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Caught in the Middle

Stephen Macartney (left) and Mason Voit teach at Grant Middle School.
Brett Amole

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."

 

Wisely, Kovaleski steers clear of this particular debate. But he doesn't shy away from criticizing the authors of the letter printed in the News, which he sees as untrue from top to bottom. "Not once did these faculty members discuss the fact that parents were never informed that a sexual assault with a switchblade had taken place in a classroom," he says. "To me, that speaks volumes about the priorities of the teachers at Grant Middle School."

Neither does Kovaleski regret giving so much airtime to C'de Baca, who contacted him about Montez soon after the assault; the reporter thinks he received an e-mail from Archuleta prior to hearing from C'de Baca, but he's not certain. Kovaleski says he asked Denver Public Schools spokesman Mark Stevens for permission to speak to Manzanares and other teachers, only to be turned down. (Although Stevens recalls the request regarding Manzanares, he doesn't remember an inquiry about teachers.) With this avenue closed, Kovaleski turned to C'de Baca, who was eager to talk and supplied two former teachers and one current instructor willing to echo his thoughts. These three weren't mentioned in the report, but Kovaleski says their comments made him comfortable broadcasting C'de Baca's allegations.

The ire of the Grant contingent was stoked further by the location of interviews with C'de Baca, Montez and Archuleta: the school itself. Kovaleski admits that he didn't get clearance from either DPS or Manzanares to videotape inside the building because he had planned to shoot everything outside after four o'clock, when school was out. But when he and his cameraman arrived on a December afternoon, they were concerned about uneven lighting -- and besides, everyone was cold. C'de Baca suggested that these problems could be solved by going inside, and he escorted everyone into the locked facility through a side door. Sources at Grant say a door lock was taped to make in-and-out access easy, and one window of C'de Baca's classroom was covered to help regulate the light.

C'de Baca and Kovaleski emphasize that they weren't trying to pull a fast one, with the teacher adding that he ventured to the principal's office to seek permission only to find it empty -- an assertion that Grant representatives speaking anonymously seriously doubt. As it turns out, Manzanares was very much at the school and entered C'de Baca's classroom to find Kovaleski in mid-interrogation. At that time, Kovaleski says he asked Manzanares if they needed to shut down, but the principal allowed them to continue -- perhaps because he didn't want to be caught on camera giving them the heave-ho.

Afterward, he may have wished that he had. Unlike Channel 9, which has a co-promotional, content-sharing agreement with both the Post and KOA, or Channel 4, which benefits from a similar arrangement with the News, ratings-challenged Channel 7 doesn't have a guaranteed way to further publicize scoops once they run. But because the station heavily promo'd its Montez report in the days leading up to its broadcast, near the beginning of the ratings period known as "sweeps," other outlets were hipped to something brewing at Grant. That's one explanation as to why the News featured the topic on February 5, the day after Channel 7 checked in; the Post, whose local news coverage has lately been lagging behind that of the News, played catch-up on February 6. The papers didn't publish Montez's name, presumably because of her age, and left out her mother's name, too, even though Kovaleski had used both. He says he left the choice of identification up to them and went with their wishes.

The News also omitted Channel 7 from its report and even claimed to have broken the story in a February 7 editorial. Channel 7 news director Byron Grandy says he's not bothered when the Denver dailies don't give his station credit, even though the publicity would be extremely valuable: "They'll run their operations the way they see fit, and I respect that." But he did phone to complain after the editorial, "because that was just wrong. They didn't break that story." On February 17, Rocky columnist Greg Dobbs took the paper to task for this misstep, and News editor John Temple mentioned Channel 7 in his own take on the matter, printed that same day. But other articles didn't reference the station, going instead with generic terms like "media reports" -- a courtesy the other TV outlets probably appreciate.

 

Channel 7 might not have been identified further with the controversy were it not for KHOW host Peter Boyles, who quizzed Kovaleski, Montez and Archuleta on his show over a series of days. While Boyles used to have a daily gig on Channel 7, he no longer has a contractual affiliation with the station. But he frequently does tie-ins with Channel 7 types, as well as with reporters from other stations, including Channel 4's Brian Maass, who recently turned his spotlight on lazy cops at Denver International Airport. "If they've got a hot story, it's really good for me to have them on the show, and it's good for them to be on the show," Boyles says. "One hand washes the other."

Such multi-media scrutiny only intensified after another horrendous screwup: On February 12, after an appearance on Boyles's program, Montez was pulled out of class and questioned by DPS attorney Mary Ellen McEldowney and DPS's southeast-area superintendent, Irene Jordan, without permission from her mother. DPS spokesman Stevens publicly apologized for this gaffe, which was blamed on "miscommunication." Shortly thereafter, Manzanares was reprimanded for his role in the whole mess; his punishments included attending sensitivity training sessions and writing a letter to Montez inviting her to return to Grant anytime she'd like. (School officials continue to maintain that Montez's move to Cole was voluntary.) And last week, DPS announced that it would appoint a task force to look into the ways sex crimes are reported in the district at a meeting that Stevens acknowledges was a direct reaction to what happened at Grant.

Positive changes may come out of this fiasco, but Grant teachers still don't like being the poster children for them. Spin control includes a press conference planned by the school's collaborative decision-making committee to show what's right with Grant.

"The vast majority of our students feel that school is a safe place to be, but that's not the way it came across on Channel 7," Voit says. "We feel Mr. Kovaleski wasn't interested in really providing an accurate depiction of what life is like here."

Paper work: Last year's joint operating agreement allowed the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News to merge their business divisions, and the papers did so energetically, slashing their workforces via early-retirement offers, buyouts and attrition. Ever since, I've been hearing anecdotal narratives about problems involving subscriptions and delivery, some of which have been as tangled as any Robert Ludlum novel. But the tale that hit closest to home was the one that took place at my home.

Here's the Reader's Digest version -- and believe me, it's considerably shorter than the real thing.

In November, my wife paid the annual rate to retain our subscription to the Post. Around the same time, she had one of her associates at the school where she works do the same in order to continue getting the News. But in early December, newspapers stopped being delivered to the school -- and when an inquiry was made, the school's envoy was told that no payment had been received, resulting in the subscription's termination. Furthermore, the paper's employee said the school would have to fax a copy of a cancelled check as proof of the earlier payment before the News would start arriving again. The school did so at its own expense.

Next, we received notice that our home subscription had lapsed, and when my wife called to find out what was going on, she was told that -- surprise! -- no payment had been received, and delivery would be snuffed unless we faxed a copy of our cancelled check. My wife did so, then called a couple of weeks later to find out if all was well. She was told that everything had been sorted out at both our home and her school, whose original check had accidentally been shipped to the advertising department. Delivery at the school was supposed to pick up again the first week of January.

Except it didn't -- and the Post stopped coming to our home, too. To make matters worse, my wife was told that the only way to put things right would be to re-fax copies of both checks, since the previous faxes had apparently vanished into the system, never to be seen again. She did so under protest, and then was told after several hours and numerous irritating phone calls that both situations had finally been fixed.

How isolated are these incidents? Very, insists Jim Nolan, spokesman for the Denver Newspaper Agency. "As you know, we were operating off of two separate circulation billing systems -- one for the Post and one for the News," he says. "We're in the process even now of continuing to blend those systems together, and that's a complex proposition. In addition, the process requires a fair amount of manual intervention, and when instances are pointed out or we find them on our own, we're doing our best to fix them. But as a percentage of all the transactions we engage in every day, the amount of errors are few and far between."

 

That would be a lot more reassuring if, a few weeks back, I hadn't gotten a phone call telling me that our subscription was about to expire because no payment had been received.


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