DENVER (AP) — As a new wave of young protesters in suburban Denver rallied against an education proposal to promote patriotism and downplay civil disobedience, the district's school board president said Thursday that students were being misinformed and used as "pawns."
Ken Witt, head of the Jefferson County Board of Education, said teachers are upset over a compensation plan and supporting the demonstrations as pretext for union demands.
"It's never OK to use kids as pawns," Witt said, adding that some students wrongly believe issues such as slavery will be eliminated from history classes under the disputed proposal.
Students across a majority of the district's 17 high schools have walked out of classes in droves each day this week waving signs and flags in protests organized by word-of-mouth and social media.
The student demonstrations in the state's second-largest school district picked up after dozens of teachers upset over the history proposal and other issues, including a merit-based compensation package they consider unfair, called in sick Friday in a protest that shut down two schools.
Hundreds of students gathered on a busy highway overpass Thursday, holding signs with messages that included "teach us the truth" and "the greatness of America is the right to protest for rights," a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.
The Jefferson County school board plan laid out a week ago during a meeting that also included a vote to link teacher pay raises to evaluation results would establish a committee to review texts and coursework. Starting with Advanced Placement history, the panel would make sure materials "promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights" and don't "encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law."
The plan was drafted in response to a new set of history standards adopted by the College Board, a national panel that administers Advanced Placement programs.
The curriculum gives more attention to minorities, Native Americans and early American history, before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Supporters say it's also more focused on discussion and critical thinking as opposed to memorization. Critics have said the new framework could place outsized emphasis on the nation's problems.
Witt said having more people discuss coursework will benefit students. "The goal is an effective and broad review to make sure we have a fair and balanced curriculum," he said.
He added that the proposal could be revised with changes that include dropping the patriotism language. Witt also said the disputed Advanced Placement history program could be eliminated entirely if the review board decides it's not appropriate for the district, pointing to recent actions in Texas where the state education board has voted to limit the influence of Advanced Placement classes over what it considers anti-American bias in the curriculum.
School administrators have taken a hands-off approach to the youth demonstrations and say they have no plans to punish participants. The next school board meeting is set for Oct. 2.
Vanessa Ridge, a 16-year-old at Dakota Ridge High School, joined those lining the pedestrian bridge Thursday.
She decided to protest for the second straight day after growing frustrated by a school meeting aimed at answering student concerns. She said officials couldn't offer any concrete answers about the future of the proposal.
She said her teachers, seeing Facebook posts about protest plans, have asked students whether they intend to participate, but none have instructed her to take part.
Her mother, however, has been encouraging.
"My mom is very proud of me," Ridge said, "that I'm standing up for what I believe."