EL PASO COUNTY, Colorado — Students and staff returning from holiday break were greeted with protests Wednesday morning at the Liberty Tree Academy in Peyton.
“Our goal is to show how serious we are about our school which we love and how much we believe our school represents the ideals of America and representation,” said parent Wendy Cross.
Many of the protestors are upset with the charter board for its handling of disciplinary action against four administrators including principal Shannon Wilson and Dean of Students Dr. Andy Killingsworth.
The board hired an outside investigator in October to look into allegations that administrators created a hostile work environment, and engaged in threatening or intimidating behavior among other accusations.
“They came in, escorted them out. We did not know what was going on," explained Angela Maldonado, a First Grade Teacher who joined the protests.
"The next day we had to face our parents. We didn’t know what was going on as the staff. We didn’t have answers for our parents and it’s just been turmoil since then.”
The investigator completed a report to the board in December. The board recently fired two of the four administrators, Dean Killsingworth’s wife, Janet, who worked as an administrative assistant and funds developer, and principal Wilson’s mother-in-law Jeanette Hands, the school's Director of Finance and Operations.
Attorney Dustin Sparks represents Liberty Tree Academy and Told News 5 that Dean Killingsworth and Principal Wilson were put on corrective action plans. However, two school leaders subsequently sent the board letters refusing to return to work unless the current board resigns.
Sparks explained that the board considers letters to be evidence that Killingsworth and Wilson are abandoning the school and leaving it without leadership. A special board meeting will be held Wednesday evening to discuss insubordination and job abandonment.
Liberty Tree Academy is chartered by School District 49 and serves roughly 700 students from kindergarten through 12th grade. It opened in the 2017-2018 academic year offering families, "a traditional American education."
The investigator found a high level of support for an accusation of inappropriate conduct by Mrs. Hands who allegedly grabbed a board member by the arm in the hall outside of a board meeting.
"She supposedly pushed him into a closet then verbally berated him," the report states.
The investigator also found high levels of support in response to claims of nepotism and favoritism within the school's administration. It found that certain individuals who were reported for dress code violations had their body type mentioned. Multiple staff members were reportedly denied time off for medical necessities or told to come in even when they were sick.
Despite these findings, the parents who took part in the protests shared frustration that the board is not accountable to voters.
“We’re out here to protest the board which is overtaking our school and is unaccountable,” said Cross.
"We need a board that's going to be elected and accountable, that's the biggest reason," added parent Dan Arguello.
The school's charter gives board members choose their replacements rather than holding an election. Those governing documents were drafted by the Burt Hands, the former board president who is principal Wilson's father and Jeanette Hands' husband.
The protestors were also angry with Board President Michelle Morin who was recorded on school security cameras speaking disparagingly about parents who spoke out during a board meeting.
“These people are … and they’re really dumb too. I’m sorry. They’re really dumb and they don’t know what they’re doing,” she appears to say.
The video was edited with captions and spliced to make Morin repeat her words. It was shared in a Facebook group called Liberty Tree Academy Truth.
Morin issued a statement Tuesday which reads in part:
“I do not believe the LTA parents are dumb. In fact, based on our mutual love for Liberty Tree Academy and the values it teaches our students, I think we likely have a similar worldview and share many of the same intellectual passions."
"My word choices were made out of extreme frustration caused by not being able to conduct the LTA Board business in a more orderly fashion and my passion for standing up against what I perceive as bullying of some LTA staff," she continued.
Sparks, the Liberty Tree Academy attorney, said that the school reported the release of the surveillance video to the Colorado Attorney General's Office as a data breach. He explained that the school security cameras also have access to video of students which is. protected from release under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
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