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Montezuma-Cortez students protest after principal is put on leave

Students voiced their concerns over teacher retention and Principal Emily Moreland being put on administrative leave. (Bailey Duran/Special to the Journal)
Students walk out of class for an hour Thursday morning

On Thursday morning, a group of students at Montezuma-Cortez High School walked out of their classes in protest after Principal Emily Moreland was placed on administrative leave and to call attention to questions of teacher retention, growing class sizes and at-risk electives.

In an email April 19, Superintendent Tom Burris announced “a change in the leadership of the high school.”

“Student discipline issues will be handled by a certified administrator,” the email said. It said that beginning April 20, that Burris, Assistant Superintendent Eddie Ramirez and former Manaugh Assistant Principal Robbin Lewis would fill in to support staff and Assistant Principal Jennifer Boniface.”

At 8:30 a.m. Thursday, a group of 20 to 30 students stood outside the school holding signs that read, “Save Art!” “Our Teachers Support Us. We Support Them,” and “How Can We Come First When Our Educators Come Last?”

Many students at the walkout held handmade signs. (Bailey Duran/Special to the Journal)

The students talked passionately about developments at the school, along with voicing their frustration with the school board and superintendent.

Olivia Durall, an M-CHS senior, spoke of her disappointment as graduation approached.

“The last month before we’re done. We’re almost done!” she said. “I’m tired of losing teachers I love and adore.”

She said she believed Moreland actively worked to bridge the divide between students.

“The divide is real, and the divide is present. I feel like Miss Moreland was genuinely, wholeheartedly trying to bring us together the best way that she knew how,” Durall said.

“I don’t want to receive my diploma from someone I don’t know and haven’t seen this year. I want to receive it from someone who cares about me,” she said.

Simeon, another senior, said the instability in leadership hurts students as they prepare to graduate and move on to the next step of life.

“It kind of feels like everything is falling apart right before I graduate,” he said, “like all the progress is made and we have to start over with only a month of school left.”

About a half-hour into the walkout, Boniface spoke over the intercom to urge students to return to class, but the walkout continued.

Soon, Boniface and a school receptionist went outside to urge students to return to class, telling them that they were “being watched.”

“We hear you and we love you. You made your point, but please come back to class,” they said.

Students stayed outside for another 30 minutes or so, returning to classes about 9:30 a.m.

Freshmen and sophomores also participated, saying they hoped they would be able to see a change in the school for their upcoming years in high school. One, who identified himself as Cruz, a sophomore, said he wanted to help encourage positive change.

“These issues keep coming, and nothing is getting questioned or changed,” he said.

Before the walkout, parents received an email from Burris speaking to the nature of the walkout. The same message was posted to Facebook, but later deleted.

In the email, he stated that Moreland submitted her resignation just after spring break.

“There is talk of a student walkout in the morning,” the email said. “While I appreciate First Amendment rights, I would also ask that you as parents know what the issues might be. Much of this has been instigated by a handful of teachers at MCHS. This is a violation of their professional oath and will be investigated. Teachers need to teach and students need to learn.”

Students mentioned the email and post several times.

“There was an email sent out to parents saying that a group of teachers instigated this walkout. That is not true; we organized this ourselves,” junior Keira Camp said.

“We cannot learn if there are no teachers. I’m a junior; I don’t want my last year to be horrible because of all of this, Camp said. “I want to go into my senior year excited.”

Teachers received an email from Burris Wednesday night.

“I have been told that there are teachers who are encouraging students to protest tomorrow,” it said. “To encourage this would be a direct contradiction of the educator code of ethics and potentially could have an impact on a person's career. It is completely unacceptable to bring students into an adult situation.”

“As far as cutting teaching positions, we need to respond to dropping student numbers, we need to adjust and will do this by attrition. PERIOD anyone who wants to work here will have a job,” another part of the email said.

A parent who provided the email to The Journal disagreed with Burris’ message.

“The truth is no, he is not getting rid of teachers, but he is not helping our current teachers by getting them co-workers to take the burden of student numbers. Fewer teachers means much bigger classes and decreased quality of education.”

“And his statement of ‘anyone who wants to work here will have a job,’ has already been proven wrong by his actions in putting Emily Moreland on ‘administrative leave’ for the rest of the year. … She tried to advocate for her students and staff, and it got her in trouble,” she said.

Students also were concerned about the fate of elective courses. One student, who didn’t give her name for fear of retaliation against school staff, feared the loss of art classes and other electives. She noted that she hopes to pursue art in college and as a career.

“I’m an artist,” she said, “and if my art classes are taken away, what am I going to do? I can’t do ag,” she joked. “I’m not outdoorsy.”

Caden Cote, a senior who didn’t participate in the walkout, said he agreed with students who protested but thought some were marching without knowing the full story of what has been going on.

“A lot of students were frustrated that they were going to lose our only good teachers,” Cote said. “Teachers do not get paid well enough for the problems they deal with. Our county is one of the lowest when it comes to teacher pay, so many are moving on.”

“In my eyes, I feel teachers here should be treated way better than they are,” he finished.

Burris, who responded to The Journal via email after the walkout, said it was not true that electives were being removed, even though the Facebook post said that “not all elective classes” were being cut.

“Absolutely false. In fact, we are hiring an additional band teacher and an additional agriculture/woods teacher,” Burris said.

It was not clear which electives were at risk.

Burris emailed the Code of Ethics for Educators, which was developed by the AAE Advisory Board and Executive Committee of the Association of American Educators.

An MCHS teacher emailed the Colorado Department of Education’s requirements, which states that teachers are required to take an oath when being hired in a full-time position.

According to the teacher it reads:

“Senate Bill 17-296 requires that all Colorado public school educators (except those who are employed in a temporary capacity and who are citizens of nations other than the United States, and non-educators, such as transportation staff), shall take or sign an oath to uphold both the U.S. and the Colorado constitutions.”

“This requirement takes effect upon hire at the district or charter school level, and an individual need only take this oath once during the term of employment (though it may certainly be included in annual contract verbiage). It may be administered by an individual authorized to administer oaths in the state of Colorado and attested to orally, or a teacher may sign a written pledge (which need not be notarized).”

A few teachers at the school said they didn’t take an oath when they were hired for their positions.

Burris has not responded to The Journal regarding his thoughts on the walkout and which, if any, electives might be eliminated.