School community battles imaginary-grenade backlash as Peter Boyles alleges a coverup

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Update: Yesterday, we interviewed school board member Denise Montagu, who criticized the press for hyping the tale of Alex Evans, seven, who was allegedly suspended from Loveland's Mary Blair Elementary for pretending to throw a grenade; read it below. But even as the school's PTO plans twin rallies tomorrow, KHOW's Peter Boyles is arguing that what Montagu characterizes as a bogus story was legit -- and the subject of a coverup.

On February 1, as we've reported, Alex's mom, Mandie Watkins, says Alex was engaged in superhero role playing when he was seen hurling an imaginary grenade at a made-up box with "something evil inside." She further claims that Mary Blair's principal, Valerie Lara-Black, called to tell her Alex had been suspended for his actions, which reportedly violated a series of "absolutes" posted on the school's website. The list of verboten activities is said to have spotlighted violent or aggressive behavior, whether real or fantasy.

Watkins soon went public with the incident, prompting a media frenzy that received attention nationwide. Before long, the school pulled down its website, supposedly because of online attacks and threats from across the country, but otherwise declined comment. But last Friday, the Thompson School District superintendent broke his silence, saying Alex had actually been suspended for throwing real rocks, not a fictional device. In addition, questions were raised about the credibility of Watkins, who has a sizable criminal record that includes a guilty plea for false reporting, prompting by a fire at her Greeley home and her insistence that she and her family were saved by a dog.

This version of events is being reinforced by two rallies at Mary Blair tomorrow -- one at 8 a.m., the second at 3:20 p.m. According to Travis Bauer, chair of the Mary Blair parent-teacher organization, the timing was chosen so teachers could join parents, students and others in Loveland to voice their support for the school, and to counteract the backlash prompted by the story.

"There's been an incredible amount of hate directed toward the teachers in the school," Bauer says. "So we want the community to know we're here for the kids, we're here for the teachers, and we're not going to let our community be dictated by people outside it. We need to take charge of our own school and our own community and decide for ourselves what we're about."

Not everyone has abandoned Watkins, however. Indeed, KHOW's Boyles believes he has proof that Mary Blair is involved an elaborate scheme to shift blame for the Alex suspension. He points at two screen captures of the still-down Mary Blair website -- one reportedly from just after the suspension, and another a couple of days later. In the first, there's no link to the list of "absolutes," as you can see here.

In the second, though, the "absolutes" link can be seen: To Boyles, on whose program I took part this morning, these images show that Mary Blair had no real justification for suspending Alex in the first place beyond extreme political correctness, only cooking up the "absolutes" list afterward to deflect criticism, but inadvertently spurring more. He also surmises that the real reason the website was taken down was to prevent anyone from doing the sort of detective work his staff accomplished anyhow.

Boyles also cites a video made by Liberty Watch, a local organization whose Nancy Rumfelt spoke with us for our original post last week; it purports to demonstrate that there were no rocks for Alex to throw on the playground, thereby calling the school's assertions into question. Turns out, though, that another video shot by a Liberty Watch critic suggests that there are rocks aplenty in the vicinity. See both clips below.

As for Bauer, he's confident the website was shut down for the reason the school district says it was. "As soon as the story broke, and as soon as the story started to get national coverage, pretty much every teacher in the school got hate male," he maintains, noting that the site featured e-mail addresses and links that made it easy for angry people to launch multi-pronged attacks. "And the principal got bombarded with e-mails and phone calls, and she was threatened. That's something a lot of us who are close to the school are still struggling with. It's hard for us to wrap our heads around that."

Bauer adds that the Mary Blair PTO had to pull down its Facebook page because of Internet slams, too. As a result, most of the planning for tomorrow's rallies has had to be done by word of mouth. Still, he is hoping for a big turnout of people ready to turn the page rather than wallow in the past.

"Our focus isn't necessarily on what happened," he says, "but on who we are as a community at the school."

Continue for podcasts featuring Mandie Watkins and two videos -- one purporting to show that there were no rocks on the playground, and another asserting the opposite. Peter Boyles interviews Mandie Watkins and Fox31's Julie Hayden on two KHOW.com podcasts:

Liberty Watch video:

Text accompanying clip questioning Liberty Watch's video:

Liberty Watch has posted an "edited" video recording of the Mary Blair Elementary School playgrounds saying that there are very little if any rocks found around the areas. I recorded an "unedited and nonstop" recording from the rear parking lot and through the Mary Blair playgrounds showing that there are tons of rocks all over the place including in the sand areas. Yes, I know that kids do not play in the parking lot area shown in the video. My intention is to show nonstop, unedited video, so you can have the full aspect of the areas around and near the playgrounds...including in the playground areas. I show you that I did not cheat in my video and only show you certain areas. I go from the parking lot, through the first playground and I end in the sand of the first playground.

I have nothing against Liberty Watch looking out for the little people and I also feel badly for the Mom in this report for having a lot of her past smeared all over the News. What I don't like is that the video that Liberty Watch has put out to the Public is not a correct viewing or true account of the school grounds. I was at the school for about 5 minutes and wanted to show a real view of the areas. I have another video that I will post that also shows thousands of rocks that lead right up to the back doors of classrooms at the sidewalks. I am not saying that this child "was" throwing rocks. I just want people on "both sides" to tell the truth and the Liberty Watch video is not the truth.

