In the 2015-16 school year, her senior year, Cidney’s GPA (grade point average) was 4.1, an A+ average over all her classes. She achieved a score of 26 on the American College Test (ACT) test, which students take prior to college admission. To put her score into perspective, the national average composite score on the ACT is just 20. Any score above 24 is considered excellent and gives a student very high odds of being accepted into any college or university.
Cidney was involved in student government, and was student body treasurer in her senior year. She was captain of her high school’s speech and debate team for two years, entered speech and debate competitions at both the state and national levels, and won at both. She was a member of the Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) and placed 6th nationwide (pdf) in impromptu speaking at FBLA’s 2015 National Leadership Conference in Chicago, Illinois. Cidney logged over 400 hours of community service during her time at Delta High.
But Cidney ran into some trouble during her senior year in high school.
As student body treasurer, Cidney became critical of the school’s economic priorities, and was outspoken about her observations. She started a Young Democrats Club at DHS, came out as an atheist in her senior year and was critical of her school district’s persistent and illegal mixing of Christian religion with instruction.
As we have seen in the past, political liberalism, outspoken atheism, and critique of the school district’s’s financial priorities and proselytizing are not popular things in Delta County.
But what Cidney didn’t know, and proceeded to find out, is that in Delta, being up front and “out” about these things can also get you roundly punished.
Cidney first started noticing she was getting treated differently from other students in late 2015, after she started questioning her school’s expenditures.
Her duties as student body treasurer included overseeing school budgets, observing whether the school spent money wisely and giving budgetary input.
She took her job seriously, and paid attention to her school’s expenditures. Cidney noticed that unlike other high schools, DHS had no library. The psychology textbooks students were using dated back to the 1980s, and when she signed up for Advanced Placement (AP) classes, her teachers didn’t have textbooks for these classes. Rather, the school told AP students’ parents that they had to buy their kids’ textbooks, to the tune of hundreds of dollars — not an easy expenditure for low income families in Delta like Cidney’s. Her journalism class also had to move out of its normal room because the computers in that room stopped working. In the midst of all this academic need, Cidney saw school officials spend $32,000 to have a new floor installed the high school gym, when nothing was really wrong with the old floor. She also noticed school officials spent big buck on all new mats for the DHS wrestling team.
Cidney put two and two together.
She concluded that Delta High was neglecting a whole host of dire academic needs while spending lavishly on athletics. She brought this situation to the attention of school administrators and asked why it was happening. They said the school district had budgeted more for infrastructure than for academics, and that was it.
None of her counselors or school administrators offered to communicate Cidney’s concern to the School District, put her in touch with school board members, or assist her in trying to alter the school district’s priorities to boost expenditures on academics, or even look at the problem Cidney had brought to light.
She reached a dead end.
Dismayed by the school’s indifference to what she considered grossly misguided financial priorities, Cidney posted an Instagram photo of herself wearing a school sweatshirt, with the hashtag, “#notactuallyafan.”
Shortly afterwards, in March, 2015, one of Cidney’s teachers, Renee Cronenberg, called her in for a surprise conference along with Cidney’s academic guidance counselor, Shawna Magtutu.
“It was a conference about my attitude,” Cidney said.
Magtutu showed Cidney her Instagram photo and told her she needed to change her attitude and stop criticizing the school. Cidney was told her attitude “was not suitable as a student leader,” and she needed to “pick her battles.” Then Mrs. Magtutu told Cidney that if her attitude didn’t change, she “would hate to ruin her position in student government” and “ruin her grant opportunities” for college.
Cidney was shocked at the encounter.
First of all, her Instagram account was private. Only her friends were supposed to be able to see it. This meant one of her friends had showed the photo to school officials. Beyond this, she understood that as student body treasurer, it was her responsibility to speak up about inappropriate expenditures and perceived financial neglect of academics at her school. Yet here were her own teacher and school counselor, threatening her over her opinion about school expenditures.
Despite this, Cidney continued to express her concerns about her school’s choices and priorities.
Protesting Religious-based “Sex Education” Presentation
In October 2015, Cidney heard her school was bringing in controversial abstinence-only-before-marriage speaker Shelly Donahue to provide what the school district considered sex ed “instruction” to the students.
