Two high-profile incidents in Colorado that raise questions about academic freedom have a counterpart in Cortez.
Shortly before winter break, a Montezuma-Cortez High School teacher was suspended for showing a travel video in which sex reared its ugly head in more ways than one.
In response to a student’s complaint, District Re-1 administrators on Dec. 18, 2005, placed Spanish teacher Allison Kercher on paid administrative leave, not even allowing her to return to the school that day to collect her belongings.
The video, shown to her class on Nov. 4, 2005, was part of the adventure travel series “Globe Trekker,” shown on PBS.
The segment on southern Spain begins with a visit to the city of Ronda and a traveling exhibit from the Spanish Inquisition era that focuses on witches. Walking through the museum, narrator Christina Chang relates briskly, “Witches were women who didn’t believe in Christian chastity. In fact they promoted sexual liberation with orgies, etc.”
Stopping in front of a chair with a protruding phallic-shaped implement, she says, “If you were a woman who owned this particular sexual tool and you used it in secrecy, then you were either considered a witch or someone who was affected by a witch. Or maybe you weren’t a witch at all and you were just a modern girl who liked to have a good time.
“So this is I think how this chair works. You sit on it, just turn the wheel like that, and it goes up and down just like that. Pretty self-explanatory. . .”
She turns a crank and the dildo moves up and down.
She moves on to describe a torture device known as the rack, then picks up a small implement and says, “This is a nipple-cutter — snipper — and this just lays across the breast like this.” She holds it toward her shirt. “Just pull that nipple right through and snip, snip.” She then matter-of-factly moves on to another torture device.
The segment in the torture museum lasts about 2 minutes. The remainder of the hour-long show is devoted to other aspects of southern Spain, including wind-surfing and local cuisine.
Kercher, a teacher in her second year at MCHS under a mentoring program through Western State University, said she showed a travel video every Friday afternoon to her beginning Spanish class and had shown this one to other classes. “I’d shown it last year and I showed it to all my other classes this last semester and there was no problem,” she told the Free Press.
Kercher said the DVD was in the school library and had been selected by the head of her department, Danny Gerlach, chair of the department/head Spanish teacher. “He had said there might be a [questionable] part in there but he had still shown the video,” Kercher said.
A freshman girl in the class was strongly offended by the torture-museum segment and told her mother, Jennifer Green of Cortez, who filled out a school complaint form Nov. 24, 2005.
“Mrs. Kercher showed my daughter and 2 other classes a very sexually explicit DVD,” she wrote on the form. In answer to what specific action she was requesting, she wrote, “I want the school board to review DVD. I would like to ask for the termination of (the) teacher. Severe reprimand or termination of Dept. Head (Denny Gerlach) who gave DVD to teacher knowing its contents. Apology to my child. Compensation for damages to her.”
Green told the Free Press that when she heard about the incident and later viewed the show, “I was scared for [my daughter]. I was very mad that she’d been violated that way.
“Sexual torture is just not something graphically you show children,” she said. “It’s just not.”
Part of history
District Re-1 “Movie and Video Guidelines” state that “a parent permission slip must be obtained for any materials not rated or pertaining to a potential controversial nature.”
Another district policy statement on “Teaching about Controversial/ Sensitive Issues” states, “Each teacher has the right and the obligation to teach about controversial issues. It is their responsibility to select issues for study and discussion which contribute to the attainment of course objectives…”
In a letter of response to the complaint, Kercher wrote that the video was not sexually explicit and was shown “with clear educational objectives in mind.”
“This segment is but brief and didn’t negate my purpose for showing this video, which was to expose my students to Spain, the cradle of Spanishspeaking civilization, and its history,” she wrote.
She added that she was never informed there was a district guideline stating the need for a parental permission slip to view videos “pertaining to a potential controversial nature.” She said she would follow guidelines in the future and would make sure everything she showed was either on an approved list or had a parental permission slip.
Kercher told the Free Press that she met with the girl and her parents, and they had questions about whether she would show the program again.
“I basically said that I was sorry that she was so offended by it but I wasn’t sorry for showing the movie. It was a part of history.”
Subsequently, Kersher was summoned to a meeting with MCHS Principal Ember Conley, Superintendent Stacy Houser, and assistant Superintendent Dave Crews.
“Basically they told me I could resign and they’d give me a good recommen- dation or I would be suspended with pay and they would report me to CDE (the Colorado Department of Education).
“That was at 10 o’clock in the morning on a Friday and I couldn’t go back to school to get my stuff.”
