Was Dakota Ridge High School student Bryce Benson punished for wearing a T-shirt that read "Border Patrol" while others who staged a mock-demonstration featuring signs that read "Fuck America" weren't -- or at least not initially? Ex-Congressman and recent gubernatorial candidate Tom Tancredo's not sure of all the particulars, but he senses the ripe aroma of political correctness.
"We are fighting a major battle in this country over borders," says Tancredo, who spoke about the issue at a Jefferson County School District meeting last night, "and that battle has a lot of different dimensions to it -- but it's very political. And the school district is very political, and very liberal -- and so these kids pay a price for that."
The Border Patrol T-shirt issue first came to the fore last month in the Dakota Ridge student newspaper, The Ridge Review. An article headlined "Who We Be?" noted that "last Friday, September 2nd, several boys wore T-shirts that read 'Border Patrol.'"
The problem? The shirts were perceived by some as insulting to Latino members of the school population. Said one student: "This is an embarrassment to the school. We are a school with ethnic diversity, and the fact that a few in the student body would go out and alienate part of our school and the rival's school populace is disgusting."
The Ridge Review piece reports that the T-shirt wearers made "four trips to the office" over their clothing choice and received "a stern talking-to from the cops at the game." However, they were "allowed to wear the shirts in school and to the game."
But there are at least two more variations on this story. A version subsequently shared by KHOW's Peter Boyles and the website AboveTopSecret.com went something like this: Students wearing the T-shirts were prevented from riding a school bus to a football game in Pueblo due to their attire; they had to find their own transportation for the very long ride. And the next week, AboveTopSecret.com maintains, one of the students -- Bryce Benson -- was suspended for three days, apparently for his choice in clothing.
Oh, yeah: Around this time, another student staged a mock-demonstration on school grounds as part of a film project. It included signs emblazoned with the slogan "Fuck America." However, that student wasn't disciplined until after the brouhaha erupted concerning the Border Patrol T-shirts.
Dakota Ridge High School principal James Jelinek's take? He doesn't address the "Fuck America" signs in a letter to parents dated today and on view in its entirety below. But he details the Border Patrol incident, insisting that the student in question was told he couldn't ride the bus because he was harassing a male cheerleader. Then, he goes on, the mother of a Bryce friend made such a big stink while insisting that the T-shirt was the real issue he'd been banned from the bus that she and her son had to be escorted from the campus by school district and Jefferson County Sheriff's Office personnel. Moreover, Jelinek accuses the T-shirt wearing student and his mom (neither Benson nor his mother, Regan, are specifically named) of presenting lies about what happened, resulting in "restrictions and consequences for both of them."
Into this chaotic environment steps Tom Tancredo. According to Tancredo, he'd been planning to speak at last night's meeting anyhow, on an entirely different subject: test scores at various Jeffco schools that he finds appalling. For example, he says 94 percent of tenth graders at Jefferson High School were deemed not proficient in math, with many other schools hovering around 50 percent. And he thinks a big part of the problem can be traced to the school district.
"Its an evil empire," he says. "This district spends about a billion dollars a year. They're huge, they're powerful, they're well-financed, and they're extremely defensing -- because they're defending a billion-dollar empire."
Before he could take on the district about this, however, he heard from controversial Jeffco school board member Laura Boggs regarding the Border Patrol story. Hence, he weighed in on that situation in addition to his other concerns, which represented "the bulk of what I talked about," he estimates. For instance, he argued that Jefferson County should address the poor performance of its students by creating the sort of voucher program started by Douglas County -- one subsequently stopped thanks to a lawsuit by the ACLU.
Turns out, thought, that the Benson family has actually been assisted by the ACLU. In 2008, Bryce's brother Blake appeared at a Michelle Obama campaign appearance outside a designated protest area at the high school while wearing a T-shirt bearing a "Nobama" sticker. After Blake refused an order to leave, he was arrested -- and he was also given a one-day suspension from school. The ACLU subsequently took up his cause, and in January 2010, the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office and the school district split a $4,000 settlement in the matter.
Clearly, the Bensons have what Tancredo refers to as "some history" with the school district. But he believes "two things appear undeniably true. This kid, Bryce, was wearing a T-shirt that said 'Border Patrol,' and he and a friend of his were taken in by one of the assistant principals at Dakota Ridge and questioned about it -- and they ended up not allowing these kids to get on a bus going down to Pueblo. Now, the school says one of these kids had been harassing a male cheerleader, and the parents of the kid deny it. But when they were taken in by the assistant principal, the issue was not that a kid was being quote-unquote harassed. It was these shirts -- 'What are you doing with those on?,' 'What do you think the message you're trying to project is?,' that kind of thing.