Cidney researched Donahue. She found Donahue’s talks were rooted in Christian beliefs and devoid of specific information Colorado law requires public schools teach in sex-ed, like about sexually-transmitted diseases, types of contraception, their side effects, use and availability. Instead, Donahue gives an overly-simplistic talk in which she says ridiculous things like “in the presence of sperm girls’ vaginas turn into ‘little Hoover vacuum cleaners and suck it up,” that “boys’ brains are ‘like microwave ovens’” and girls’ brains are like “slow cookers.” In her talks, Donahue shames girls for having premarital sex, and likens them to used packing tape and dirty diapers. In her talks at DHS, Donahue told students that having sex before marriage “puts you further from God” — a religious assertion that, given in a public school as “instruction,” violates the federally-mandated separation of church and state.
Realizing that Shelly Donahue’s talks as DHS were religious in nature and cheating kids out of truthful information that they not only really needed but are entitled to under state law, Cidney took action. She showed her friends YouTube videos of Donahue’s talks before her visit to the school so they would be familiar with them, and she and her friends made T-shirts with statements like “I prefer science,” “Real control is birth control” and “I abstain from ideology.” They wore the shirts to school in a silent protest of Donahue’s talks. Seven students participated in the protest. Cidney also covered Donahue’s talks for the school paper, and took photos of the slides in her talk. She noted that every slide in Donahue’s talk contained a crucifix.
Cidney knew from personal experience how important the omitted sex ed information was, too. Unable to get the information Colorado law requires public schools give students, she had taken the time to educate herself about the various types of contraceptives, sexually-transmitted diseases and infections and other info. Soon other students started considering Cidney as a resource for that information. Cidney had had several girlfriends who asked her for information about contraceptives, and help obtaining them. Cidney had to fill her friends in and show them how to get contraceptives in their community. This was crucial information that students should have gotten in sex ed at school, but that the school district refused to give them.
As a journalism student, Cidney stepped out again when she questioned the qualifications of yet another speaker the school brought in.
That speaker was Chad Williams, a former Navy Seal and Christian motivational speaker who had served in Iraq.
Williams had written a book about his experiences titled “Seal of God,” but the school brought him in as an anti-drug speaker. From his biosketch, Cidney couldn’t figure out out exactly what qualified Williams to speak as an expert on drug abuse. She was also suspicious that, like Shelly Donahue, Williams also had the potential to slip religious messages into his talk. Cidney researched Williams’ book and found a description of it that said,
“Part memoir, part evangelism piece, SEAL of God follows Chad’s journey through the grueling Naval Ops training and onto the streets of Iraq, where he witnessed the horrors of war up close. Along the way, Chad shares his own radical conversion story and talks about how he draws on his own experiences as a SEAL to help others better understand the depths of Christ’s sacrifice and love.”
Prior to talking to the student body as a whole, Williams spoke to Cidney’s student government class of about 20-30 students. Williams opened by saying he was objective and qualified to speak on the subject of drugs and drug abuse. During his talk, though, Cidney asked him to elaborate further on the experience that qualified him to speak about these topics. Later, Mr. Miller, her student government teacher and advisor, reprimanded Cidney for daring to ask the question, even though she was on the school’s journalism staff, wrote for the school magazine and was taught to seek key information about qualifications from people put forth as experts.
Cidney and some of her friends were also more politically aware than most high school kids, a characteristic that apparently drew the ire of some of her teachers.
Near the end of October, 2015, Delta High let students wear their Halloween costumes to school. It was an election year and Cidney and some of her friends wore trash bags with signs on them that said “Vote No on Amendment 67. It’s Trash.”
Above: YouTube video of Cidney Fisk speaking at Delta Democrats meeting
Amendment 67 was a “personhood” amendment that would have given fertilized human eggs the same full legal rights as existing humans, effectively making abortion illegal. Amendment 67 would have violated womens’ long-established legal right to an abortion. Similar measures had already been voted down by wide margins in Colorado twice before.
Cidney got backlash for wearing the costume.
Her teacher, Mrs. Cronenberg, reprimanded her in front of her entire class, saying “God gave babies life and abortion is murder.”