Continue for our previous coverage, including photos and video. Original post, 11:54 a.m. February 12: Last week, we shared reports about Loveland seven-year-old Alex Evans's suspension from school -- a move prompted, his mother said, by him pretending to throw a grenade during recess. Reps of the district in question subsequently told a very different story, and now a school board member is among many in the community fighting against what they see as misinformation generated after the story went national.

"What's been so frustrating is that everybody was so willing to jump on board and think the most negative thing," says Denise Montagu, a Thompson School District board of education member; she previously served for seven years as the chair of the parent-teacher organization at Mary Blair Elementary, which Evans attends.

The early coverage of the tale, which was broken by Denver's Fox31 and followed by the Loveland Reporter-Herald, was certainly eyebrow-raising. According to the paper, Alex was engaged in superhero role playing when he acted as if he was hurling a grenade at a box with something evil inside. Doing so allegedly violated a list of "absolutes" posted on the Mary Blair website, including restrictions against physical abuse, fighting and use of weapons, whether they're real or not. Hence, principal Valerie Lara-Black reportedly phoned Mandie Watkins, Alex's mom, on Friday to let her know her son had been suspended for breaking these rules.

The story soon caught on country-wide, with TV stations as far away as Alabama covering it. But mentions by the likes of Rush Limbaugh led to unintended consequences, as the Reporter-Herald noted in a followup report. The school was inundated with angry phone calls, and its website was pulled down as the result of an e-mail sent to principal Lara-Black by a man from Atlanta that included a photo of a gun and the passage, "There are multiple records of your crime. I recommend that you resign immediately."

As this was going on, the folks at Mary Blair kept mum, and school district representatives, acting under advice from attorneys, said only that there was more to the story than was being reported. "The first part of last week, my tongue was bleeding," Montagu admits. "I had the information and I couldn't tell anybody. We all had to wait until Friday, when legal said, 'You can say something.'"

Once lawyers gave him the go-ahead, Thompson district superintendent Stan Scheer released the following statement, as seen on Faultline USA:

As a matter of practice, the Thompson School District does not comment publicly on matters of student discipline. In this case, however, the parent of the student has chosen to make this a public issue, and because there appears to be a great deal of misinformation in the media about this matter, we feel compelled to respond.

On February 1, 2013, a student at Mary Blair Elementary School was observed by a teacher throwing rocks at other children on the school's playground. The teacher, following District procedures, escorted the child to the school principal, whereupon the student's mother was contacted. Following a discussion with the student and his mother, the principal imposed a 2-hour in-school suspension as a consequence for the student's behavior. The student was never removed from school grounds by the District.

Continue for more about the Mary Blair controversy, including a video. Meanwhile, more information began coming out about Watkins, Alex's mom, and not all of it was flattering. As reported by the Denver Post, she has been charged with multiple crimes in recent years, including a 2004 forgery beef. In addition, her record shows two arson allegations, including one in which her Greeley home caught on fire. Although Watkins initially told authorities she and her kids only survived the second blaze (which, like the first, she denies setting) because they were warned by her dog, she eventually pleaded guilty to false reporting.

By the way, Watkins continues to stand by her story about Alex and insists that the school district only mentioned the alleged rock-throwing after being pummeled with negative PR.

Montagu is baffled why the info about Watkins's past took so long to emerge. "The minute I saw this woman's name, I Googled it and found her arrest record," she says. "She had an arrest record a mile long, which instantly brought her credibility into question. And if it was so easy for me to find -- and I'm not a professional -- why didn't these news organizations find it?"

Her answer to this question: "Maybe the story was a much more interesting story than the truth."

Is she suggesting that media outlets purposefully chose not to dig into the allegations? "I'd like to assume a positive intent," she replies, "but isn't part of a reporter's obligation to tell the entire story? It's been very frustrating that all these news organizations jumped on board and decided what the story was going to be, as opposed to telling the entire thing and letting people make a decision for themselves."

Because that wasn't the case, she goes on, "people were led to believe a certain thing, and then the ones who were inclined to believe it" -- including those who "already do not support public education and were using it as a platform" -- "got out their pitchforks."

At last, the furor is dying down, even as friends and supporters of Mary Blair are stepping to the fore. On Thursday morning and afternoon, members of the school's parent-teacher organization, as well as others in the community, plan to stage a rally at the school intended to squelch the attacks once and for all.

"What we're trying to do is turn the tables and really celebrate what's positive about public education," Montagu says. "People do not go into school every day with malice in their hearts to see what they can do to harm a child -- and they're not there to get wealthy, either. They're there because they care, and that's why I'll be there to support them."

She's not just hopeful but confident the rallies will get plenty of attention -- and even if they don't manage to entirely drown out the suspension uproar, the process of planning the events "has brought us all closer as a group. We're all working toward a common cause, a common goal -- to promote this school and public education and what it stands for.

"The biggest takeaway for me is that this is an outstanding school community," she goes on. "A lot of negativity has been visited upon us, with people saying the school district changed its story -- which is not true. We added to our story when the attorneys said we could. But really, we've maintained our story all along. And now, we're telling people what this is really all about."

Here's the report that lit the fuse on the controversy.

More from our Education archive: "Second-grader's suspension for throwing an imaginary grenade raises ire locally, nationally."

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