Students were asking for a yurt, more pedestrian safety before being interrupted by racism at city council meeting

As two of the students, who are Black, began speaking, they were met with racist language and insults by an unidentified person over Zoom.
6 min. read
Monarch Montessori School in Montbello. May 16, 2024
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Four students from Monarch Montessori visited Denver City Council on Monday prepared with pitches. The 4th and 5th graders were set to speak during the general public comment session, equipped with bullet points detailing how their expanding Montbello school needs more classroom space and better pedestrian safety in the area.

But as two of the students, who are Black, began speaking to councilmembers, a person attending the meeting over Zoom began spewing racist language and insults.

“I was caught off guard,” said Councilwoman Shontel Lewis. “I'm hearing this happen and I'm seeing this young girl try to give her her public testimony and my instinct as a mom [goes to] how do we protect these babies? Turn that off, fix it. I'm looking over at our production staff and it's not happening fast enough … I just, instinctually, just went to go hold the babies because it was traumatic.”

After about 30 uninterrupted seconds, the unidentified person was ejected from the video call.

One of the young students couldn’t continue and was escorted out of the chambers by Lewis. Councilmembers later gave the remaining students time to finish the presentation.

So, what were the students pitching? Well, they want a yurt and crosswalk safety.

Monarch is the only bilingual school in Montbello and the only Montessori school in the neighborhood.

Peoria Street near Monarch Montessori. May 16, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Because of its Spanish-English curriculum and focus on supporting the students’ voices and independence, Laura Pretty, the executive director of the elementary school, said enrollment requests are high. Pretty said the school has seen an increase in applications, in part because of its high test scores and bilingual program. Applicants have included new immigrants because the program can help students integrate into the school system more easily.

But the school can’t accommodate all of the students.

“The school is growing but we’re running out of space,” Pretty said. “Next year we actually are running into a problem where we can't accept all the kindergarteners that are applying because we just don't have the space … We're not accepting 4th and 5th graders because of space challenges.”

Pretty said the school needs one to two extra classrooms to accommodate new students. But while most schools turn to portable classrooms, such as trailers or modular buildings, to solve space issues, the Monarch students have advocated for a different approach.

In their prepared pitches to city council, the students said trailers are ugly and can be crowded. Trailers are also expensive and can destroy the concrete they’re placed upon.

Instead, the students want a yurt, a portable tent with a rounded ceiling. Yurts can be insulated and are environmentally friendly, according to the students.

This is a yurt! Specifically, a circHouse was deployed at Sustainability Park in Denver, where it stood for three years ending in 2015. (Courtesy Edward Ryan)

“Imagine going to a classroom like that!” the students wrote in their pitches.

The yurt would be used for their music class, freeing up classroom space.

“It would be cool because if you're in the yurt, you can hear the birds outside. You can hear outside sounds and the music teacher does not see that as a problem,” Pretty said.

While students and faculty are on board with the unconventional classroom, getting permits for the structure has proved challenging. Not because the structure is unsafe but because no other school has ever asked for a yurt before. It’ll be a learning process for the school and Community Planning and Development.

So, the four students attended the city council meeting Monday to ask members how their school can acquire a permit for the yurt.

The students’ second request, which wasn’t heard at all during the meeting, was the need for more pedestrian safety.

At the end of the school day, the students must wait in the car pickup line. But, Pretty said, the students are tired of it. They want to play in the playground while waiting for their parents.

Pretty said the only way that can happen is if the school gets rid of the pickup line. To accomplish that, more parents need to walk or bike to pick up their kids. For parents who need to drive, they would need to park on the street and walk up to the school.

The problem with those options is safety.

“Peoria is a tough street,” Pretty said. “The problem is just crossing the street. We don't have great markings for crossing, [we don’t have] great lighting. The signs that say we're a school are not visible so people are speeding by. It just doesn't feel very safe and so they were advocating for finding ways to make it safer.”

Peoria Street near Monarch Montessori. May 16, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Pretty said students also prepared a pitch for city council to look into ways to make the area safer through clearer crosswalks, maybe a crossing guard, or anything that would encourage parents and guardians to get out of their cars.

After the incident at the meeting on Monday, Pretty said the school community, councilmembers and the mayor reached out to the students.

“I think they're experiencing just a big embrace from the community, which I hope is making this more about them and less about the hate that they heard on Monday,” Pretty said.

City Council is also working to make sure this type of interruption or any interruption, doesn’t happen again

Robert Austin, the council's spokesperson, said the Technology Services team is investigating how the person who leveled the racist slurs was able to speak during the meeting.

The goal is to have this not happen again.

After the comment session on Monday, Council President Jamie Torres apologized to the students, denouncing the unknown person’s actions.

Lewis also condemned the person’s actions, noting that the incident was a microcosm of what goes online. She has experienced macro- and micro-aggressions on social media, leveled at her as a Black woman.

While they can’t erase what happened on Monday, Lewis said the city council does have the ability to shed light on that type of racist speech and to make sure the people who come to speak in the chambers are not subjected to slurs.

“We certainly have a responsibility because we can't just sweep this under the rug and pretend that it's business as usual,” Lewis said. “We have a responsibility to lead … to say our chambers are not only the people's chambers, but they are open to our youngest, the leaders so they can engage in democracy.”

As for whether the students will get their yurt and better pedestrian safety around their school, that’s yet to be seen. But Lewis said she’ll be looking into her rolodex to see how she can help her constituents. In the meantime, she’ll be advocating for safer spaces during public sessions.

“Don’t mess with our babies and certainly not in our chambers,” Lewis said.

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