She said it occurred about a week before winter break. “I didn’t even get to finish the semester. They said it was best for the kids that I wasn’t there.”
A few weeks later, Kersher said, she did go back to the school to talk the matter over with administrators. “I said, ‘Was it because of the video?’ They said, ‘You keep thinking it’s the video when it was your communications skills with the parents.’
“Afterwards I was thinking, if it was that, then how come no one helped me? I had asked Ember before this meeting with the parents and [the student] if she could help me prepare for it. I asked if we needed mediation. She e-mailed back that she didn’t think it was necessary. I never had much support from the beginning.”
Kersher said, after she was put on leave, she was also told that she “needed to stay by the phone. I said, ‘What are you going to have me do?’ They said, ‘We thought you would substitute but then we thought that would defy the whole purpose of not being in school. Then we thought maybe you could tutor one-on-one.’ I said, ‘You want me to tutor when I’m not even allowed in the school?’ and they said, ‘Oh, good point’.”
Kersher will be paid through the end of the school year. She said she remains unhappy with how the situation was handled and worries how it will affect her career. “Because they wrote ‘very sexually explicit’ [on the complaint] it could prevent me from getting a job in the future as a teacher or working with children,” she said.
Green, on the other hand, likewise is not satisfied with way things were resolved. “They fired the teacher but they never gave my daughter anything. They didn’t offer her counseling, the whole school was against her, a lot of the teachers made remarks to her, they didn’t protect her from any of that.
“What I’m really upset about is no one’s contacted us. We got together and had a meeting with the teacher and all we asked for was an apology from the teacher. We got in there. . . and the teacher ridiculed my daughter. She was in tears when we left. She told her that she needed to grow up, she didn’t see anything wrong with the video, stuff like that.”
Green said if Kersher had said she’d made a mistake and wouldn’t repeat it, she would have been satisfied.
“If she had gone on about it that way …. but she wasn’t, she was callous, she saw no problem with it and I think that’s why the school got rid of her.”
The girl, a straight-A student, was sick with a stress-related illness for three months after the incident.
“It hurt her a lot. She got really sick.”
Her daughter has always been a public- school student, she said, but will be going to Lighthouse Baptist Christian school next year. “She’s asked us to pull her,” Green said — not because of the video itself but because of her treatment after the incident.
“The video was bad, but she’s a big girlt,” Green said. “I think what happened to her afterwards, the way she was treated, was worse. It dragged out for a long time. People were very mean to her. There was a write-up in the school paper pretty much aimed at her.
“It’s going to cost us $3,000 [in tuition] next year but when they ask, what do you do?”
But her daughter will finish the year at MCHS, she said. “The treatment has died down. She’s a tough kid, it’s not like she’s some little wuss.”
An editorial in the school’s March issue of the Panther Press, by managing editor Nelsa Burkett, stated, “One teacher got in trouble this year, for showing a movie that has been shown many times to students before. . . . Another teacher talked about a controversial personal experience during class time and was escorted off campus. . . .
“For our MCHS teachers, it only seems to take one comment from a student to be removed from class. Is that fair?”
Sensitive to standards
Superintendent Houser declined to discuss the action taken against Kersher, since it is a personnel issue, but did talk in general terms about student complaints and academic freedom. “Personnel decisions aren’t done in a vacuum,” Houser said, but rather “made on a body of evidence and done in the students’ best interest.”
He said of the video: “I thought it was objectionable. If my child had been in that class, I would not want my child to have seen it.”
He said it was not true that the entire travel program had been shown to students before.
“That’s not exactly true — the DVD itself had been shown before, [but] the portion of it that was shown in [Kersher’s] class had not been shown before.”
Houser said public-school systems have to remain more in tune with popular views than higher education does.
“Universities have a much higher standard of academic freedom than public schools do,” he said. “We have to be more sensitive to the predominant mores within a community, and go by community standards as to what is offensive and what is not.”
He said he believes, although teachers have to follow policy, there is plenty of latitude for teaching. “I don’t think we’ve had problems in the past with teachers complaining about not being able to teach or even to teach on controversial topics.”
But Kersher said she wonders whether her suspension is part of a general climate of repression in classrooms in the state. In Aurora, Overland High School teacher Jay Bennish was suspended, then reinstated, for comparing President Bush to Hitler in class. In the town of Bennett, an elementary teacher was put on paid leave because she showed a video about opera that included a sock-puppet segment on “Faust” that featured the devil.
“I don’t know what’s happening in Colorado,” Kersher said.