Caught in the Middle

Grant Middle School teachers give failing grades to a Channel 7 investigation.

In his introduction to a report on February 4, Channel 7 investigative reporter Tony Kovaleski called the situation viewers were about to see "discouraging" -- and if anything, he was guilty of understatement. But the discouragement didn't stop at the facts of the case, which concerned the botched handling of a sexual assault on Angel Montez, a sixth-grader at Denver's Grant Middle School, that took place in October.

The exposé also riled staffers at Grant, who expressed their displeasure with Kovaleski on February 24 in a very public forum: the Rocky Mountain News's "Talk Back to the Media" section, which runs on the single Rocky page in the Sunday Denver Post. The letter, authored by Grant teachers Mason Voit and Stephen Macartney and signed by every current instructor at the school, concluded, "Rather than 'uncover the truth,' Kovaleski irresponsibly distorted the facts and misrepresented Grant Middle School, its faculty and students."

"I think we deserve to be recognized more for what we accomplish with our students," notes Voit, who teaches seventh-grade social studies, "and not be labeled with the negative association of an isolated incident."

To that, Kovaleski says, "It's unfortunate that so many teachers and staff people were led to believe the inaccuracies they published in that letter."

In Kovaleski's presentation, Montez, age twelve, revealed that she was groped by four male students, including one armed with a switchblade, in the middle of a computer lab; a teacher was on hand during the attack, but didn't realize anything untoward had taken place. The crime was reported to administrators; despite its seriousness, though, the school district, faculty members and parents with kids at Grant weren't notified. Instead, Grant officials, led by principal Elmer C. Manzanares, handled the situation internally -- and in the end, two of the students were expelled, with the other pair drawing suspensions. The suspended students were later given permission to return, with one choosing to leave anyway.

The criminal-justice system also got involved. Lynn Kimbrough, spokeswoman for the Denver District Attorney's Office, discloses that on February 8, one of the implicated students, who'd been held at Gilliam Youth Center since October 12, was found guilty of unlawful sexual contact and possession of a weapon on school grounds; he was sentenced to an additional 45 days at Gilliam, two years' probation and "offense-specific treatment." A second court action, on February 25, dealt with the other three defendants, and Kimbrough notes that one was found guilty of unlawful sexual contact; he'll be sentenced on May 16. Rules governing the release of information about juveniles prevent Kimbrough from offering other details, but Kovaleski says he's learned that two of the three "were found guilty" of infractions, "and the fourth had his charges lowered for his part in testimony."

And Montez? Her mother, Veronica Archuleta, told Kovaleski that Grant administrators recommended she move the girl to Cole Middle School, eight miles away -- an action that was decried in the Channel 7 salvo by Del Elliot, director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado. In addition, Joseph C'de Baca, a Grant teacher and well-known whistleblower who's been a source for articles in numerous local media outlets, including this one, argued that the Montez incident was "the tip of the iceberg...I mean, there's incidents and fights and bullying that happen on a daily basis."

Kovaleski paraphrased C'de Baca's contention that the school was "out of control" and allowed him to point the fickle finger of blame directly at principal Manzanares. Then, at the package's conclusion, the reporter divulged that C'de Baca was placed on administrative leave the day after sitting for the interview with Channel 7, leaving the clear implication that the teacher had been punished for daring to speak out against injustice. C'de Baca, who filed at least one grievance against the Grant administration last year and has found fault with discipline at several other DPS schools where he's taught in the past, certainly believes this to be true. He says the actions taken against him are "desperate attempts" to silence him on the part of principal Manzanares, whom he refers to by the derogatory nickname "Fidelmer."

Voit and Macartney, as well as another Grant teacher speaking anonymously, counter that C'de Baca's opinions are in no way characteristic of those held by the school's staff -- and they offer the signatures on the letter published in the News as proof. C'de Baca counters with a potpourri of conspiracy theories. Maybe, he speculates, principal Manzanares actually wrote the letter, or ordered two of his "pets" to write it -- and the other teachers signed it because they feared retribution. Voit and Macartney laugh that off, and Manzanares, who declined to address any aspects of the Montez story other than this one, calls the accusation "ludicrous, ludicrous. I am fortunate in that I have a fine, fine group of teachers who are independent but who are supportive and who have worked very hard to make Grant a good place for kids." C'de Baca also believes Voit and Macartney could have provided the letter to teachers at times when they couldn't read it before affixing their signatures (it didn't work that way, the two say) or showed co-workers a more benign commentary before switching it for the one that was sent to the News. "My response to that," says Voit, "is incredulity."

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