Somewhere around 10 or 10:30 at night on April 20, 1999, I got a phone call from a reporter. I can’t remember whether it was the Denver Post or Rocky Mountain News. It doesn’t really matter.
I was watching TV, vacillating back and forth between crying and staring glassy-eyed at the screen and searching fruitlessly for faces I knew, at some level, I’d never see again. I was thinking about one of my students, worried that she would be left outside in the snow overnight, with no one there to put a blanket on her. Never mind that she could no longer feel the cold. I knew I had kids still in the library, and I was irrationally glad they had a roof over their heads and were surrounded by books, not that these could help them. That’s what was going on when the reporter called.
He said he just wanted to confirm a few facts: The Trench Coat Mafia was a group of about 30 kids, right? No, I explained. It was a group of maybe 8-10 kids. They were Goth and wore makeup, right? No. I knew one who had painted his nails black one day because he’d lost a bet. They listened to Marilyn Manson? None of the kids from that group that I knew did.
The next day, the article came out. Basically, it reported that the Trench Coat Mafia was a group of 30 or so kids who were Goth, wore makeup, and listened to Marilyn Manson. In the weeks that followed, this myth and others would be completely debunked, but many who read those first news articles refused to budge in their thinking. To this day, people who have never been anywhere near Columbine High School try to tell me, a teacher there since 1986, all about the Trench Coat Mafia and what happened to me and my school on April 20th. So what if I was there? What do I know? They read the news!
I haven’t watched television news in over 16 years. What I know about TV news broadcasts comes from posts on Facebook. I read the Times, but I try not to judge what happened in a major event for several days, knowing the first reports will invariably be inaccurate. I place almost no faith in our local paper.
Once again, I find myself on the inside looking out. I listened to a former district employee go on the radio and lie. Okay, embellish the truth. Omit certain critical facts. A fake Twitter account set up in her name? The Twitter handle to which she referred was her name preceded by the word “not.” Now, I’m not a fan of anonymous posts (notice my real name at the top of this page), but whoever owns that handle has made it clear that the one person it is not is this employee. As the woman detailed a supposedly racist comment on the account, she substantially embellished the details. I saw that post, because someone showed it to me. A very close paraphrase is this: These board meetings go so long, I get hungry. I wish we had a contract with the Burrito Guy.
That’s it. No So-and-so’s “insatiable desire for burritos and guacamole” as the woman (a Latina—hence the “racist” angle) told the talk show host. Just a Twitterer’s (is that the word?) hunger during the course of a meeting that ran from 6 p.m. until after midnight.
In an effort to discredit a student activist, the board majority put up an overhead projection of a carefully blended amalgam of three different images—a picture of the student with the board minority from one source, and two responses to completely different Twitter posts taken out of context—creating a libelous narrative around her that didn’t actually exist. The district “investigated” and said this wasn’t bullying. If I did such a thing to a student, I would lose my job, as well I should.
Channel Seven News cheerfully reported: “Teachers in Jefferson County School District closer to new contract ensuring 40-hour work week.” They go on to quote the proposed agreement: “The Scheduling Committee will develop schedules that account for no more than 40 hours of the work week.”
Now, let’s look at our last contract: “All teachers on the regular salary schedule may be assigned teaching and school-related duties for a maximum of forty (40) hours per week, including duty-free lunchtime.”
This is a “new contract ensuring 40-hour work week”? Yes, the contract is new, but that headline is designed to make it appear that it has done teachers huge new favors for which we are ungrateful.
I know that as the recall heats up, some people will tell me that “the union” says racist things. People I talk to will bring up the “fact” that we have a “new” contract guaranteeing a 40-hour work week, and complain that they have to work many more hours than that. They won’t have read (or at least won’t remember) the part of the new agreement that says, “The parties acknowledge that educators work outside the scheduled workweek to accomplish tasks to support learning and teaching.”
(By the way, I honestly don’t know who is behind the Twitter accounts that use district names with the word “not” in front of them. I imagine they are individual union members. I have seen at least one post I felt was cruel, and I most certainly do not approve of cruelty.)
I am on the union board of directors. As a union leader, I voluntarily gave up my right as a citizen in a free democracy to carry a recall petition because we, as a board, agreed that there must be a real and visible wall between our association and Jeffco United for Action, which is the organization behind the recall. I’m on the inside. I know with absolute certainty that Jeffco United for Action is not a union front. I know Wendy McCord is not a “union lawyer,” as board majority supporters have taken to labeling her. I’m not sure how to respond to the notion that she is somehow not a Jeffco mom, but rather an agitator. She is a real Jeffco mom who is genuinely agitated about her community’s schools. The two are not mutually exclusive.
Something is different this time, though. In 1999, we were told not to talk to the media. We were discouraged from speaking the truth publicly. It was a highly emotional time, fraught with trauma. This time there have been a whole lot of people with open eyes and clear heads attending school board meetings and witnessing first-hand the lack of respect from the school board majority. People have leaked and CORAed documents that prove the lack of transparency on behalf of the board majority. Citizens are tallying for themselves the amount of money this board majority has wasted in the last year and a half. I still may have little faith in the media, but I have tremendous faith in our citizens.