Longform

CLOSED ENCOUNTERS

part 2 of 2
Myles demanded that teachers put more time into helping students prepare their self-evaluation portfolios, "which, of course, meant more work," says Honnecke. "And some of them did not like that."

"In particular, she and Ted Bettridge often butted heads," says one Open School staffer. "You could hear them yelling at each other, even when the doors were closed. Ted considered himself the guardian of the school philosophy and didn't like that Karla was taking over. Even in a so-called `liberal' school, the idea of an intelligent, powerful woman doesn't sit well with some men. The fact that she was a lesbian made it even tougher."

As the interim principal, Myles disciplined Bettridge for having "failed to safeguard Open School funds, which resulted in the theft of over $700," according to court documents. She also disciplined Delaney for being "verbally abusive to other teachers and assaulting two students."

The day before a letter of reprimand was to be placed in Delaney's file, Smith went to the school district's deputy superintendent for personnel matters, Peggy Schwartzkopf, and filed a sexual-harassment complaint against Myles. She took the interim principal's cards, letters and poems with her as proof.

Myles had continued to put notes and presents in Smith's mailbox at school, according to documents filed with the court by the school district. "Smith further alleges that despite her repeated attempts to discourage Myles' attentions," they continued, "Myles showed up at the Smiths' residence on several occasions uninvited."

According to Smith, when Myles came and asked for her correspondence to be returned, she refused to leave until Smith threatened to call the police. Smith told school officials that Myles's actions made her feel threatened and "stalked."

Smith's allegations against Myles came just as the district was determining who would assume the role of permanent principal at the Open School, since Steele had announced she would not be returning when her sabbatical ended. Myles was a leading candidate.

Schwartzkopf began investigating Smith's allegations on April 1, 1994, according to court documents. On April 7, Schwartzkopf and deputy superintendent Hefty, who was also serving as the Open School's assistant principal at the time, met with Myles and informed her of the complaint. Myles denied that she had harassed Smith.

Schwartzkopf's investigation continued through mid-April. She reviewed both women's personnel files, read the correspondence given to her by Smith, and interviewed seven witnesses. Her report concluded that Myles had violated the district's policies regarding sexual harassment and also conflicts of interest. In the latter case, she said, Myles exercised "extremely poor professional judgment by pursuing a romantic relationship with a person she was responsible for supervising and evaluating."

Myles's actions, Schwartzkopf determined, "had created a hostile and intimidating environment for Smith."

Myles's supporters would later contend that Schwartzkopf either ignored statements from witnesses who supported Myles, or failed to interview them at all.

On April 18, Hefty and Schwartzkopf met with Myles to review the report. According to their version of events in court documents, "Myles was offered the opportunity to review and discuss the report, but declined to do so." Myles was told that the report would be kept confidential and would not become part of her permanent file; she could also continue in her position as interim principal through the remainder of the school year. She'd even get a letter of recommendation from him, Hefty said: All she had to do was resign.

Honnecke was at home that day when she received a call from Judy Huckeby, a parent who worked as an educational assistant at the Open School. She'd overheard a teacher's telephone conversation and was relaying what she'd heard: "Karla's been charged with sexual harassment by Judith Miller Smith."

Huckeby couldn't talk long; she was on her way to a staff meeting called by Hefty. According to several people who attended that meeting, Hefty would not discuss the nature of the charges against Myles, but said that she had violated school-district policy.

"He said the matter had been under investigation for two weeks," says one employee. "Of course, they later started claiming that they had been investigating the charges for six weeks, because it's in their rules that they have to take at least that long before jumping to any conclusions and writing a report."

Hefty warned teachers and staffers that anyone caught discussing the case could be fired. But the rumors were already flying.

"I got a call from parents who were thinking about enrolling their child but wanted to know if I knew anything about teachers sexually harassing students," Honnecke says. There were also stories about Myles going after male colleagues because she was a man-hating lesbian.

Ian Watlington, a member of the school's leadership group, says that in the absence of accurate information, students were left to figure things out on their own. "Kids would go to their counselor and ask, `What's up?' But all they'd get is, `I can't talk about it.'"

What made it particularly hard on the students, Watlington says, was that both Myles and Smith were well-liked.

