COMMERCE CITY — A charter school in Commerce City now faces a federal lawsuit after parents and students said it suspended the entire student body.
Students at Victory Preparatory Academy said their First Amendment rights were violated last year on Sept. 28, during a school assembly.
According to the lawsuit, after standing and reciting the United States Pledge of Allegiance, the students chose not to participate in the school's own pledge in protest of "certain VPA (Victory Preparatory Academy) policies and practices" which they elaborated on in a letter given to the school's Chief Executive Officer Ron Jajdelski.
The lawsuit claims Jajdelski "grew frustrated with the students' multiple grievances" and then told them to call their parents. He was sending around 120 students home, everyone in the ninth through 12th grades.
"We were shocked because we thought it was a prank call," said Joel Flores, a parent of one of the students. "We're thinking, 'What kind of a phone call is this from a school number?'"
Flores and his wife, Mary, have a 17-year-old son who was a junior at the time of the students' protest. Commerce City police officers were at the school when they went to pick him up, they said. The lawsuit alleged parents asked police for permission to speak with Jajdelski about why their kids were being sent home, but he "refused to meet with or speak to any of the parents."
While they were waiting, Flores and his wife started interviewing parents and students about the protest and the school's response to it for their weekly Spanish-language newspaper, La Prensa De Colorado.
"This is something that's very unusual, something that you don't hear about where a director or a principal suspends the whole high school," Joel said.
The Flores family said they got a letter from the school nearly a week after they released the article claiming the couple "chose to detain, film, and photograph Victory Preparatory Academy students without school and parent permission."
"This activity is not only illegal, it is a violation of school policy and your family's agreement regarding conduct on school grounds," the letter read. "Your actions created an unsafe situation and required police intervention. You also intentionally chose to create a false narrative with students, the public, and the media regarding VPA student activities and school administration decisions. Although school administrators were literally 10 feet away, you made no effort to clarify any aspect of the activities and actions of the school leaders, nor have you to date."
The letter continued to state the couple's actions were being reviewed by "corporate and legal counsel, law enforcement" and the school's board of directors, and that the parents weren't allowed on school properties at any time until the review was complete.
The lawsuit claims that no such review has ever happened and the couple has been indefinitely barred from school grounds causing them to miss their son's sporting events and parent-teacher conferences. Court documents also allege the couple hasn't been able to pick up their child or drop him off at the school and have to do so across or down the street.
Now, they're worried they'll miss his graduation at the end of the year.
The couple is now part of a federal class-action lawsuit against the school's administration claiming they not only violated the students' First Amendment rights by sending them home after their protest but also the Flores's by barring them from Victory Preparatory Academy after publishing their article.
"Students in public schools have a clearly-established right to engage in political speech and protest at school, provided that the speech does not cause any material disruption to the educational environment," the lawsuit states.
"You know, whether or not it's widely believed, students in school continue to have constitutional rights," said Nicholas Lutz, one of the attorneys representing the Flores family and other plaintiffs. "This was a wholesale violation of their constitutional rights."
Lutz said the goal through this lawsuit is to "vindicate the rights of these students and parents."
"What they're trying to do is make a statement and send a message that we as Americans have our constitutional rights and we will stand up for them when challenged," Lutz said. "That's what these students and parents are doing."