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CLOSED ENCOUNTERS

part 1 of 2
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."

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.

 

For wheelchair-bound Ian Watlington, who says he never fit in at Green Mountain High School and was about to give up on school altogether, the Open School "was a lifesaver."

Although many of the school's students were considered above average in intelligence, they often arrived at the Open School because they had difficulty fitting in elsewhere. In fact, the school gained a not-so-positive reputation for accepting "behavioral problems" who had been kicked out, or had dropped out, of other schools, in both the district and the metro area at large.

Not surprisingly, the Open School offered plenty of sensitivity training--and not just for students. The staff developed a "conflict resolution model" for settling grievances. The first step was to confront one another, one-on-one, about any problems. If talking it out didn't resolve the conflict, step two was for a mediator from the school to step in. Only after those first two steps failed were the aggrieved parties supposed to go outside the school for help.

That didn't happen often. Generally, The Community liked to put up a united front. After all, of all the public schools in Jeffco, only the Open School and Dennison/ D'Evelyn, the county's alternative "back-to-basics" schools--the yin to the Open School's yang--were separate line items on the district budget. While reductions in the general budget would affect the other schools across the board, when the yearly "what can we cut" crunch time came, the Open School's nearly $2-million-a-year price tag stood out like a turkey's neck at Thanksgiving. Several times, it was only through the concerted lobbying of the school's parents and educators that the Open School was saved from the budget ax.

Somehow the Open School managed to survive year after year. It was a nice place to teach, free of the restraints and never-ending paperwork of traditional schools. And in some ways that created a problem, according to several parents. Rather than move on to other jobs, teachers stayed and became the true power at the school, used to getting their way and tolerating administrators only so long as they went along with the program. And parents, who expected to be actively consulted about any changes, were often left in the dark.

For example, parents weren't warned in advance when the combined third- and fourth-grade class was merged with the combined fifth- and sixth-grade class. "All of a sudden, the two classes--about sixty students--were thrown in together with the two teachers," says Honnecke. "The only thing we could make of it was that the teachers wanted some adult companionship.

"That might be understandable. But the point is--or at least it seemed to me and other parents I talked to--they were making decisions that were best for themselves, not the children."

Still, for the most part, the parents, thirty-plus teachers and students worked together. When Lewis Finch was hired five years ago as the district's new superintendent, he came with a reputation for supporting traditional schools. Honnecke sponsored a get-together at her home so that parents and teachers could meet Finch and convince him of the value of the Open School. "He basically told us that he believed all schools should be the same," Honnecke recalls. "Especially high schools."

At the Open School, the merging of the elementary and high school programs had never quite achieved the harmonic convergence one might expect from such a communicative bunch. The elementary and middle school teachers resented the high school teachers, who they saw as not having to work as hard; and the high school teachers often treated the other teachers like second-class citizens of The Community. Cliques formed, both for social reasons and to protect their little fiefdoms.

"One of these was Judith Miller Smith, Ted Bettridge and Mike Delaney," says an employee who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. "They reminded me of the `popular kids' from when I was in high school."

Bettridge and Smith, who had been at the school since 1989, befriended the new assistant principal who came on board for the 1992-93 school year. Her name was Karla Myles.

Myles arrived at the Open School with a stellar reputation as an innovative educator and a glowing recommendation from Jeffco deputy superintendent John Hefty. She'd created an alternative education program at Lincoln High School in Denver, which had gotten good reviews in the district. She was energetic and full of ideas; parents like Honnecke, who worried that the school had fallen into a rut, were taken with Myles's ability to motivate students, staff and parents alike.

 

It didn't matter to The Community that Myles was a lesbian. It was certainly no secret. She didn't announce it, but when the Open School helped her, her two children and another woman move into a house, "it wasn't hard to figure out," says a woman who assisted with the move. "There was the kids' bedrooms and a master bedroom."