A week after she was confronted with the district's report, Myles told Hefty she refused to resign. As she told Colorado Woman News, "I was waking up in the middle of the night. I was having panic attacks. Then I realized and identified it...it was shaming. What's happening to me is this giant system of shaming. What did I do, rob a bank? Did I murder someone? No. What is it that's so terrible about Karla Myles? I guess it's because I'm a lesbian."

Myles decided she was going to make a stand and fight. She handed Hefty a copy of a letter she had submitted to the school newsletter discussing the allegations.

The next day, the Open School held a public meeting. Hefty attended, as did Myles, who read the statement she had handed the deputy superintendent.

When Myles later accused the school district of defamation, the district noted that it was Myles who first used the words "sexual harassment" publicly, in this statement. But Honnecke and others point to the April 18 teacher's telephone conversation that Huckeby had overheard as proof that the allegations were already well-known.

At Huckeby's request, a student videotaped the meeting and a copy of the tape was placed in the library. When Myles's statement appeared in the school's newsletter, it was accompanied by an announcement that the tape was available.

In a memorandum to Superintendent Finch, Hefty recommended that Myles's contract not be renewed. On May 5 the school board met in private and then voted publicly against renewing Myles's contract. They refused to explain their vote.

Hefty then went to Myles's office and ordered her to leave the premises; she would be placed on leave with pay for the rest of the school year. He stood by her desk while she packed her belongings, an event recorded by a photographer from the Denver Post.

The picture appeared in the newspaper on May 8, 1994, along with a story headlined, "Principal loses job over allegations of same-sex harassment."

The article described Myles as angry and perplexed. "What basically happened is that there were some boundary crossings that were probably unwise, probably on both parts...it was a confusing situation," she told the reporter. Myles said that there had never been a sexual relationship with the other teacher (Smith's name was not used), and that the friendship had ended by the fall of 1993.

The article reported that until the allegations surfaced, Myles had been a leading candidate for the permanent principal position.

In the same story, Finch noted that Myles was on probationary status in her role as interim principal, and therefore was not entitled to a hearing to contest the board's decision. While parents were calling to express concern that Myles was being dealt with unfairly, Finch said, they might not understand the situation "because they don't have access to all the information."

They never would.

Life at the Open School was no longer open. Many members of The Community were distressed that the school's stated philosophy to "confront, discuss, and negotiate" problems had been so easily jettisoned. One parent who makes a living as a mediator of international disputes offered her services, but was rejected by the school district.

Honnecke established a "hotline" number to call for information. The majority of teachers and parents supported Myles, she says, but were split on what action to take.

The Jeffco school board told the search committee of teachers, parents and staffers charged with finding a permanent principal that they could not consider Myles.

Some parents wrote letters to the school board to complain, but others worried that actively taking Myles's side would stir up the district's perceived animosity toward the school. In fact, long-promised district money for school renovations suddenly disappeared. "We were told the timing was purely coincidental," Honnecke says.

In September 1994 Myles filed a lawsuit against the school board, district officials Finch, Hefty and Schwartzkopf, and teachers Smith, Bettridge and Delaney. (Delaney and several boardmembers would later be dropped from the list of defendants.)

In her suit, Myles claimed that Smith, Bettridge and Delaney had conspired with district officials to concoct false allegations of sexual harassment in order to have her removed from her position as interim principal. The school district, she contended, had accepted Smith's version of events without giving Myles the opportunity to confront her accuser, interview witnesses or provide rebuttal witnesses.

And, she said, the district had reacted more harshly in her case than it had when similar allegations had been lodged against heterosexual men.

Asked by Westword what evidence Myles had of this double-standard, Ruttenberg, her attorney, says, "All my proof is sealed down at the courthouse." Because school-board actions in alleged harassment cases can fall under the category of personnel decisions, they often are exempt from public disclosure rules.

In her suit, Myles asked for reinstatement to her job with full back pay. Barring that, she wanted close to a million dollars for the salary she would lose over her career plus damages.

Soon after Myles filed suit, the district altered its finding against her. The sexual harassment allegation was dropped, and Myles simply was accused of violating district conflict-of-interest policies for pursuing a relationship with someone who worked for her.

But the accusation of sexual harassment had never been the focus of Myles's lawsuit. The issue was whether she had been given due process before the board had decided not to renew her contract, effectively ending her future at the Open School.

