‘This is systemic’: Parents voice allegations of negative culture at high school
Editor’s note: At 5:23 p.m., Steamboat Springs Superintendent Brad Meeks issued a letter to school district families in response to “high school parent concerns.” The letter can be found online at http://www.steamboatschools.net/announcements-92f62ca5.
Editor’s note: This story was edited at 3:08 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 13 to include a response from District Attorney Matt Karzen.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Six different people addressed the Steamboat Springs School Board during Monday’s board meeting, expressing concern about what was described as a culture at Steamboat Springs High School under which female students were not being heard or protected amid allegations of sexual harassment or sexual assault.
“I am not here to talk about any specific facts tonight or any specific issues or allegations,” said Lisel Petis, executive director of Advocates of Routt County. “But one thing has become very clear from all the concerns that we have received — is that right now, students and their parents are feeling unheard and unsupported and unsafe in the high school.”
The small room where board meetings are held was packed with about 75 people, most standing against the wall or sitting on the floor. The group included about a dozen students.
Petis introduced herself to the board by explaining what Advocates does, which includes providing “services of intervention and prevention for victims of domestic violence, sexual violence and teen dating violence.”
She said her organization has received several complaints over the last several months regarding “what is going on in the high school.”
“As a parent and community member, to say I am concerned would be a gross understatement,” Sarah Grippa told the board. “In both my personal and professional capacity, I have borne witness to the climate and culture of silence that exists in Steamboat Springs High School and the terrible impact it has on the victims and their families.”
Parent Lauren Beversluis told the board about her daughter being sexually assaulted by another student her freshman year.
“We went to police. We filed a report. The boy was called in,” Beversluis said. “The boy admitted everything. It went to the DA, and the DA decided because it took her a year to tell them that they could do nothing about it.”
District Attorney Matt Karzen reached out to the Steamboat Pilot & Today to clarify following the initial publication of this story. Karzen said he understands Beversluis’ trauma, and the nuance and complexity of criminal law.
“Having said that, the case she referred to was not declined due to delayed reporting, nor did the accused admit to a crime,” Karzen wrote in an email. “While I cannot get into the details in the absence of the reporting parties consent, I can tell you that it involved a fact pattern that did not establish the elements of a sex offense as defined by Colorado law, beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Karzen said his concern comes out of wanting to ensure the public knows they can report incidents even if time has passed, and that “delayed reporting” is not “a bar to prosecution.”
In general, Beversluis said her daughter described a “climate of sexuality” at the high school.
“She said she felt sexualized at school every single day,” Beversluis said.
Beversluis said her daughter is now in college and doing well.
“Her high school graduation was the happiest day of her life,” she said. “To be out of a school where she felt completely ignored — completely minimized. And the boy just went about his life.”
Advocates of Routt County offers 24/7 support. Reach out confidentially to an advocate by calling the crisis line at 970-879-8888.
Beversluis said she felt “terrible” about not being able to advocate for her daughter and herself sooner.
“I wish I had spoken out,” Beversluis said. “And I’m grateful that I’m here now.”
Beversluis said she was at the meeting on behalf of the Wittemyer family as well as her own daughter.
Elizabeth Wittemyer, who has two daughters in high school, also shared her daughters’ story with the board.
“Our daughters told school administrators that they had been sexually harassed,” Elizabeth Wittemyer said. “We were not notified. Police were not called.”
Petis told the board that Advocates is working with victims and their families and has met with school administrators, counselors and teachers.
Grippa said she hoped to “provide a broad view of a systemic problem that exists in our district” and was speaking on behalf of parents who wanted to but felt they could not speak out because, “they’ve either been silenced or fear repercussions.”
“This is systemic,” Wittemyer said.
She said these issues and concerns have been brought before multiple administrators, and the response was “alarming.”
“The administration has not responded in any way that has addressed our concerns,” she said. “We cannot take our complaints and issues to administrators who repeatedly fail to act and seem to be complicit and co-opted by bad actors.”
Chris Wittemyer asked the school board to convene an emergency meeting to immediately address this crisis.
“The school district has failed to provide equal protections against harassment to all our students and instead has created a culture of fear and intimidation for victims who dare to speak out,” Chris said.
“I hope you will immediately begin to look into this matter and develop a legitimate process for victims to come forward and have a voice,” Grippa said.
Petis urged school board members to contact her if they receive any additional concerns from parents or students. She said she is planning to meet with a group of students and a group of parents.
“I do not know all the answers yet,” Petis said. “We have some suggestions of what could be effective. But what is clear right now is that what is being done is not effective.”
Reached for comment by email following Monday’s meeting, Steamboat Springs High School Principal Kevin Taulman wrote, “I disagree with the statements that were made tonight. The high school administrative staff and I will work with the superintendent’s office to address any concerns.”
During a short recess before the board went into executive session, Superintendent Brad Meeks said he had heard the concerns and would be following up on the statements made.
“We obviously want to ensure all buildings are safe for students and staff,” Meeks said. “We will be following up on the allegations made. Any time the district gets a complaint, we do our due diligence and provide the resources to follow up.”
Asked about concerns brought to his attention prior to Monday’s meeting, Meeks said, “The situations that I am aware of have been followed up on.”
There was no discussion by board members about scheduling an emergency meeting, despite a lengthy discussion about the regular board meeting schedule.
Kelly Latterman, who was elected as school board president Monday, said during the recess, the board had no plans to schedule an emergency meeting, but they would be “following up with the administration to ensure the requests of the community were heard.”
On Tuesday, Steamboat Pilot & Today contacted board members for information about whether they planned to schedule an emergency meeting to discuss the issues raised at Monday’s meeting. Kim Brack was the only school board member to respond, and she referred the question to Meeks.
According to Meeks, the request for a follow-up meeting is being evaluated.
The next regularly scheduled school board meeting is set for Jan. 13, 2020.
Note: Comments on this story have been disabled at the discretion of the Steamboat Pilot & Today due to the sensitive nature of the topic.
To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.
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Colorado updated its guidance for masks in schools Friday, suggesting school districts in the state should consider masks for the unvaccinated and, in areas of higher transmission like Routt County, masks for everyone.