"What about this bunch of kids at the school staging a mock protest with signs that said 'Fuck America'? You allow that to go on, and what happens to them? Well, nothing happened to them until the shit hit the fan."
The school district's response? Spokeswoman Lynn Setzer says the student with the signs wasn't disciplined until last week, well after the bus incident. But the reason, she says, is that the administration wasn't aware it had happened -- and as soon as officials found out, they responded. "You can't act on something if you don't know about it," Setzer says.
Whatever the case, Tancredo decries any school action based on the Border Patrol shirts. "What the hell right do they have to tell a kid he can't wear that?" he asks. "Are they dirty words? Does it disrupt the school system? Because that's the only time you're supposed to restrict somebody's clothing -- and there are plenty of things kids wear that could be disruptive. But you and I know what this is all about: political correctness."
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Look below to see a CBS4 report about the meeting last night, as well as Principal Jelinek's letter.
Dear Dakota Ridge High School Parents, Staff, and Community
One of the most significant conversations we have with our children as parents and as educators revolves around honesty and character as these are life-long measures of our individual integrity and respect of ourselves and others. To this end, we communicate with our children about the dangers of lying and bullying others and hope that we develop a profound sense of understanding guiding their positive actions in their life experiences. It is one of the most challenging conversations educators are required to have with an individual when the lying and bullying comes not from a student, but from a parent.
You may have heard a recent political talk show or viewed a recent news show in which a fictional story of harassment, school consequences, and misdirection were attributed to the staff of Dakota Ridge High School. The reality in this story is that one of the first aspects sacrificed in contemporary social media is often the truth. Sadly, we have to divert our attention and energy away from our primary role and responsibility of educating our students in order to address the lying, bullying, and harassing behavior by one of the families in our school.
Let me help you understand fact from fiction. Earlier this year, our high school football team was traveling to Pueblo West to play a game. As part of that experience, our school administration provided a fan bus to take our spirit squads, cheerleaders, and fans to the game. In the days leading up to the game, one of the students who had arranged to ride this bus, harassed and threatened one of our school cheerleaders. School administration communicated to him that he would not be allowed to ride the bus as it created an unsafe environment for our cheerleaders.
The mother of one of his friends chose to come to the school just prior to the departure of the bus and demand that school administration allow this boy -- not her son -- be allowed to ride the bus despite his actions. In the ensuing incident, District security and Jeffco Sheriff Deputies had to intervene with this mother and her son because of their significant harassment and intimidation of school personnel and students on the bus. The boy and his mother were escorted off school grounds by law enforcement and the bus left for Pueblo West.
Within that altercation, the boy of this mother and one or two of his friends wore Border Patrol t-shirts and planned to wear them to the game in Pueblo West. No staff member harassed or intimated the boys for these t-shirts and contrary to lies presented by this boy and his mother, this boy was not suspended for wearing this shirt. In fact, they wore the shirts during the game as they drove themselves to the game and they continue to wear the t-shirts in our school hallways. The only intimidation and harassment that day and in the days that have followed has come from this boy and his mother. Their actions have led to restrictions and consequences for both of them.
The news media missed a golden opportunity to capture the truth as told last night during a Board of Education meeting in which several Dakota Ridge High School parents courageously addressed the Board. They spoke of their values and beliefs in their own children. They spoke of their appreciation for the ongoing and exemplary work provided for their children by Dakota Ridge High School staff. They spoke of their fear of intimidation and harassment which disrupts the educational learning environment when this family engages in lying and bullying behavior. They shared with Laura Boggs -- Board of Education member - that it is the public's perception that she is in support of this family's lies and bullying tactics. Parents challenged Ms. Boggs to examine all the facts prior to providing her support to this family. Equally as important, they spoke of their deep pride and commitment to the community of Dakota Ridge High School.
It is unfortunate that some respected political figures and influential media personnel chose to communicate an opinion without first checking the facts and determining the truth. I am not a member of the media, or a political figure; so I may not understand that truth and integrity do not always outweigh the opportunity to increase ratings or provide one a chance at media limelight. I do know that I am incredibly proud of Dakota Ridge High School and feel very fortunate to have the privilege to work alongside some of the most dedicated, compassionate, professional, and talented staff members in the District. Our vision is to continually strive for a school based upon an exceptional community that promotes extraordinary learning, expanded opportunities, and above all, success for all students. Our students, staff, and majority of parents aspire to help all members of our community develop a balance between and synergy from four basic human needs: the need to live, the need to love, the need to learn and the need to leave a positive legacy. Please contact me if you have any questions or concerns at 303-982-4970 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for your continued support.
Sincerely, James A. Jelinek, Ph.D. Principal Dakota Ridge High School
More from our Politics archive: "Tom Tancredo tweets about murder of Arizona rancher Rob Krentz, presumably by an illegal alien."