Last week, we put forth a poll asking you to select the Top 10 most disturbing stories out of the 30 that we selected from the current Jeffco School Board majority’s tenure. We presented many that didn’t make the cut; and they were troubling enough. Today we begin the Top 10, as voted on by more than 400 people.
#10: Witt and Newkirk Call Jeffco Students “Ignorant” and “Pawns”
What Happened: After Julie Williams’ clumsy, misinformed, and shocking proposal to review AP U.S. History to reduce references to “social discord” and “civil disobedience,” teacher and student walkouts ensued, garnering enormous local attention, as well as national and international attention. Instead of trying to neutralize Williams, John Newkirk and Ken Witt instead went on a media tour attacking the students. Witt stated on radio and TV that the students were “pawns” of the teachers’ association, and Newkirk blamed student “ignorance” as the root of their discontent. This quickly doubled the anger of the students, and many parents, who couldn’t believe that the elected school board would diminish the intelligence of the students they serve, and imply that the students couldn’t think for themselves. Especially because there was so little to support Witt and Newkirk’s position, community reaction was fierce, with “Pawn” shirts selling like hotcakes and the term becoming a rallying cry.
Why It Mattered: The headline story was, of course, Williams’ proposal, which we’ll see later in this Top 10. We still believe that it wouldn’t have gotten “legs” as much as it did if Witt and Newkirk had handled things differently. They could have denounced the proposal strongly and immediately; instead they only did so weakly and tentatively. Rather, they prioritized politics and allegiance to Julie Williams over the students they serve.
Their verbal assault on the students was not only wrong factually, but bad politics in so many ways. Factually, the pair kept asserting that the teachers “obviously” encouraged the students to walk out. Despite their allies having cameras out all over Jeffco for days trying to “catch” students looking bad, they couldn’t produce any evidence. Student after student told the media and bystanders that they were not encouraged by their teachers, and in fact many said that their teachers discouraged it. With many hours of filming, Witt and Newkirk’s allies got just one student to hint once that their teacher may have thought it was a positive thing for them to be doing. In a district of 4,000 teachers, and thousands of students walking out, that’s about as thin as it gets. The school board’s supporters also mocked the students as just wanting to get out of class, even though most knew about the basic issues at stake and were genuinely angry or concerned. This added to the insult, of course.
When a school board is battling massive numbers of its own students, and demeaning their intelligence, the winner won’t usually be the school board. We’re not saying that things would have ended well for WNW with this situation, but they lost all trust from a huge portion of the community when they turned their fire on the students.
For this poll, we actually split the AP U.S. History story into two different stories, because we believed that Witt’s and Newkirk’s responses were so pivotal and telling as a separate story that doubled the impact of the original proposal, and indicated to the community where their allegiances really lied. Apparently you agreed.
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.”