Corrected: An earlier version of this story misstated the term “iron fist” when quoting Iris Halpern who represented a group of students who were suspended for protesting peacefully.
By many measures, Victory Preparatory Academy, a small charter high school located in a north Denver suburb, is a success.
It’s academically high-performing, has won state and local awards, and has aggressively marketed itself as an alternative to another traditional public high school nearby.
But by late 2017, seniors at the high school had grown frustrated by the school’s limited extracurriculars, lack of spirit activities, and punishments for late homework. Inspired by pro football player Colin Kaepernick’s widely covered “take a knee” protests, they decided to press their case through a small but significant act of civil disobedience.
During morning assembly on Sept. 28 of that year, the school’s 15 or so seniors sat down quietly, rather than recite VPA’s “challenge,” a pledge in which they commit to do their best for “myself, my family, my school, and my community.” Some lowerclassmen followed suit.
It was a perfect moment for the school to begin a “teachable moment” about the nature of civic protest or the First Amendment, or to open a dialogue about student-administrator relationships. After all, the students had come prepared with a short letter proposing changes, and they’d protested respectfully.
But the school’s administration took another tack.
A VPA administrator allegedly yelled at the students to stand up and recite the challenge; eventually, they sent every high school student home for the day. Within days, administrators demanded that several parents sign papers withdrawing their children from school. Some of the students and families would later sue on free-speech and due-process grounds.
“We just didn’t like how we were being treated,” recalled Beverly Felipe, a student plaintiff in the lawsuit. “It was very unfair. We wanted some change in the school and we were hopeful that it was going to happen.”
What unfolded at this Colorado school seems extreme. But at its heart, is it fundamentally unusual?
In the midst of debates over what students should learn in civics and how to deliver those lessons, civics education advocates risk missing the larger context: Compulsory K-12 schooling itself makes up the most intensive interaction the average American will have with a civic institution—far outpacing the time spent filling in a ballot, sitting in a jury box, or waiting in line at the DMV.
And as Felipe—who wound up graduating from a different high school—and her peers learned, American public schools sometimes engage in practices that can seem terribly undemocratic.
All but absent from the growing civics education conversation is the recognition that everyday interactions in schools also inform students’ civic development, and that often those interactions tell a totally different story about individuals’ rights from the government textbooks used in class.
In 2019 alone, four black girls in Binghamton, N.Y., were allegedly strip-searched by white school officials. In New Jersey, a high schooler claimed she was threatened with suspension for wearing a traditional Nigerian head wrap. And a California student sued the Fresno district after officials prohibited her from wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat.
Such incidents have fueled loud, contentious, and emotional debates about student discipline, safety, and racism. They also point to a weakness at the heart of public schools’ civic mission.
“If students don’t live in an environment that respects and fosters an appreciation of their constitutional rights, the danger is that they’ll grow up into adults that don’t understand and appreciate constitutional rights,” said David L. Hudson Jr., an associate professor of legal practice at Belmont University in Tennessee and a longtime scholar of students’ free-speech rights. “And I think that would be tragic for the country.”
There’s an inherent tension in the idea that schools should both teach civics and model them.
By definition, schools have to balance students’ rights with their own interest in creating an environment where students can learn, which is why they can prohibit students from interrupting teachers or bringing weapons to school. But as the famous 1969 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Tinker v. Des Moines case established, students do maintain some constitutional rights.
The problem, argues Justin Driver, a professor of law at the University of Chicago, is that in the subsequent half-century of rulings, the Supreme Court has tilted the balance away from students.
Students don’t always have to be given their Miranda warning when being questioned by police officers at school, he noted. They can have their lockers searched and be required to take drug tests to participate in clubs or sports. They can be paddled in more than a dozen states.
In effect, he said, schools can and often do legally engage in practices that can seem inconsistent, if not hypocritical, to students—at a crucial moment in their civic development.
“This is their first sustained exposure to a governmental entity for sustained periods of time,” Driver said. “If schools are dishonoring constitutional rights, it teaches them very negative things about the government and the constitutional order as a whole.”
Viewed through that lens, the situation at Victory Preparatory Academy presents two distinct, though interrelated questions.
First, did administrators’ decision to send all the students home for a day—and require others to withdraw—pass legal muster?
And second: Did it pass civic muster?
