AURORA | Parents upset over a social justice class at Sky Vista Middle School and the teacher’s alleged behavior demanded in letters, obtained by the Aurora Sentinel, to school administration for an apology and that the teacher be put on leave or fired.
Asia Lyons, who taught the class as part of the school’s extended core curriculum, is currently on administrative leave. Cherry Creek School District is in the midst of investigating complaints and whether Lyons followed correct protocol in bringing speakers into the class.
In seven letters written by three parents to school officials, obtained through a Colorado Open Records Act request, parents expressed their anger at both the subject matter being taught to the sixth grade class, and what they said was Lyon’s political agenda behind it. Topics they said should not have been taught or should have involved counseling or other experts include sexual identity and sexual assault. Parents also complained about language used in videos presented to the class. Parents said Lyons’ social media posts, were critical of the parents reaction to the class.
Parents said they were upset that they were not consulted about the topics that would be presented to their children in class.
Parent Ami Grube said in one letter that she was upset her child had to quote a video that included the word “hell.” She alleged that one of the videos used the slang abbreviation “WTF” when discussing the gender pay gap. The letters also expressed frustration over what parents felt was the school administration’s apathy toward their complaints.
Complaints included criticism about Lyons bringing speaker Dezy Saint-Nolde into the class. Saint-Nolde, also known as Queen Phoenix, is a Denver activist and is facing felony drug charges in Denver. Saint-Nolde has pleaded innocent to the charges, which stem from reportedly gifting marijuana in exchange for donations. Saint-Nolde was a no show at her Oct. 19 trial, according to Denver Westword.
Saint-Nolde has not responded to repeated attempts by the Aurora Sentinel to contact her.
Cherry Creek officials have declined to comment on the issue pending the results of their review.
How should issues like social justice be taught?
The controversy around the topic of social justice and how to approach it isn’t one that’s unique to the K12 setting. A quick viewing of Twitter on an NFL Sunday shows society as a whole is dealing with the issues of social justice and the conversation surrounding it isn’t the most civil.
There is no textbook way teachers should handle teaching topics like social justice at the K-12 level, said Eugene Sheehan, Dean of the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Northern Colorado.
Sheehan and the other sources contacted for this story did not speak to the incident at Sky Vista, but talked in general terms about the best way for teachers to deal with issues that can cause division or controversy in the classroom, including social justice.
Sheehan said that teachers should approach the topic of issues like social justice in an open way that facilitates a conversation in class. And they should be prepared for dealing with different opinions that won’t close down the conversation.
“For the teacher, (social justice) might be a straightforward topic to be discussed. But for others those are value-laden words that some people don’t like, and you need to be aware that you may have to do some groundwork before you start talking,” Sheehan said. “You have to be willing to engage students who are forming opinions and explain to them why it’s an important topic, and be prepared to talk to parents about it as well.”
Teachers should look to school administrators on when and how to broach topics like racism and sexual assault, Sheehan said. And teachers should realize that, unlike math where there’s generally a simple right answer, issues of social justice and the like require a more open environment for discussions. In classes he’s taught on prejudice in society, Sheehan said he had to be prepared for those who might not see subtler forms of prejudice and understand their points of view before bringing it up in class.
Todd Reimer, an associate professor of secondary education with Metropolitan State University of Denver, said it was vital for teachers to provide a context for discussions on issues like social justice.
“I think in absence of context, you are left with opinion, and it’s those opinions that tend to naturally generate some strong feelings,” Reimer said. “(Teachers should) structure that debate in a way that kind of provides an appropriate outlet for those strong feelings being generated.”
While discussing topics that can cause strong feelings on each side of a debate isn’t easy, it is part of training students for playing their part in civil society, Reimer said.
“We have to teach kids, and even adults, how to disagree on things where there is passionate disagreement,” Reimer said. “Democracy is messy, and how we have informed debate on the things we disagree is critical. And I would suggest that it is largely missing from education. It’s critical we train and coach these kids the same way we train them to do math and write. We need to train them how to argue in a way that’s informed and tolerant.”