Berthoud Weekly Surveyor | Covering all the angles in the Garden Spot

Principal under fire resigns from Berthoud High School

May 31, 2019 | Education

By Dan Karpiel

The Surveyor

Just about 24 hours prior to Saturday morning’s graduation ceremony at Berthoud High School (BHS), the school’s principal, Dr. Sarah Beth Bliss, announced she was resigning her position effective immediately.

Bliss did not attend the school’s graduation ceremony on Saturday morning. Assistant Principal/Athletic Director Michael DeWall, who had informed the Thompson School District (TSD) of his intent to resign earlier in May, rescinded his resignation and will be returning to BHS in the same capacity for the 2019-20 school year. TSD provided no official comment regarding Bliss’ decision to resign but did confirm DeWall will be returning.  

Dr. Sarah Beth Bliss

Over the course of the school year, the Surveyor was made aware of several controversies surrounding Bliss’ administration as well multiple complaints regarding her leadership and has been investigating these issues for several months.

During an in-person interview at the school on May 22, the Surveyor attempted to question Bliss on the accusations, yet Bliss refused to comment, saying only, “that is a question for another time,” following seven separate prompts, and then proceeded to terminate the interview. The same day, the Surveyor submitted a list of 26 questions to Bliss via email to which she responded with the following statement:

Due to state and federal regulations, it would be inappropriate for me to discuss specific issues related to students and staff members.  

During my time at Berthoud High School, I have been proud to work with an exceptional team of staff and community members who are dedicated to our students and to serving our community.  As a first-year principal here at BHS, a big part of that work has involved listening to the community about what is working well and what is in need of attention, and then making adjustments in certain areas in order to enhance our services and better provide for our students. I am confident that the experiences we provide for our students will continue to grow and thrive and I am excited to continue to advocate for our entire BHS community.

The Surveyor then made three separate attempts to speak with TSD Superintendent Dr. Marc Schaffer, Director of Human Resources Dr. Bill Siebers, Chief Academic Officer Dawne Huckaby and Director of Secondary Education Theo Robison regarding the issues raised with Bliss, in addition to some others, but all attempts were refused.

TSD Public Information Officer Michael Hausman contacted the Surveyor the following day, saying only that the district agreed with the statement Bliss provided and that no further comments would be made. As a result, the Surveyor filed eight requests under the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) to obtain information. The district responded to the requests on the morning of May 29.

In May, an inordinate number of faculty began coming down. In separate emails received on May 15 and May 20, TSD provided a list of 10 teachers and other staff members who had announced their resignations or retirements from the school. Some reports have the number of resignations as high as 15.

One teacher who resigned from Berthoud High was science teacher, Colby Schultz, who also served as an assistant football coach and as head coach for track and field. Schultz, a class of 1992 BHS graduate who had taught at the school for 15 years, told the Surveyor he was leaving as a direct result of Bliss’ leadership saying, “It became a place where I was not happy to be.”

Schultz was not alone. Another faculty member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals, said the school was a “toxic environment,” that was “inconducive to learning,” under Bliss’ administration. Both spoke of a “culture of fear” at the school with Schultz citing a lack of support for newer members of the instructional faculty.

Also at issue were a series of reported security breaches at BHS this spring. According to reports, on three separate occasions individuals who were not students, parents of current students or faculty members entered the school without consent and without signing in as a visitor in the school’s main office. These incidents occurred during a sports team function in the school commons in late April, on May 7, and during the senior sendoff event on May 15.

During each incident, it is reported, multiple attempts to contact Bliss were unsuccessful. According to information obtained by the Surveyor under CORA, Bliss was in the school on May 7 but was unable to be reached – for reasons unknown – at the time of the incident in question.

Furthermore, during the school lockdown on May 9, the school reportedly failed to secure all entry and exit points within the building. Students who wished to leave the building were reportedly told to do so only with the escort of law enforcement, yet at least one student was allowed to leave the building on foot, absent escort. According to information obtained by the Surveyor under CORA, Bliss was attending a meeting for secondary administrators at TSD offices in Loveland at the time the decision was made to go into lockdown status on May 9, and following that move, Bliss returned to the BHS campus.

Perhaps most disturbingly, on Oct. 15, 2018, a student was removed from an after-school sports practice, taken to Bliss’ office and placed on an emergency mental-health hold (known as an M1) where they were subsequently transferred, via Larimer County Sheriff Deputy, to the Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland.

TSD guidelines for suicide risk protocol require that first, the at-risk student be supervised; second, have a mental-health professional conduct a suicide screening; then third, inform the school administrator of the results; and fourth, contact the student’s parents/legal guardians.

According the student’s parents, Bliss did not contact them until nearly two hours after their child was removed from school grounds. Subsequently, and after multiple meetings and conversations with TSD leadership, the family was given a check from the TSD for $19,166.03 to cover the costs incurred as a result of the actions taken against their child by Bliss.

According to information obtained by the Surveyor under CORA, an action request was submitted to the board of education on Jan. 9, 2019, from Schaffer and Siebers, to approve the settlement amount of $19,166.03 from the district’s General Fund. The item was agreed to and the check was disbursed in February 2019.

As a result of this incident, Bliss was given a written warning on Dec. 20, 2018, from Robison which stated, “This conduct negatively impacts the culture and climate at Berthoud High School and damages relationships with students, staff and parents,” according to information obtained under CORA. As part of the disciplinary program, Bliss was required to work with a contracted mentor and coach for the remainder of the 2018-19 school year. Dan Lawler was hired by TSD to serve as Bliss’ mentor/coach and was compensated via the General Fund.

TSD did not provide a timeline for selecting a replacement for Bliss but did announce the district will hold a community listening session open to parents and community members on June 3 at BHS beginning at 5 p.m.

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