A view of the Elizabeth School District headquarters on Elbert Street in Elizabeth. (Google Maps)
Questions from parents and concerned community members of the small rural town of Elizabeth, located 45 miles southeast of Denver, continue to mount after the school district’s superintendent, Dan Snowberger, announced that criminal allegations against a middle school teacher surfaced in late September.
Parents, however, first learned of potential wrongdoing Nov. 8, when Snowberger emailed them to say he’d placed four administrators on leave after learning they may have withheld what they knew about complaints from students.
“In cooperation with law enforcement, district leadership has been conducting an investigation related to the incidents that students brought forward last year,” said Snowberger. “During the course of the investigation, four members of the (Elizabeth Middle School) staff were placed on administrative leave as determined appropriate by the superintendent.”
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Absent from Snowberger’s email were any details about the complaints brought forward earlier this year and that he’d placed the teacher accused of misconduct on leave seven weeks earlier.
With so many unanswered questions floating around the community, Snowberger held a parent forum Wednesday at the middle school to explain what district leadership knew, when they knew it, and why they’d taken specific actions.
While media were allowed to attend the parent forum, Snowberger asked that no one video or record the meeting, saying he would send a press release to the media the following day.
Snowberger during the forum said that on Sept. 26, Elizabeth Police Chief Jeff Engel told him about a complaint filed with law enforcement regarding an Elizabeth Middle School teacher stemming from concerns last spring. Engel immediately turned the investigation over to the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s office, citing a conflict of interest.
Snowberger placed the teacher on leave the following morning and began turning over requested emails and documentation to the criminal investigator assigned to the case. He says the investigator asked him not to look into the matter until law enforcement finished their initial interviews, which concluded on Oct. 27.
Three days later, Snowberger began interviewing staff, students and parents who had knowledge of what happened last school year. That’s when he said he became concerned that his staff failed to follow district policy regarding mandatory reporting. Under Colorado law, school staff are obligated to report suspected child abuse or neglect. However, the district cautioned that these accusations may or may not rise to the level of a crime.
Snowberger said he hopes to decide sometime after Thanksgiving break what actions he’ll recommend the school board take regarding the staff on leave.
District leaders deny knowledge of complaints
Snowberger told the audience that no district officials or board members knew about anything inappropriate between a teacher and students that may have happened during the last school year.
Yet, Elizabeth is a small town with only 2,742 residents, and a few parents said they found it hard to believe the gossip mill hadn’t reached the school board.
“When this happened last spring, my kids at the high school knew about it. Teachers knew about it. It was talked about in the lunchroom. It was talked about on the buses and the bus stops. And how the board … how nobody knew about this. I’m trying. I’m having a hard time,” the mother of a student said.
Snowberger responded that the school’s principal and assistant principal, who is placed on leave, apparently felt the information wasn’t important enough to pass on to him. He said he would no longer assume teachers are reading the staff policies they sign, and administrators are working on a training video staff will have to watch at the beginning of each school year.
Another parent wanted to know if the district’s school board members or Snowberger were also under investigation to determine what they knew and when, and if they were held to the same legal responsibility as the administrators put on leave.
Snowberger said they were also mandatory reporters and that he couldn’t pick and choose what information to hand over to law enforcement. “I’m trying to be very transparent to the degree I can. I’m going to take appropriate action, and hopefully, that will earn trust.
Parents express concern
One parent asked if the delay in awareness of a potential issue with a teacher could’ve caused more harm to students because the teacher remained at the school. Snowberger said he’s not investigating the teacher. That’s up to the district attorney’s office to determine.
Another said, “I feel like parents should have some idea of these allegations if you want us to trust our students to your schools.”
“I feel like we’re being pushed around and not really being told anything. What if something’s wrong here and you’re allowing them (the students) to be in the same predicament? That’s not fair,” said another parent.
Snowberger said his hands were tied because the investigation is ongoing. “I can’t tell you what occurred because that’s not part of my investigation. My investigation is about what concerns were expressed and how we handle this.”
A district attorney’s office representative said no charges have been filed, and the investigation is ongoing.
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