Founded in 2013, VPA serves about 140 mostly Hispanic students, many of whom are learning English or qualify for school meals. Though not part of a national charter school network, the school shares DNA with other charters that pair rigorous academics with school uniforms and a strict code of conduct.
The students bringing the lawsuit largely agreed that the school’s academics were rigorous. They also described the learning environment as stifling.
“For me, it was constantly being, not pressured, but having to be focused entirely on education and not having those other extracurricular activities, spirit week, homecoming,” said Emilio Flores, an 11th grader at the time. “They were really strict on giving out [discipline] referrals and didn’t care if you had a reason.”
Education Week interviewed four former VPA teachers who witnessed what happened on Sept. 28, 2017. Some had filed declarations on behalf of the students; others had not. All concurred that the students were well prepared and respectful during the protest, even when administrators lost their cool.
“I was very impressed. It was like, ‘Oh my God, if this is high schoolers across America, this generation is going to make some positive changes in the world,’ ” said Katie Strange, then a brand-new calculus teacher at the school. “It was kind of beautiful.” (VPA did not renew her contract at the end of the 2017-18 school year, though Strange said she’d already decided not to return.)
Shortly after the protest, the seniors were recalled from their classrooms for a second assembly, where students handed over their letter. The school’s principal and CEO, Ron Jajdelski, then sent all of the high school’s students home to think about whether they wanted to continue at VPA.
In the filings, Jajdelski said he also did so for safety reasons “based on the level of the students’ agitation.” But the teachers said that students only got upset after they were all dismissed—and for good reasons.
“Most of their parents are on hourly jobs and risk losing their jobs if they have to leave to pick their child up. Or they don’t necessarily side with Ron but are so scared that this is their kid’s only chance to go to college that they’re going to be angry,” said Diane Popenhagen, an English teacher who witnessed the events. “There were a lot of tears.” (VPA fired her several months after the protest for performance reasons; Popenhagen said the school accused her of helping students organize the protest, which she denies.)
Things apparently got worse the following week One junior made an off-color remark about Jajdelski on a social-media account; other students shared or “liked” it. Felipe, meanwhile, published a social-media post encouraging students to keep protesting. School officials were allegedly watching.
In a declaration filed with the court, Wade Cole, then the activities director at the school, says he was told by administrators to monitor students’ Facebook posts regarding the protest. Several students were later suspended for sharing or liking those posts. (In the court filings, Jajdelski contested Cole’s account. Cole, who was fired from VPA in 2018 and now works at a different Colorado school, did not respond to requests for comment.)
By early October, at least two VPA students were compelled to leave the school permanently.
Felipe, now 19, said she was accused by administrators of being the ringleader of the protests and of bullying students into participating.
Ultimately, her father signed paperwork administrators had prepared withdrawing her from school. But Felipe said the decision wasn’t her father’s idea: It adhered to a long-standing policy detailed in the school’s student handbook requiring parents to voluntarily withdraw their children if any family member “displays any inappropriate conduct directed at the school or school personnel,” as determined by administrators.
The policy means that these withdrawals aren’t counted as expulsions and don’t show up in state data. (Officials at the Colorado Charter School Institute, which authorizes VPA High and 38 other schools in the state, conceded that the charter’s withdrawal policy is “unusual.”)
For Felipe, the ramifications of leaving were soul-crushing.
“I felt like I was disappointing my parents and I was almost feeling regretful for having a protest,” Felipe said. “I was just so scared: How am I going to get into college? It’s the moment when I have to apply to college, and I don’t have a high school diploma. What if I don’t even graduate? “
Jajdelski and other VPA officials deny the charges in the lawsuit. Through their lawyer, they declined several requests to discuss the issues in the lawsuit on the record. In the legal filings, they claim “qualified immunity,” which assumes that public officials are acting in good faith on unsettled areas of law, including how far students’ free-speech rights stretch. They also note that the students are free to enroll in other public schools.
Supreme Court rulings on First Amendment speech and civic protest are notoriously complex.
Administrators can punish students if their speech is vulgar, promotes drug use, or—in that grayest of areas—causes a “substantial disruption” to school activities. And lower courts have issued conflicting rulings about the extent of schools’ ability to censor or punish students’ off-campus and online speech.
