APS prep school staff distressed by lack of regret for student mocking incident

Some Aurora West College Preparatory Academy employees are concerned about the response to an incident in which adminsitrators made fun of a student during a development training.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | Employees at Aurora West College Preparatory Academy are concerned about what they say is an inadequate response to an incident where school administrators made fun of a disabled middle school student during a professional development training. 

During public comment at the Nov. 15 Aurora Public Schools board of education meeting, three Aurora West staff members asked the board to investigate the situation, which they said the school’s administration has handled poorly. The employees also spoke on the record with The Sentinel. Aurora West is an APS public school serving students grades six through 12.

Tim Hernandez, a first-year teacher at Aurora West, said during public comment that on Nov. 9 the school administration held an all-staff professional development training focused on restorative practices. Trainers went over ways that employees could de-escalate situations where students are being disruptive or aggressive.

At one point, a middle school administrator and an educational technician decided to act out a scenario, with one of them pretending to be a teacher and the other a student. Hernandez said that the middle school administrator chose the name of an actual Aurora West student who has a disability and then made fun of his disability and behavior during the skit with mocking behavior.

Instructor Alfredo Juarez Jr., who also spoke during public comment, said that some of the employees in the audience laughed during the skit, but the incident made him and some others uncomfortable, particularly those who knew and worked with the student.

“You can do an example to show the staff how to handle certain situations, but to specifically pick on a student that has a disability and do actions that make people laugh was what I really didn’t find OK,” he said.

After the skit, Hernandez said he raised his hand in front of the entire staff and asked if the student had a disability. The three staff members told The Sentinel that the middle school administrator responded by saying “yes, and we love him anyway.” 

Middle school humanities teacher Cuauhtli Valdez, the third Aurora West employee to speak at public comment, said that after the training a number of employees followed the appropriate procedures for bringing up a concern to leadership and decided to speak publicly at the board meeting because they did not feel like their concern had been addressed. 

“From multiple meetings that we’ve had with the leadership, it’s been almost a stonewall of communication, of accountability,” he said. “We have not seen anything that makes me, at least, feel comfortable knowing this situation has been resolved.”

Hernandez asked the board “for accountability and integrity.”

“I believe that to have a school district that operates in the favor of our students, we have to take the instances that we fail very seriously,” he said.

The day after the training, Associate Principal Andrea Burrell and Principal Garrett Douglas sent emails to the staff addressing the situation. Follow-up meetings were held on Thursday and Friday.

Burrell, one of the people in the skit, said she did not intend to deride the student.

“I understand some of the staff were uncomfortable and felt I was ‘mocking’ a student,” she said in an email shared with The Sentinel. “Please know this was never my intent, my intent was to show any student in the building can benefit from RP (restorative practices) language. I apologize for the oversight of how it may have looked and the usage of a specific student. I hope that you will take away the usefulness of RP and give me grace for my presentation at the moment.”

Hernandez said that during the follow up meetings, the administration acted defensively and provided little information about whether anything was being done, although he said they were told that the student’s parents had been contacted.

Despite the follow-up after the fact, the staff members said no one in the administration had genuinely apologized for what happened or acknowledged that it was inappropriate. Nobody was “willing to take accountability for what happened,” Hernandez said.

Juarez, who has been at Aurora West since 2018, said the situation was part of what he feels is an ongoing pattern at the school where there is a lack of communication and follow-up from the administration after incidents happen. He also said there has been frequent turnover in school leadership during his time there.

When a dean at Aurora West brought a gun to school in 2019, Juarez said he wasn’t told by the administration that the perpetrator was his direct supervisor, and instead found out from the news.

He said he was particularly bothered by the skit because the school administrators are supposed to set an example for the teachers and staff.

“If you hurt a kid, that stays with them,” he said. “It’s us that they look up to.”

Near the end of the school board meeting, board member Nichelle Ortiz asked Superintendent Rico Munn what the district’s policy for reviewing those situations are.

Munn said there was not much he could say publicly about the incident, but that steps involved could include making an HR report or filing a complaint. 

“We’ll make sure the appropriate steps are being followed, and will be looking into and following up on the information that we received,” he said.

In response to a question from board member Vicki Reinhard, he said he had no knowledge of the incident until the board meeting. Hernandez said that a handful of staff members had submitted anonymous whistleblower reports after the training, which he believed went directly to the superintendent’s office. District spokesperson Corey Christiansen told The Sentinel that whistleblower complaints go to APS’ internal audit office.

Burrell contacted The Sentinel to dispute the staff members’ description of what happened but later declined to be interviewed directly, saying that the district’s communication department would be providing information instead.

On Friday, the district provided the following statement: “A recent training at Aurora West focused on giving staff members strategies to properly engage and support students when they exhibit challenging behaviors. The training included hypothetical role-play scenarios. A few staff members voiced concerns that the scenarios were based on current students. When staff members voiced these concerns, Aurora West leaders met with them to address their concerns. School leaders will continue to work with staff on best practices in supporting all Aurora West students. In addition, leaders will continue to provide staff with opportunities to work together to address concerns.”

Since the board meeting, the three staff members said they have not heard anything else from Aurora West administrators, the school board nor the district.

Valdez said the experience has been frustrating.

“We’re all here to serve our students and make them feel safe and protected and help them do the best they can,” he said. “It doesn’t seem like our administration is fostering that kind of community based on how they’ve addressed the situation.”

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