According to an Open School employee, Ted Bettridge and Judith Smith, both middle school teachers, were attracted to Myles's rising star. "Just like the popular kids in high school who hang all over the new kid to see if they'll fit into their clique, they were all over her," he says. "They invited her places after school, and they all seemed to get along like old friends. Pretty soon, it was obvious to the rest of us that there was something going on between Judith and Karla in particular."

Although exactly what went on between Myles and Smith may never be known because of the confidentiality agreement, unsealed court documents in U.S. District Court in Denver, where the case was transferred from Jefferson County, provide some details.

According to a document filed on behalf of Myles, the interim principal "became the sexual target of a teacher at the open school, Defendant Judith Miller Smith. [Myles] is a homosexual; Smith is apparently bisexual."

The document continues: "Smith made repeated sexual advances to Myles in front of other Open School staff members, told other open school staff members that she was sexually attracted to Myles, and she flirted incessantly with Myles during staff meetings. Myles was friendly back, and the two developed a close relationship, however the relationship fell short of a sexual one."

The Jeffco school district's lawyer also represented Smith and Bettridge. "Smith denies that she targeted Myles for a sexual relationship at the Open School," reads one document filed on behalf of the school district with the courts. "Smith was the object of unwanted, unsolicited attention of a romantic nature...Myles knew of and acknowledged Smith's discomfort with Myles' attention and pressure to be involved romantically."

During the course of the relationship, Myles contends in court filings, "Myles and Smith exchanged letters, poems, and cards. In the Spring of 1993, Smith began blackmailing Myles with the correspondence, and she threatened to use them as evidence of `sexual harassment.' After making these threats, Smith would repeat her sexual advances toward Myles. Myles found the situation to be painful and decided to terminate her friendship with Smith."

According to court documents submitted by the Jeffco school district's lawyer, Myles's correspondence included: complaints that she could not see Smith without an audience present; encouragement for Smith to become more sexually involved; telling Smith that she (Myles) had "loved her courageously"; asking Smith to "accept me as a companion in your journey, rather than a future possibility when conditions are more favorable"; and apologizing for having gotten angry about the dissolution of their relationship, stating, "You touched me deeply and regrouping is not always a pretty sight."

According to documents Myles filed with the courts, Ruth Steele, then the principal of the Open School, knew of Myles's relationship with Smith but told her not to worry about it. Myles says Steele told her that with her talents, "she would always have a job with the school district." Under terms of the settlement, Steele is not allowed to discuss the case.

Shortly before the gag order was imposed, Judi Justus, a teacher who's worked at the Open School sixteen years, told Colorado Woman News that there were five other couples working at the school. "The model here is that it's quite all right to have a partner who works here," she told the publication. While getting involved with Smith might have been an error on Myles's part, Justus said, "it was definitely not sexual harassment."

During the 1993-94 school year, Steele was on sabbatical. In her absence, Myles was named interim principal.

In court documents, Myles contends that in the fall of 1993, Smith "continued her sexual pursuit of Myles, in front of other Open School personnel, including Ted Bettridge and Mike Delaney." And Smith also continued threatening to charge her with sexual harassment, Myles claims.

Concerned that Smith would make good on her threats, Myles says she went to Smith's residence to exchange the letters she had received from Smith for the letters Myles had sent. Myles later told friends that Smith accepted her letters but refused to hand over Myles's.

 

In December 1993, after Smith refused to return the correspondence, Myles asked for a mediation through another Open School teacher. According to Myles's version of the story, the mediation was successful, and the two women agreed that they could continue to work together on a professional basis.

By February 1994 Myles was involved in another romantic relationship with a female middle school teacher. In court documents, Myles claims that Smith decided to make good on her threats when she realized her friendship with Myles was over. That, Myles says, and the fact that Smith's two male friends, Bettridge and elementary teacher Delaney, were in hot water with the interim principal.

Myles was making life more difficult for some teachers by asking more of them, say some parents and staffers. Myles herself told Colorado Woman News that she was controversial because she confronted teachers who were not challenging themselves--an activity that did not go over well with longtime teachers.

end of part 1


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