There’s yet another wrinkle to the situation: Emilio’s parents, Joel and Mary Flores, are the publishers of La Prensa de Colorado, a Spanish-language paper, and when they arrived to pick up their son that day, they began interviewing students and were the first media outlet to cover the story. VPA administrators then barred them from school grounds, saying they were creating a “chaotic” environment. The Floreses have sued on First Amendment grounds, too, and their complaint is part of the same lawsuit.
This April, a judge denied a preliminary injunction seeking to end the withdrawal policy, but as of this writing, the students’ claims have yet to be litigated. Iris Halpern, a lawyer representing the students, said that regardless of whether her clients prevail, how VPA handled the protest is an object lesson in poor civics pedagogy.
“He suspended the whole entire high school, and for what? Because kids had a peaceful protest?” said Halpern. “The school punished students for voicing their concerns and ideas, conditioned them to disengage, and showed them the iron fist of authoritarianism dominates.”
As emotionally fraught as high-profile cases like this can be, experts point out that they’re really just the tip of the lived-civics iceberg.
A hodgepodge of state and local laws, regulations, and policies shape what students experience in schools far more than Supreme Court precedents.
Sometimes those guidelines are exceedingly prescriptive, and sometimes it’s their vagueness that has cut against students. In more than a dozen states, students can receive criminal or civil penalties for being “boisterous,” “disturbing school,” or “acting obnoxiously.”
There are also rules that are supposed to protect students but often go unenforced. New York state’s constitutional parameters and regulations guarantee students up-to-date textbooks, limited class sizes, and librarians in every high school. But few students are aware those rights exist.
That’s probably no coincidence, said Joe Rogers, the director of public engagement and government affairs at the Center for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University, which works to help students and parents understand those rights.
“The more information people have, the more they feel empowered and able to use that information—and the system will need to build its capacity to respond,” Rogers said.
Though U.S. public schools got started out of the belief that they were instrumental to the creation of a citizenry prepared for public life, it’s not a universally accepted belief that the goal of schooling should include modeling civic behaviors.
But for educators and administrators who do believe it, how can they start matching their policies to what’s taught in government class about equal treatment under the law, freedom from arbitrary rules, and a chance to be heard?
Here’s one bold idea: Ask students themselves to help identify problems.
Only a few years ago in Boston schools, it was common for administrators to lock tardy students out for the day, even when they had a good excuse, like public-transit issues.
Students had participated in drafting a new student code of conduct, in 2014, which clarified whether such penalties were permissible and emphasized keeping children in school. But its message was getting lost.
That’s when the Boston Student Advisory Council stepped up.
The council is an unusual student-voice initiative which for nearly two decades has been jointly administered by the district’s office of engagement and the nonprofit Youth on Board. Part sounding board and part advocacy group, the council is made up of students representing city high schools who gather weekly to discuss proposals affecting students and work on their own initiatives.
At the time, “a lot of budget cuts were happening, kids were getting suspended, and there was very little support or acknowledgement about the reasons you could suspend students,” said Denyse Wornum, 21, the president of the council in 2014-15. “There was a large frustration around the communication in schools and the invisible barrier there between teachers and students.”
At first, its volunteers created posters outlining some of students’ most important rights, but they got lost or pulled down at the end of the school year. They printed little accordion-folding reference cards for students’ wallets, but getting them into thousands of kids’ hands was a logistical nightmare.
Finally, they hit on a “brainwave": an online, easily accessible web-based app that details their rights in plain language.
The online resource details rights from the specific ones about tardiness and discipline to broader ones, including free-speech rights and the right to contribute to teachers’ evaluations. It can be called up on a mobile phone, and a 2016 update permits students to report alleged violations directly to the district’s office of equity, theoretically triggering an investigation within three days. For Wornum, who spearheaded the app’s launch, the project was personal: She had nearly slipped down the “school to prison pipeline” herself. She’d acted out, been tossed out of a Roman Catholic high school, and was accumulating a disciplinary record at her district school. Rather than suspend her, a firm but caring teacher asked Wornum to represent her school on the student advisory council.
Ultimately, she said, the app has allowed for more honest conversations between students and teachers.
“I look at the app as a vehicle for getting better information out,” agreed Maria Estrada, the district’s student-engagement manager for BSAC. “Because of that, I want to say more and more students are able to advocate, and adults are able to listen.”
The web app now counts more than 20,000 unique users, but both students and district staff acknowledge that there’s still work to be done to make sure knowledge translates into new school norms.
