Legal bullying of exemplary students exposes Denver Public Schools’ hypocrisy

What is Denver Public Schools leadership thinking?

In threatening to sue four of its former students and an ex-principal over an alleged trademark violation for a racial justice-themed podcast the students created, DPS is violating its own professed principles and making itself look like a big, bad bully. 

All in the cause of what, exactly?

There could not be a clearer case of tunnel vision. Some genius or geniuses inside district headquarters must think that they have the law on their side and that allowing students to profit, maybe, someday, from ideas created on district time using district equipment sets a dangerous, slippery slope precedent.

Is anyone steering this rudderless ship?

There also could not be a clearer case of being dead wrong from a moral perspective, even if the legal argument is technically correct and the district eventually prevails in court. 

Good for the students for turning around and suing the district in federal court.

On Aug. 24, the district’s deputy general counsel wrote former Dr. Martin Luther King Early College Principal Kimberly Grayson, demanding that she 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.

“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,” the letter said. “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.”

The students’ work prompted major changes in DPS curriculum, but apparently in this bureaucracy, no good deed goes unpunished. 

As Chalkbeat reported this week, “The students’ advocacy spurred the Denver school board to order the district to diversify its curriculum to include Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous history. The students also participated virtually in a White House summit on educational equity.”

Who authorized this absurd legal assault? Was Superintendent Alex Marrero even aware it was happening? If so, he needs to explain himself immediately. If not, he’s making new Denver Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett look like a management genius.

Kudos to board Vice President Auon’tai Anderson for stepping up and criticizing the district for wasting time and money hounding and attempting to intimidate teenagers and Grayson, who by all accounts set an example for what a school leader should be.

“This should be the last thing we are putting district resources towards,” Anderson said in a statement.

An out-of-town friend who read Boardhawk’s scoop on the issue earlier this week wrote to me and summed it up nicely. “Wouldn’t (DPS) get better press by clubbing baby seals to death in front of PETA headquarters?”

Yesterday, three of the students held a press conference and in calm, measured tones destroyed any fraying thread of credibility DPS might have on this issue. “They want to say, we support student equity, we support students taking initiative, etc.,” said Kaliah Yizar, one of the students. “(But) the message to students in DPS and everywhere is that you can do what you want, but don’t go too far.”

Over the past few years, DPS officials and board members have contributed to global warming with all the hot air they have expelled expounding on educational equity, Black excellence, and the dismantling of oppressive systems. 

All worthy goals, to be sure. All empty words, evidently.

Actions speak louder than words, DPS. The entire Denver community should rise up and call B.S. on your rhetoric until you start walking your talk. 

This episode demonstrates that students like the four brilliant young women who created the podcast succeed because of leaders like Grayson and inspirational teachers. Central administrators play at best an indirect and at times a counterproductive role.

DPS should drop its threatening posture immediately, apologize to the students and Grayson, and get on with the business of trying to improve its less than stellar record of educating the kids entrusted to them by tens of thousands of parents.

Alan Gottlieb
Alan Gottlieb
Alan Gottlieb is Boardhawk’s editor. Alan has been a Denver-based journalist for more than 30 years. He covered DPS for the Denver Post in the mid-1990s, worked as an education program officer for The Piton Foundation, and co-founded Education News Colorado and Chalkbeat. For the past five years, he has worked as a contract writer and communications consultant.

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