The legal motions, arguments and counter-arguments flew back and forth through the winter, spring and into this summer. "If they offer me some large sum of money and don't reinstate me, that's not right," Myles said in August. "I'm an educator, and I'll never give up."

On her way to racking up $17,000 in legal bills and having lost her $65,000 a year salary, she had already moved out of her nice home in Wheat Ridge and into a tiny house, so small that her son, Stirling, had to sleep in the front room. Unable to get a job in education in the metro area, Myles worked at a bookstore to make ends meet.

Stirling and his sister still attended the Open School, which caused other problems. Toward the end of the spring term, Myles called Schwartzkopf and warned her to keep Bettridge away from her two children or she'd seek a restraining order against him.

Soon after Myles called Schwartzkopf, Bettridge was summoned to the Open School office to take a call from Schwartz-kopf. A few minutes later, an Open School employee says, "Bettridge stomped out of the office, out of the school and hasn't been back since."

Bettridge is now teaching at another district school.
Myles finally found a job at a charter school in Durango. The day before her hiring was to be finalized, Honnecke received a call from the school's principal. "He said a newspaper reporter down there had recognized Karla's photograph and seemed to recall some sort of trouble she had in Denver," Honnecke says. "Yeah, right. A reporter in Durango just happens to recognize her...I wasn't born yesterday. Someone is still trying to screw up her life."

The principal asked Honnecke, who was listed as a reference on Myles's application, for her take on what had happened. She told him what she believed to be the truth, and Myles got the job.

Myles and the defendants named in her suit reached a settlement agreement in the first week of September. Although the terms of the deal weren't disclosed, sources say that Myles received $45,000. The district spent $144,000 fighting the case.

"She calls it a moral victory," Honnecke says of Myles, "but not much of one."

Beyond that, Honnecke adds, Myles cannot say much. And neither can anyone else involved in the case.

Instead of appearing at a trial that would have presented the facts of the case in an open courtroom, the suit's participants were all placed under a gag order demanded by the school district as part of the settlement. And the district has let people know that uttering just one word might be enough to send this case right back into court.

Hefty, who is now superintendent of the Eagle County school district, did not return telephone calls from Westword.

Finch, who is now the superintendent of schools in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was reached at his office there and asked for his comment about the Myles case. "Not one sentence," Finch replied.

At the Open School, parents and staffers are open about one thing: their concern over the school's future. And they worry that the Myles case is just one more thing that the district could use against them.

But district spokeswoman Kay Pride says that any perception that the district would like to do away with the Open School represents old attitudes and not the current thinking. When she began working for the district eight years ago, she concedes, there was "a feeling that alternative schools were barely tolerated.

"That's very different now," Pride adds. "They are very accepted and the district offers a greater range of choice than ever."

Many of those choices point to the success of the Open School, whose waiting list currently includes 500 would-be students, as an inspiration for their own programs.

Jeffco's school board election is less than two months away. The five-member board currently has two conservative members, who won their seats in 1993, and three moderates who are at least somewhat open to alternative methods of education. But two of the three--Tori Merritts and Dave DiGiacomo--are up for re-election against basics proponents Milton Schuster and Thomas Devenish.

And the Open School isn't doing particularly well, at least by back-to-basics standards. It scored miserably on recent tests ranking students' math and language learning with national averages for fifth-, eighth- and eleventh-graders.

Students at Jeffco's Dennison/D'Evelyn, which stresses teaching the fundamentals, scored in the 80th percentile; Open School students scored well below the national average. Fifth-graders there ranked in the 34th percentile in math and 36th in language; eleventh-graders scored in the 28th percentile in math.

Open School supporters contend--as they have always contended--that such scores don't reflect learning so much as they do the ability to take tests. Honnecke points out that the school has an 87 percent graduation rate, which is high compared with many district schools and particularly good considering that many of its students have been kicked out of other schools.

Still, those poor test scores provide more fodder for the back-to-basics crowd, which views the school as a failed social experiment and waste of money. And The Community worries about what will happen if the conservative candidates win the upcoming election.

"If you go to this school, you know there's an ax over at the school district that's ready to fall," says student Watlington. "This school has ruffled the district's feathers for years--about curriculum, about standards. They don't need much more of an excuse to get rid of us."

end of part 2

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Steve Jackson