The award-winning Pine Creek High School theater director, whom Colorado Springs police cleared on March 9 of criminal wrongdoing amid allegations that she had an inappropriate relationship with a student, won’t get her job back, Academy School District 20’s board unanimously decided Thursday night.
The five-member Board of Education denied the district’s highest level appeal by Carrie Barnhardt-Roberson, who claimed she was wrongfully removed on Feb. 27 from leading the school’s theater program.
She was reassigned as an English teacher for this school year. She said after the vote she will continue to retain that position “at this time.”
“Academy District 20 has attacked my professional integrity and judgment,” she said in an interview. “What’s happened to me is a grotesque abuse of power. I’m not the first teacher that D-20 has tried to unfairly push out, but I certainly hope to be the last.”
The approved resolution directed board President Tracey Johnson to issue a response to Barnhardt-Roberson’s complaint stating that the board did not violate or engage in inequitable use of administrative policy provisions or procedures in handling the matter.
District officials have received a notice from Barnhardt-Roberson of intent to sue, a necessary precursor before a lawsuit can be filed against a school district.
After the police investigation determined the claims against Barnhardt-Roberson were “unfounded,” district officials placed her on paid administrative and launched an internal investigation conducted by an external third-party law firm.
Barnhardt-Roberson submitted a 59-page response to district leaders, defending various accusations students and parents made about her conduct and teaching style. Among the complaints were that she danced with students at staff parties, threw a pear at a student who flubbed lines and had students do an inappropriate stretching exercise.
The board reviewed nearly 170 pages of materials that included findings from the third-party investigation, district policies, lower-level complaints, Barnhardt-Robersons’ response and Colorado Springs police reports.
“This started because we had allegations that there were students in danger,” said D-20 spokeswoman Allison Cortez, “and when that happens, we have a legal obligation to immediately report that to authorities.”
Supporters have been addressing the board about the case for seven months, raising issues of timing, unfairness in how the situation has been handled and lack of evidence.
During Thursday’s public comment period, 19 students and parents called for her to be reinstated to the theater position. Many wore white T-shirts with black lettering that said “Act Against Intolerance.”
They described how Barnhardt-Roberson, who won Colorado Theater Educator of the Year in 2008, was left in limbo for six months of administrative leave, banned from being on district property, had to have permission to attend her own children’s parent-teacher conferences and has been unfairly maligned.
“What this district has done to my daughter and our family, the hurricane you have forced upon us, has forever changed and damaged our lives,” her father, Todd Barnhardt, told the board. “Truth is a standard by which action should be judged. The truth has not prevailed in this situation.
“Can you imagine if your child was falsely accused of a heinous crime, dragged through the mud, not provided a due process?”
Students described Barnhardt-Roberson as a caring, compassionate teacher, and adults said she was a progressive, rather than a mainstream teacher.
Student Toni Lombardi, who identifies as “queer,” said Barnhardt-Roberson is empathetic and brave.
“She was the only one advocating for us to make sure school was not a place of fear but a place of learning, of joy,” he said. “In her absence, we have nowhere to turn.”
One person spoke in opposition Thursday.
Parent Michelle Stebbins, who had two children in the theater program, accused Barnhardt-Roberson of using profanity in class, tearing children down and “fostering an environment of hostility, bullying and intolerance.”
Stebbins said Barnhardt-Roberson had security cameras taped over, kept students until 11 p.m. or later at rehearsals and allowed students to be on lifts.
“My kids’ grades suffered, their health suffered, their emotions suffered,” she said. “They were treated poorly so she could look better.”
Board members said they received numerous letters, emails and phone calls from students, parents and other teachers, voicing concerns about Barnhardt-Roberson.
Some feared retribution for favoring Barnhardt-Roberson’s dismissal, board members said, which is why they haven’t been as public as those who stand behind her.
“There are things that haven’t been said and occurrences that haven’t been discussed here,” member Glenn Strebe told a packed board room before the vote. “When we look at the information, it’s important that it is in totality. It’s about the information we’ve been provided from both sides.”
Board member Thomas LaValley said he looked objectively at the facts to “get to the truth.”
“I had no predetermined outcome,” he said. “I am not biased in this.”
Johnson, an attorney, said a September 2017 letter alerted Pine Creek staff to “some concerns” about Barnhardt-Roberson, and she did not find evidence of bullying and harassment on the part of school staff.
“I do not believe this is a matter of intolerance, seeking to punish someone for taking a proper stand of inclusiveness,” Johnson said. “I will support the resolution and feel very confident it’s based on sound analysis and an attempt to be fair to all.”
Board member Karin Reynolds said she’s “saddened by the divisiveness that’s happened” to the community.
“Emotions on both sides are palpable to me,” Reynolds said. “Our job as a board is to listen to everybody, to make a decision. We know that reasonable people can disagree.”
Compounding the issue is that the former Pine Creek High student with whom Barnhardt-Roberson was accused of having an inappropriate relationship is facing unrelated criminal charges. Police said in April that they had uncovered in the course of the investigation alleged sexual misconduct on his part, involving other students.
A pretrial hearing is set for Dec. 10 in 4th Judicial District Court. The student, Ryan Maikell, who was a juvenile at the time of the allegations, was allowed to graduate from Pine Creek High, Cortez said.
Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.