School Haze

After two assaults at Stedman Elementary School, parents are looking for answers.

Instead of expelling the boy, Wells told the board, the school transferred her daughter to another class. The boy was later convicted of third-degree sexual assault and sentenced to two years in a juvenile detention center. The next school year, while the boy was attending middle school and awaiting trial, he was accused of assaulting another student, Wells says.

At the same meeting, Stedman parent Velma Gilbert told the board about a flasher who had been exposing himself to kids at the school. "We called the school, but the school didn't call security," she said. "The same flasher went to Park Hill Elementary, where you do not have minority attendance, and he was reported and apprehended. What happened to our school? Why don't we have the support we need?"

Four teachers spoke on Starks's behalf at the board meeting, but none addressed the safety concerns raised by parents. Instead, they credited Starks for academic improvements at Stedman, praised the school's literacy program and defended staff cuts. Their claims that Stedman is an orderly, well-run school was met with shouts, jeers and incredulous laughter from the parents.

At the end of the meeting, school-board president Sue Edwards lost control of the proceedings as parents talked out of turn, and Starks's supporters could barely get a word in. Edwards adjourned the meeting prematurely; Starks never had a chance to defend herself.

DPS videotapes school-board meetings, and many of the tapes are available for public viewing at the district office. There is a tape of the June 4 meeting, but sound is absent from parts of it, and several minutes of footage are missing entirely, with the camera focused silently on the DPS emblem.

What the tape doesn't show, Richardson says, is parents being escorted out by security guards.

A week after that meeting, the Richardsons got a letter from then-superintendent Irv Moskowitz. "Following your presentation to the Board of Education at their meeting June 4," he wrote, "I visited with the principal, Rachel Starks, concerning the allegations you raised. Mrs. Starks has a somewhat different point of view." Moskowitz offered to meet with the Richardsons and Starks, but Jamie Richardson says that when he called Moskowitz and requested to have an attorney, another parent or a member of the media present to witness the meeting, the superintendent declined.

Since then, the Richardsons say, nothing has changed. There has been no apology from the administration, no investigation into how the school handled their daughter's case, no disciplinary action against the principal and no acknowledgment that anyone did anything wrong.

Starks refused to comment on the situation and deferred to the school district's public information office.

"These complaints are more than a year old," says DPS spokeswoman Amy Hudson. "The district believes it has investigated and taken appropriate action in regard to parent concerns. Many of these have been groundless, personal attacks. Any new information should be brought forward. Because of the potential for litigation, the district has no further comment."

Bennie Milliner, the school-board member who represents northeast Denver, did not return calls from Westword.

The Richardsons are flabbergasted by the district's response and are still pressing for answers and accountability. Last October they sent DPS a notice of their intent to sue for negligence; they will file that lawsuit in the next thirty days.

The family did get some justice, however. The boy who assaulted the Richardsons' daughter pleaded guilty to charges of harassment and was convicted; he was sentenced to two years' probation.

Approximately fifty parents -- including the Richardsons and Wilson -- have formed a group called P.A.C.E.E. (Parents and Community for Educational Empowerment), which they hope will offer support to other parents who have problems with Denver Public Schools. Members plan to attend more school-board meetings and send letters to school administrators and to new superintendent Chip Zullinger.

Many of the parents at the predominantly black school in Park Hill believe that if any of the incidents at Stedman had happened at a mostly white school, the outcomes would have been vastly different.

"The simple fact is that they consider Stedman to be a poor, black school, and that since it's lower-income, our kids can be raped and assaulted and it's okay," Jamie Richardson says. "And they probably think that because it's a black principal, she's looking out for the best interest of the black kids, but that is totally untrue."

This fall the Richardsons' daughter will attend another elementary school. After the assault, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and has been unable to concentrate on her studies. Amy Richardson cries when she explains that her daughter, who used to get As and Bs, got Cs last year. The girl is also seeing a psychologist to help her deal with anger.

Her father will remain at Stedman as president of the PTA, however. "I told the principal that I am not going to walk away from this," he says. "I'm going to stay at this school and make sure the kids there get treated right."

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