to see people more involved than I've seen" before, she said.

Those motivated by what happened to Davis said they channeled it into working on the campaign to replace the four-member conservative majority. And Tuesday night, their efforts were rewarded with a win for all four seats.

Stephanie Van Zante's children also attend Ponderosa. In a message to Colorado Politics, Van Zante said Davis' situation had an impact on the local level, one that grew larger when the election became a national issue. "So many times parents and teachers have been told that turnover wasn't an issue by board members, yet here was a minor recognizing that yes, in fact, the turnover was affecting hers and her classmates education, Van Zante said. "Numbers are one thing - direct experience of those numbers is something completely different. If we don't listen to our students that are telling us, very articulately, that what affects their teachers affects them, we as a community need to step back and reexamine our priorities.

"Advocacy on behalf of students by parents is pretty normal, but advocacy by students for teachers and their working conditions is rare. Grace's tenacity in light of extreme pressure by board members to reconsider her protest are things books are written about. She is an example for others, regardless of age, to stand tall in the face of adversity for what you believe in, whether that's better pay or culture for teachers or whether your advocacy helps strengthen theirs as well."

The board members' interaction with Davis did prompt volunteers to get involved, according to Mikel Whitney, Leung's campaign manager. One of those volunteers was Vinnie Cervantes, a former Ponderosa student  who moved to Denver, but came back just to volunteer on the campaign after the Davis incident. He said Wednesday that he was motivated after seeing what happened to Davis as well as to some of his former teachers.

"It was my own school," Cervantes said. It concerned him "to see students like me standing up for something they cared about" and then treated that way by school board members.

Tim Krug, a member of the district's School Accountability Committee (SAC), told Colorado Politics that Davis was the reason he got involved with the the district, both at the SAC and in the CommUNITY campaign. He said he had lived in the county just six months when the Davis incident took place, and up to that time wasn't involved in the schools at all. Krug said he listened to the audio recording, which "frightened" him as a parent, since the two board members had taken Davis into a closed-door meeting without her parents present. "I had no idea what I was getting into and was completely ignorant of everything until she stood up."

"Every house I canvassed, every person I texted to get out and vote, knows me because of Grace Davis," Krug said.

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