“We’ve done this communication, that you have these rights, and that these are [practices] that should be unacceptable,” said Elvis Rodriguez, one of the council’s current members. “But they’re still happening on a day-to-day basis.”
For one thing, district policy prohibits cellphone use in school, which means that a student could get in trouble for whipping one out to display the app to a teacher or administrator. (That’s a priority fix for council representatives.)
The other is a more general philosophical challenge: When districts empower students to use their voice and assert their rights, they are inviting a degree of tension, because sometimes students will say things administrators don’t like.
In 2016, Boston students, including some from the council, organized huge protests when the city was considering budget cuts, prompting a pointed back-and-forth in the media with the mayor, who appoints school board members.
“Sometimes we wait until it’s too late. We have issues, and students bring them up over and over, and then they want to make a drastic decision,” said Ebunoluwa Osinubi, a senior at New Mission High School and a council member, of students’ relationship with the board. “Next time, if water is dripping, don’t wait until there’s a puddle there.”
But there has been progress, too.
Rodriguez now sits on the committee conducting the city’s superintendent search. That’s a significant investment of trust, because he’s privy to internal deliberations that teachers, principals, and the media are excluded from.
Students are also learning that most advocacy takes time and compromise, said interim Superintendent Laura Perille.
“Advocacy means sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes you’re part of the solution,” Perille said. “And I think that is really what we owe our young people. It isn’t that we have to miraculously respond to everything they’ve said, but seriously consider it, and I also believe engage them in the complexity of the issues.”
Indeed, when the Boston Student Advisory Council started decades ago, most of its campaigns took less than a year and involved smaller-scale projects. But now it’s common for students to work on campaigns for years. Newer projects include a climate-change curriculum now in use in some city schools and a proposed overhaul to Boston’s dress-code guidance..
For all its imperfections, Boston has learned an important lesson: If you give students a real voice and tell them about their rights, they just might take you up on it.
Shortly after the 2017 incident at their school, students at Victory Preparatory Academy did get one thing they’d sought: a student council.
It lasted less than a year.
Administrators didn’t reconstitute the student council in 2018-19, Emilio Flores said.
The academic environment remains similar today, though there have been some positive changes, including teachers who seem to be more supportive, he said.
But other scars from the tumult endure.
Emilio wept when describing how his parents weren’t able to set foot on campus for most of the school year, including at soccer games.
“For me, it’s sad to see how your friends’ parents are there at games, and [yours] can’t be there for you,” he said. “Especially in soccer, because this is the last year. And I’ve played since freshman year.”
VPA administrators and the Floreses reached an agreement in late April to allow the parents to attend their son’s graduation. (In the court filings, VPA officials claim that the Floreses did not respond to earlier attempts to address the matter and to permit the parents to return to campus.)
Beverly Felipe struggled for two months after leaving VPA. She finally enrolled in another high school in Denver, where she missed VPA’s academics and disliked the impersonality of the new school.
“I hated it. It was a huge, huge school; all my teachers were surprised I’d be taking notes and rereading material. It was a depressive moment,” she said. “I didn’t want to go to school.”
Still, she persevered and graduated at the end of 2018 and is now a college freshman who plans to major in criminal justice.
One student who withdrew in the wake of the protest, identifed as V.S. in the complaint, is taking night classes toward a GED but has not re-enrolled in a regular high school.
Neither Emilio nor Beverly regrets their role in the student protest. “It’s a symbol of how we—not just we—but how students as a whole can have their voice heard and have changes in a school and not be afraid of their administrators,” he said. "[Students] can make things better.”
If Emilio’s right, it means administrators nationwide will need to listen to what students are saying. That’s a tall order, with discipline and safety at the top of their to-do lists.
It means trusting students, revisiting command-and-control rules and rigid consequences, and most of all, being willing to let students express themselves without fear of being shut down.
Because when administrators paddle a student, censor student-newspaper articles, write student dress codes aimed at particular cultures, or fail to involve students meaningfully in shaping school norms, they risk undercutting the principles they are supposed to be instilling.
“The balance between liberty and order is oftentimes difficult. But that’s the nature of living in a free society,” said Hudson, the First Amendment expert. “It goes back to what Justice Fortas wrote in the Tinker case: Free speech is a hazardous freedom.”
Librarian Maya Riser-Kositsky provided research assistance.
A version of this article appeared in the May 08, 2019 edition of Education Week as Schools Teach Civics. Do They Model It?