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School Haze

Showing and telling: Jamie Richardson gives Stedman Elementary an F.
Victoria Shearer

he ten-year-old girl came home from school one day and told her parents that a boy was teasing her. He was pulling her ponytail and calling her names. It was her first year at Stedman Elementary School; in fact, it was her first year at any public school. Until the fourth grade, she had been home-schooled, and she wasn't used to being around boys her age.

The teasing was harmless.

Just a little horseplay.

But soon the girl's stories started to concern her parents. Their daughter was saying that the boy was pushing her, calling her sexually explicit names, hitting her in the stomach, touching her in inappropriate ways, looking up her dress and trying to pull down her underwear.

Over the next six months, Jamie and Amy Richardson visited the school, at 2940 Dexter Street, twenty times to talk to principal Rachel Starks and several teachers about keeping their daughter safe. Each time, they were assured that the school was handling it. But every day their daughter came home with another story.

"The principal told me on two occasions that these assaults would never happen again," recalls Amy Richardson. "I said we should talk to the boy's parents, but the principal told me that wasn't necessary. She said the boy's grandmother, who has custody of him, doesn't need to be bothered with this."

On April 7, 1998, the situation finally exploded. The girl was standing on the playground during gym class when the boy came rushing at her, his head bowed down like a bull's. He charged into her and she fell back on the blacktop. "The suspect then placed his foot in the victim's stomach, grabbed her by the arms, and flipped her over onto her back, landing [her] on the ground," read a police report filed by an officer after Jamie Richardson rushed to the school and called the cops.

"When we got there, she was hysterical and she said her head hurt and that she was dizzy. The principal and teacher were telling her she's all right," Amy Richardson says. "The principal told me that my daughter probably started it, and she refused to call an ambulance or the boy's grandmother."

So the Richardsons called an ambulance instead, and their daughter left school that day on a stretcher; according to a St. Joseph Hospital emergency-room report, she had suffered a concussion and soft-tissue damage to her back.

After the ambulance and the cops took off, Jamie Richardson says, Starks told him that he had overreacted. On the school's accident report, the principal characterized the incident as "horseplay."

The next day, the Richardsons filed a restraining order against the boy. The judge who authorized it told them that as soon as the school received the order, the boy would be expelled. But when Amy Richardson handed the restraining order to Starks, she says the principal's response was, "What do you want me to do with this?"

Richardson went home and called Ricardo Concha, Denver Public School District's executive director for elementary education, who had the boy transferred to another school.

But the Richardsons were still not satisfied with the way things were handled. "I'm not upset with the boy; he has a pathetic home life, and he can't help that," Amy Richardson says. "But [school administrators] knew about it, and they did nothing to keep my daughter safe."

Deborah Wilson, who is a member of Stedman's Parent Teacher Association, says her son witnessed the attack and that "it was definitely not horseplay." Wilson is so distressed over this incident and some other things that have gone on at Stedman that she's making sure her kids go to school elsewhere. Her third-grade daughter will attend a different elementary school this fall, and her son is now in middle school.

Wilson says parents have had problems with Starks ever since she became Stedman's principal in 1994. Wilson's complaint is that Starks kept her kids from advancing in the school's gifted-and-talented program. "We have no idea why she does the things she does," Wilson says. "We've been trying to figure that out."

After their daughter was hurt, the Richardsons started talking to other parents and learned that they weren't the only ones who were upset with the way the school was treating them and their children.

In May 1998, several parents -- carefully watched by security guards -- picketed outside the school, demanding Starks's removal. A few weeks later, on June 4, 1998, they asked the Denver Board of Education to remove the principal.

"What I have seen happen to children at Stedman Elementary is so horrible that I simply would not have believed it if I had not lived out this trauma myself," Cynthia Wells told the board during that meeting. Wells's twelve-year-old daughter was raped at the school by a fellow student on May 20, 1996. "I'm not here to tell you the details of her rape; I'm here to tell you how the school made my daughter into a criminal instead of the victim."

Wells said Starks never called her or the police to report the rape. Instead, her daughter was "sent home with instructions not to tell," Wells told the board. "Her father and I were told by the principal that she was lying." Wells also said Starks insisted that there was no medical proof of the rape; that the girl was assaulted by someone other than the student she accused; and that since the boy said he didn't do it, then he didn't do it.

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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