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A slippery slope 

Families, teachers say they've been pushed out of D-20's 'city on a hill'

She tried for years to get her daughter separated from a boy who bullied her at The Classical Academy.

Instead, in October 2005, she heard things had gotten worse for her 10-year-old. The fifth-grade girl said the boy had grabbed her by the neck in a crowded TCA hallway, pushed her against a wall, and reached a hand under her skirt. In front of classmates, she said, the boy then held his fingers to his nose and made a vulgar remark.

Afterward, the mother recalls, administrators at the Academy School District 20 charter school said they'd call police.

But the mother learned months later that school officials never made that call. She seems disbelieving now as she reads from a police report filed the next April, six months later, after a D-20 official intervened. The report explains that a TCA elementary school principal had determined the attack never happened.

"It's not their job to be judge and jury," the mother says, lips trembling. She wound up pulling her daughter from the school.

Three other mothers convey empathy and outrage as they listen. One with kids still at the school says sexual assault seems to fall under the state's mandatory reporting law.

The women around the kitchen table this Friday morning came together when they realized they all had concerns about TCA, the state's largest kindergarten-through-12th grade charter. Three are among the 12 families who've submitted formal complaints to the Colorado Department of Education. Among other things, the hundreds of pages charge that school officials have ignored bullying and racism, have neglected to tell parents about possible threats to their kids, and have created a culture where dissent is not tolerated.

Based on those complaints, CDE has called on D-20 to investigate and report its findings by April 30.

All parents interviewed for this story asked that their names not be used, out of concern about retaliation from administrators or supporters.

One mother says she used to work with felons without concern for her safety, but now she's getting advice from concerned friends to watch her rear-view mirror.

She blames the administration for the school's troubles.

"The soul of the school is dead," she says.

Troubling issues

In the 12 years since TCA opened with about 400 students, it's swollen to nearly 2,900 kids spread through a high school, junior high and three elementary schools. It boasts a waiting list of 7,700, children of parents presumably wooed by its promise of character education and small classes, and its focus on "core knowledge."

At the north campus near New Life Church, the main building is impressively modern, and many students are neatly dressed in blue and khaki, a popular combination allowed by the school's dress code.

But modular classrooms, dirt lots and the occasional port-o-potty give the grounds the feeling of a construction site.

A different kind of dirt came to light at recent TCA meetings. On Feb. 9, with media present, a black high school student told the charter school's seven-member board that teachers and administrators failed to stop racist comments and jokes that intensified as November's presidential election approached.

During a class discussion about slavery, she said, one student muttered, "Black people should still be slaves today." Comments and threats continued in the following weeks, she added, even after she told administrators. The student said she didn't feel safe, and that's why she'd withdrawn from the school days earlier.

The racism claim got wide media coverage; other reports about a bomb threat and a student's "hit list" neither of which were reported to parents soon followed.

News of the sexual assault claim emerged before a March 2 meeting with parents about safety issues. In an e-mail to families and staff asking them to attend, TCA president Mark Hyatt wrote that the school has stirred up resentment because of its high standards.

"We want to be that 'City on the Hill' that might inspire our greater community to strive for what can be," he wrote.

The meeting featured a presentation from Safe2Tell (a Colorado nonprofit that receives tips about school threats and forwards them to administrators and law enforcement), and parents asked Hyatt questions.

Despite Hyatt saying it wasn't a proper forum, and one parent quietly telling her, "God doesn't want you to do this," the mother of the alleged sex assault victim spoke. According to observers, some families left as the woman talked and before her daughter read a short statement.

Speaking the next week from San Diego, where he was presenting at a character education conference, Hyatt framed recent events as learning experiences.

"We're addressing it," he said, noting that staff has talked about the racism claims and welcomed Safe2Tell. "I think that's what parents are most watchful of."

In regard to the reported sexual assault, Hyatt says, the student changed her story when she spoke to school officials.

"We did our internal investigation, and we just didn't feel it was necessary [to call police]," Hyatt said.

Asked if that judgment is defensible, Ken Turner, a CDE deputy commissioner, says it would be "inappropriate" to comment. He refers instead to the state's letter asking D-20 to investigate whether the school "failed to take appropriate corrective action in responding to and halting a pattern of racial and religious discrimination, sexual and physical assault ... and threats against staff and students."

School or ministry?

The mother remains outraged that her daughter was questioned by school officials without her or police being there, and she says the girl was scared into recanting under aggressive questioning. She and the other moms with her see the incident as one more bit of dirt that TCA tried to sweep away before making a public show of handling it.

Safe2Tell's presence March 2 is a prime example, according to the moms. Susan Payne, the program's director, says the organization conducted 110 trainings at Colorado schools last year alone, but had never before been invited to speak at TCA.

A week-long election to fill two spots on TCA's seven-member board begins April 6, but the mothers expect little change; unlike elections for the broader school district, it is conducted internally.

"It's a joke," one says.

Four people are competing for the two spots, including Ron Mast, a school founder and former board president who says in his official candidate statement that TCA is the "best school in the nation" and that serving on its board is "one of the greatest ministry opportunities that I have ever taken part in."

He writes that TCA has been "slandered by the media" and he laments that parents talked to reporters and "so chose to resort to the ways of the world and its media."

Jeff Naujok, who lost in last year's board election, is making another bid. His wife has been teaching at the school for 11 years, and he remembers when the school was small and there was open communication. To open things back up, he's started a Web site, tcaforum.org, reporting on board meetings and other school events. He wants to see the school's problems dealt with.

"I think there's been too much hiding behind the privacy laws," Naujok says.

lane@csindy.com

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