Some Aspen parents are hot about schools’ climate change talk

Students gather on Paepcke Park to listen to speeches for the Global Climate Strike event in Aspen on Friday, September 20, 2019. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

A group of parents contend Pitkin County’s left-leaning political views are seeping into the halls and classrooms of the Aspen School District and their children have felt ridiculed because of their conservative beliefs and upbringing.

Three parents Monday at the Aspen School District Board of Education’s meeting said some teachers are espousing liberal doctrines and discussing the perils of climate change in settings that should be politically neutral. The parents also said that on multiple instances teachers have shown students climate-change videos with apocalyptic undertones.

Teachers normally don’t volunteer their political views in the classroom setting, but they can’t avoid addressing current events and issues that oftentimes shape classroom discourse and even curriculum, interim Superintendent Tom Heald said Tuesday.

“Some people felt like evolution shouldn’t be taught in schools,” he said, noting that discussing the AIDS epidemic in the classroom also once touched off debates at school board meetings throughout America. “We’ve had some polarizing conversations.”

While evolution is considered a settled science, that doesn’t mean the debate over teaching it in public schools is.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in 1968 paved the way for evolution to be taught in public schools, yet today 1 in 5 American adults reject the basic idea of evolution on Earth, according to Pew Research Center.

The subject of climate change is being widely discussed in Aspen schools at a time when 2 out of every 3 Americans believe immediate action should be taken to address global warming trends — which they consider is either a serious challenge or a crisis, according to a recent CBS News poll.

It’s the topic of climate change, said the parents, that prompted them to air their grievances to the board. While the parents said their households engage in environmentally conscious practices such as recycling, they don’t subscribe to what they consider to be climate change histrionics the schools have introduced to their children. The parents cited last month’s Global Climate Strike march, which enticed hundreds of Aspen students to skip school so they could march in lockstep with the international cause, as a source of their frustrations.

The Aspen School District was not associated with the Sept. 20 event. The school district said 321 high school students and 80 middle school students participated in the Friday march and demonstration held in downtown Aspen. Students not attending class that day so they could march were given an unexcused absence if their parents did not contact school officials explaining their whereabouts.

Despite the district’s detachment from the event, during the days and weeks leading to the march, students made banners for the demonstration and also participated in a group photo shoot depicting them all in the shape of a snowflake. Some students who didn’t participate were bullied, one parent said, while others were made to feel uncomfortable.

“Just last week the mother of a high schooler told me her son had rocks thrown at him and was called a fascist for not participating in the walkout,” the parent said. “My (child) came to me in tears the night before the climate event because (the child) didn’t know how to feel or what to do because the school had made the picture sound so ‘fun.’”

Heald, as well as middle school interim Principal Elizabeth Meador and high school Principal Tharyn Mulberry, said not until Monday’s board meeting were they aware of any teasing, harassing or bullying of students because of their lack of participation in the climate action march.

“I haven’t had any direct reports of that,” Meador said Wednesday. “That was the first I’d heard of it (at Monday’s meeting), and we always encourage kids to come to us if they are feeling unsafe or threatened.”

Meador, however, noted she detected “heightened drama around the walkout and the march. That may have created a since of urgency among the kids.”

No middle school teachers participated in the march, said Meador, and Mulberry said he was not aware of any high school teachers in the march. The parents, however, said some Aspen teachers were marching and leading political chants.

Aspen schools have an environmental history dating back to 1967 when the district launched Outdoor Education and Experimental Education for eighth-graders.

“We are a school that is very environmentally conscious,” Mulberry said. “We have composting in the cafeteria, we are avid recyclers.”

Heald said open-minded discussions about climate change should be happening.

“My observation of seeing teachers over the years in this district is most people have a Socratic dialogue approach to various differences in opinions, and they’re good at crafting those kind of conversations — whether you can disagree and agree to disagree,” he said, noting he believed the march and demonstration fit in with the Aspen community’s overall philosophy toward climate action.

The ongoing climate change discussion at Aspen schools is one of many ways students are learning about the environment, said Travis Moore, a high school science teacher and Aspen native.

“We talk about leaving no trace behind and being responsible and being respectful,” he said. “Our hope is to protect these lands so our kids and their kids and grandkids can enjoy it.”

Moore said he and other instructors worked at school the day the march was held. Some teachers, in the days leading to and of the march, showed students the National Geographic film “Explorer: Bill Nye’s Global Meltdown,” he said.

In the film, outspoken scientist Guy McPherson claims the world will end by 2030 because of a warming climate. Moore said McPherson’s apocalyptic statement was presented as his opinion and not as fact; students discussed the film afterward.

The parents said the schools’ championing environmental stewardship is one thing, but the doomsday prognostication created a stir with their children, who were upset and distraught.

“I don’t think anybody here can or will say the Earth is going to end in 12 years,” one parent said. “So why in the hell are we telling these kids that, and basically giving them no reason to live? Why did we have a College Fair last weekend? If that’s the case, there’s no reason to go. We shouldn’t even be here.”

Meador said the parents have a point when it comes to making the climate change discussions more open-ended as opposed to having a viewpoint that can be dominated by rhetoric.

“My advice to our community is to figure out how to have a dialogue and how do we teach our kids to dialogue and disagree respectfully,” she said. “I thought for the most part the parents at the board meeting were asking for that, and I respect that.”

The parents — whose names The Aspen Times is not identifying because they said their children have been distraught and in some cases bullied because of their differing opinions — said the climate change viewpoints have been extreme and don’t belong in a school setting when a counterpoint is not offered.

“What drives this agenda?” one parent asked. “What is the true agenda? Is the agenda really climate change? I’d say no. The agenda is against capitalism. Climate change is a way to get there, to fight capitalism and get to the socialist narrative. Why are the teachers driving this? What is their agenda?”

Another parent accused the school of engaging in hypocrisy.

“We’re telling them the world is going to end in 12 years, but they’re teaching on iPads, which are made out of fossil fuels. My (child) doesn’t bring home any books. He doesn’t use a book but in one class. Everything that we use is made of fossil fuels.”