CLOSED ENCOUNTERS

WHAT HAPPENED AT THE OPEN SCHOOL IS ANYTHING BUT AN OPEN BOOK.AN OPEN AND SHUT UP CASE AT THE JEFFCO OPEN SCHOOL, THEY DON'T ALWAYS PRACTICE WHAT THEY TEACH.

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High school senior Rebekah Myles is a teenager with plenty on her mind--and a legal muzzle that prevents her from talking.

Otherwise, she'd love to discuss what happened to her mother, Karla Myles, a school principal who lost her job and her reputation when a female teacher accused her of sexual harassment back in the spring of 1994.

"But I can't," says Rebekah, who'll graduate this December from her mother's former place of employment. "The school district has threatened to sue her if I say anything."

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The school district in question is Jefferson County, the largest in the state--with 85,000 students and about 130 schools--and also one of the most conservative. The school is the Jefferson County Open School, one of the oldest alternative public schools in Colorado and also one of the most liberal. This nest of nontraditional educators, parents and students has long been a thorn in the side of Jeffco's back-to-basics crowd.

A thorn, worry the school's supporters, that some in the district would like to remove. Permanently.

Last year, Karla Myles, who a few months earlier had been deposed as the popular interim principal of the Open School, sued the Jeffco school district for close to a million dollars, contending that the female teacher and a disgruntled male colleague fabricated the sexual-harassment charge in order to get rid of her. The district, she claimed, rushed to judgment without giving Myles a fair hearing and then tried to blacklist her from getting another job in education...all because Myles is a lesbian.

Earlier this month, after amassing more than $144,000 in legal bills, the district settled with Myles for $45,000, sources say. Now the school board would like to close the book on the issue--and has done its best to ensure that happens by making a pervasive confidentiality agreement part of the settlement.

Rebekah's not allowed to speak. Her mother, who finally found a job teaching at a charter school in Durango, won't even come to the telephone. Myles's lawyer, Alison Ruttenberg, comments, "If I say anything, I can guarantee the first knee-jerk reaction by the school board will be to sue Karla to get the money back."

The defendants in the lawsuit--the school board, former and current district officials and the two teachers named by Myles--also are prohibited from speaking. Not that they are inclined to do so. Neither Judith Miller Smith, the teacher who brought the sexual-harassment charge against Myles, nor Ted Bettridge, Smith's male colleague who has since left his teaching position at the Open School, would return telephone calls from Westword.

Most of the documents in the court file, which might have shed some light on Smith's allegations and Myles's countercharges, have been sealed under the settlement's gag order. At the school, staffers and teachers who aren't named in the suit still are leery of discussing the case--publicly or privately--for fear of losing their jobs.

Even parents of Open School students who cannot be held to the legal order are reluctant to talk: They don't want to give the Jeffco school district another reason to close the Open School.

In the touchy-feely world of liberal learning, where the need to communicate and express one's feelings is only somewhat less important than eating and breathing, the silence is deafening--and deadening. Wondering what really happened, members of The Community--as the parents, students and educators refer to themselves--are unable to get on with the business of education. And they worry that the once-unified school has been pulled apart just when its supporters on the school board face a stiff challenge from back-to-basics candidates in this fall's election.

"We need to be able to talk about this as parents, students and teachers, so that we can begin the healing process," says Diane Honnecke, the parent of two students, a friend of Myles's, and one of the few willing to speak out. "But they won't let us.

"What are they afraid of? Or maybe we're the ones who should be afraid."

The Jefferson County Open School was created in 1970. More than two decades before the charter-school concept popped up in Colorado, it offered an alternative to traditional schools.

Originally, the school was made up of two separate entities: one in Evergreen that accepted high-school-age students, and another in Lakewood that took the kids in elementary and middle school. Seven years ago, though, the two schools were combined and placed in the former Lakewood Junior High School. The district described the merger as a cost-cutting move: Instead of requiring two principals, two vice principals and two support staffs, the unified Open School would need only one of each for grades kindergarten through high school.

But proponents of the Open School were looking at more than mere numbers. The school was the liberal parents' dream of how they would have liked to have been educated and how they now wanted their children to learn. There were no texts, no tests, no grades to hurt a child's self-esteem. With the help of adult teacher/counselors, students designed their own curriculum, progressed "at their own pace," and self-evaluated how they were doing. The school even emphasized learning outside of the classroom; for instance, a student might "experience" geology through rock climbing.

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