Durango School District 9-R is investigating whether inappropriate activity occurred during a student-organized rally to express concern about climate change that culminated in an angry confrontation in front of a downtown yogurt shop.
High school and middle school students organized the event, passing around flyers at schools about the rally that began at 3:45 p.m. Friday at Buckley Park. A 9-R teacher attended the event on the individual’s own time.
The rally culminated with several students making abusive comments and vulgar gestures, including one student apparently giving the middle finger, to people inside Top That Yogurt, 600 Main Ave.
Republican political signs for a variety of races – from Trump-Pence at the top of the ticket down to Marilyn Harris, the GOP candidate for state House District 59 – were displayed in the yogurt shop’s window.
9-R Superintendent Dan Snowberger, who will conduct the investigation, said beyond the need for disciplinary action, his hope is that a good educational lesson ultimately will be learned by the students.
“We educate humans, we employ humans and sometimes we human beings make mistakes,” Snowberger said. “We’re going to look at all factors. If there’s wrongdoing, we’ll correct it, and if there’s a learning opportunity, we’re going to find it.”
Commentary about the ruckus has been heavy on 9-R’s Facebook page and Snowberger said visceral comments with people supporting or opposing the students has led the district to begin policing its comment section to ensure vulgar language doesn’t appear.
Many people have assumed the rally was a school-sponsored event, and Snowberger said he could understand that because the teacher who attended the event wore a Miller Middle School face mask and a 9-R ID during the event.
Snowberger said 9-R is strictly apolitical, and is committed to open, free debate about contentious issues such as politics and climate change.
“Our schools are supposed to be apolitical. So we should not be sharing political points of view on any side,” he said. “We need to recognize that really, a person’s beliefs are developed in their home. And parents have a huge part in that, and it’s not our job to try to change students in those beliefs. It’s our job to teach facts. And then students need to come to their own conclusions on issues that are controversial.”
People who were working at Top That Yogurt on Tuesday afternoon declined to comment for this story.
“You know, certainly, we want students to know what their rights are,” Snowberger said. “But we also want students to know what appropriate behavior is, and what’s appropriate in public, and sadly, from what I’m seeing, on the images I have seen so far, we had students who were pretty inappropriate.”
Snowberger said he planned to visit the yogurt shop to watch video of the incident to aid his understanding of what occurred.
Behavior of 9-R students is affected by a broader coarsening of political discourse in the mass media and in social media, Snowberger said.
“Sadly, you see even comments from adults in our community on Facebook that are uncivil,” he said. “Our kids are watching, and it influences them. It’s hard to say: ‘Don’t do as I do, do as I say.’
“We have to, as a community, find a way to, again, engage in civil discourse and recognize sometimes we may disagree, but that we shouldn’t devalue each other. I mean, we’re all human beings. And we all have reasons we believe what we believe. But we don’t have to destroy people over it.”
Snowberger is also reviewing the conduct of the teacher who attended the rally.
“I can tell you this,” he said. “I don’t think there was ill intent on the part of the teacher. I don’t think the teacher had any desire to take kids out and create havoc. I think the intent was positive, but I do think there may have been some things that the teacher may have thought about differently.”
Julie Popp, 9-R spokeswoman said, no details about disciplinary actions taken against the students or the teacher would be made public to protect their privacy.
Snowberger declined to share the employment status of the teacher who attended the event because it is part of an ongoing investigation.
He said if the investigation turns up wrongdoing on the part of staff members or students, appropriate actions will be taken after investigations are complete.
The teacher who attended the rally has provided an initial statement about what occurred during the incident and will be able to provide additional information about his or her involvement in the event, Snowberger said.
He anticipated the investigation would take two days to complete.
While details about actions taken against individuals, whether the students or the teacher, will not be made public, Snowberger said he anticipates the incident will lead 9-R to offer guidance to students and teachers about appropriate actions and behaviors expected of them by the district in similar situations.
“I think, in this case, because it’s created such a public flair, we’ll try to be as open as we can within the bounds of law and make sure people understand what we found, and how we’ll handle things like this in the future,” he said.