COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Academy School District 20 has concluded an investigation into allegations of teachers at Chinook Trail Middle School in Colorado Springs taping face masks to students' faces.
Last month, a photo of a sixth-grade student with a face mask taped to her mouth began circulating on social media. The girl's mother had posted the picture to find out if other parents were aware of it, and whether it had been done to other students.
The mother, Stephanie M., said her daughter, Rylee, sent her a selfie one day showing her with masking tape across her face and over her nose holding a black mask on her face.
"At first I thought she was joking, but then she started being vague with her answers," Stephanie said. "She said it was something new they were doing in the pod."
She took her concerns to the school administration, which quickly acted.
"I went up to the school and they got the dean to talk with me, and we also got Rylee from class," Stephanie said. "The dean interviewed her about what was going on in the pod, and after Rylee answered her questions, she went to talk with the teachers of the pod. When she came back, she confirmed that was what those teachers of that pod were doing."
An investigation was launched into the allegations, and Stephanie switched her daughter to remote learning in the meantime.
After interviewing more than 100 students and 10 teachers and staff, Chinook Trail Middle School Principal Tom Andrew said the four teachers involved with Team 642 did violate policy and procedure by instructing students to tape their masks to their faces, and students thought it was required since their teachers told them to do it.
"We are disappointed, both by the decisions made and the outcome of the investigation," Andrew said in a letter to families. "More importantly, we are disappointed this event led to learning and social and emotional impacts to our students and their families."
The district held a meeting Monday night with the families of students impacted by the allegations. The four teachers also met with students Tuesday morning.
"We knew that those students, team, and their families were the most impacted. We thought it was important to sit down, face to face, and talk through how we got here, what was found, and how we want to move forward," said Allison Cortez, chief communications officer for Academy School District 20. "After it was over, the principal allowed them to come up, and they answered questions and talked things through. That relationship building is what we're all about here. This was a case where teachers really wanted to keep their students out of quarantines so they can keep them in the classroom, and they thought this was the best way to do that. Unfortunately, it was a bad judgment call. There was no malice — they just really wanted those kids in class."
Stephanie said she was shocked to hear the investigation findings, and the meeting was conducted.
"It was seven minutes, and then he told the parents they could go into the hallway and if they have questions, they can ask," she said. "It wasn't personal. It was in the main hallway of the school and crowded around other people. I had my 1-year-old with me, and I had already talked with him so I left. The teachers of the pod were present but didn't speak. Before the parent forum, we were handed an apology letter that was typed up.
Dear 642 Parents/Guardians,
Teaching and serving your children are a privilege; and we do not take that lightly. Your student’s safety and learning are our top priorities, and we are terribly sorry for the disruption this has caused.
It was never our intent to cause anxiety, fear, confusion, or physical or emotional harm. Our greatest desire was to keep students in our classrooms and prevent quarantines due to COVID exposure. To follow district policy and keep students engaged with in-person learning, our team made a mistake in our methods. Please accept our deepest and most heartfelt apologies.
We can only imagine how the past three weeks have felt for each of you. For us, it has been a time of deep reflection. As a team we made a decision that was not best for our students. We will learn from this situation and moving forward we will strive to do better and always do what is best for kids.
Our team shares a deep love, respect, and responsibility for your child and their well-being. We look forward to returning to normal and continuing along this learning journey with your family.
Stephanie said she is still mad about the situation.
"I think it would have been more personalized if each teacher spoke up, in person. It's kind of like they are using themselves as a group to protect themselves, not coming up individually with statements," she said.
She said it's been a rough few weeks for her family. She hasn't been able to get all of her daughter's online assignments, and the girl was bullied throughout the investigation process.
"The kids that texted her, said, 'Our teachers are going to get fired all because of you' and she got really depressed about that, but those students didn't realize something was wrong," Stephanie said.
While the investigation is over, she said she won't drop it, and will continue pushing for transparency.
"My daughter told the truth, and for those who said it was a joke, it was never a joke," she said.
She has withdrawn her daughter from Chinook Trail Middle School since the teachers involved weren't fired. The district will not say publicly what, if any, discipline was taken against the teachers since it's an internal personnel matter.