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DPS threatens to sue former principal, students over “Know Justice Know Peace” trademark

Denver Public Schools has threatened to sue the former principal of a Northeast Denver school along with several students to stop them from promoting the acclaimed “Know Justice, Know Peace” branded racial justice campaign that the students themselves created.

In a recent “cease and desist” demand to Kimberly Grayson, the former principal of Dr. Martin Luther King Early College middle and high school, the district’s deputy general counsel instructed Grayson to withdraw her use of the “Know Justice, Know Peace” business name and registration with the state, and no longer use that on any social media accounts such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. 

Grayson was the principal when four DMLK students of the Black Student Alliance launched a “Know Justice, Know Peace: The Take” podcast series on racial justice in 2020. Their efforts persuaded school leaders and ultimately the Denver Board of Education to expand history and other curriculum to better represent the contributions of Black, Latino and indigenous communities.

The school board not only applauded and approved a “Know Justice, Know Peace” resolution in October 2020 but also used it to develop curriculum revisions, resources and professional development for teachers districtwide in literacy and middle and high school social studies.

“We are trying to reach an agreement with the district so the students can continue to run their podcasts,” said Denver attorney Jeffrey H. Kass, who is representing DMLK students and parents. They declined to discuss the threat, referring questions to Kass.

A meeting earlier this month between the two sides didn’t resolve the dispute, but Kass said he is hopeful a settlement avoids litigation.

“We want the district to do the right thing,” Kass said.

The school board meets at 4:30 p.m. Monday to discuss the “Know Justice, Know Peace” dispute in closed executive session. Under state law, legal issues are considered confidential and can be discussed privately by the elected board.

“Unfortunately, due to pending litigation, we are not able to address your questions,” DPS spokesman Scott Pribble said prior to the board meeting Monday.

DPS officials said the legal threat is not meant to discourage student creativity or initiative but to retain the branding rights of “Know Justice, Know Peace.”

In her August cease and desist letter, DPS Deputy General Counsel Jennifer Collins said the district owns rights to the “Know Justice, Know Peace” trademarked name and intellectual rights because the podcast series was created at the school using district equipment and resources with help from district staff, including the principal.

Collins said in the letter to Grayson: “As a former DPS principal, we appreciate your efforts to advocate for a more inclusive curriculum at Denver Public Schools and to encourage Denver Public Schools students to share their perspectives about racial justice. However, we have to be diligent to ensure that DPS trademarks are used correctly and take appropriate steps to avoid consumer confusion about the source of DPS branded products and services.”

Collins cited previous court cases and federal law that “make clear that the ‘employer or other person for whom the work was prepared is considered the author.’’’

The DMLK effort started after a group students visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. in October 2019. Motivated by what they learned at the museum; the students sought changes in their curriculum to better reflect Black history.

“For Black students like me, learning our history empowers us,” Kaliah Yizar told the Denver school board several months later.

She was one of four students who started the “Know Justice, Know Peace” podcast, a naming spin on the “No Justice, No Peace” protest chant that was heard in rallies across the nation after the May 2020 killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.

Grayson, who did not return phone calls for this article, has described the student effort as “phenomenal” and sent her history teachers to the museum and then collaborated with students and teachers to develop changes in social studies.

“Black history is American history,” Grayson said in a “Power in Our Voices” video detailing the student-led campaign produced by RootED, a funder of education advocacy and autonomous schools. (RootED is also a Boardhawk funder).

The students and the school gained national attention for their efforts, and DPS officials in 2020  promoted the podcast to the public and the media.  In recognition of their work, the four students – Kaliah Yizar, Janelle Nangah, Dahni Austin and Alana Mitchell – recently were each awarded $1,500 college scholarships by the education advocacy organization Black History 365.

Brendan Kelly, a DMLK history teacher, said in the RootED video that the lessons he learned from “Know Justice, Know Peace” are important for all educators:

“I encourage other teachers and administrators across the country that when your students come to you and talk about the curriculum and what you’re teaching, take a step back, put your pride aside for a little bit and really listen to your students.”

Boardhawk will continue to follow developments in the “Know Justice, Know Peace” dispute.