When Cidney’s school counselor, Mrs. Magtutu, was informed about this incident, she found nothing wrong with the teacher preaching her personal religious beliefs to students during class time, as though it was public school instruction.
Retaliation by Her Teacher: The Quiet “F-Dump” for Questioning Authority
On April 1, 2016, right before spring break, Cidney checked her grades and was shocked to find her Student Government grade had plunged from a 98 to a 70. She discovered that Mr. Miller, her student government teacher had given her failing grades for three solid months without telling her, and had waited until right before spring break to post them to her record all at once.
Cidney asked Mr. Miller why he had suddenly started giving her Fs. He told Cidney that “questioning authority” and “her attitude” were the reasons for the low grades he had given her in student government.
Again, Cidney was shocked.
Cidney’s parents exchanged five or six angry emails about the failing grades with the principal, Mr. Carlson, after which Mr. Miller apparently realized he had gone overboard retaliating against Cidney and went back and changed some of the Fs he had given her to Ds, which brought her grade in the class up from a from a low C to a B. He also told Cidney in a private conversation that if she stopped criticizing the school, her grades would go back up, so it was clear that the teacher was retaliating against her based on the opinions she had expressed.
But something else very important happened around this same time that likely contributed to what Cidney believed was a war on her personally, as well as her grades.
Cidney Blows Open the Religious Promotion in Delta Schools
On March 31, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel printed an extensive front-page story about Delta County School District’s repeated violations of separation of church and state. The Sentinel story highlighted incidents like Delta Middle School giving out free Gideon bibles to students during class time, DMS teacher Dan Dunham holding bible study classes for students every Wednesday morning in his own classroom, and offering free doughnuts to the kids who attended.
Religious clubs run by teachers are illegal. Under the law, if religious clubs exist at school, they must be initiated by students, and if they aren’t, the schools are breaking the law by hosting them. The Delta school district put a stop to the “Donuts with Dunham” club immediately after the Sentinel article came out, and after the school district was confronted about it by a lawyer from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, who got involved after the pervasive religious proselytizing in Delta County Schools was revealed.
The Sentinel article also discussed Shelly Donahue’s abstinence-only presentation at Delta High School, and featured a photo of Cidney at the top of the front page article, above the fold. In the photo’s caption, Cidney told of her concern for her schools’ mixing of religion with their instruction. Cidney also cited Shelly Donahue’s talk, which she had covered for the school magazine, the Paw Print. Cidney told the Sentinel she noticed the religious crosses displayed on every slide Donahue showed during her talk at DHS. Cidney provided photos of slides from the presentation to the Sentinel reporter to back up her story. The Sentinel also interviewed Delta County School District Assistant Superintendent Kurt Clay, who told the Sentinel he “didn’t notice” the crosses or the other overt religious overtones in Donahue’s presentation. Clay further told the paper that the District had been bringing Donahue in to giver her “sex ed” talks for “at least the last decade,” revealing that the controversial, Christian-based speaker was a regular part of the school district’s curriculum.
“It’s like I always feel I’m being proselytized to, like they’re trying to convert me,” Cidney told the Sentinel, citing how uncomfortable the Delta schools’ overtly religious culture had made her for years. “It’s like a religious school, not a public school,” she explained.
Cidney also came out publicly as an atheist in the Sentinel article, telling the paper “It’s scary to be an atheist in this community,” and pointed to the death threats and threats of violence Delta citizens had made against atheists on social media around this time.
It was immediately after the Sentinel published the article that Cidney’s student government grades plummeted.
Cidney also feels certain that her activism and opinions were the reasons why she failed to get a number of scholarships that required letters of recommendation from her school.
Above (video): Cidney gives a speech in September, 2015 to a political group about the importance of education and the Delta County School District’s prioritizing of athletics over academics in its financial expenditures
Punished for Her Opinions?
The “crimes” for which DHS punished Cidney were her efforts to call out the school district for giving students an inadequate sex education, for spending lavishly on athletics at the expense of academics, and for looking analytically at the school’s expenditures. She spoke her mind about them. She did her job as a journalist with the school paper by asking a Christian motivational speaker to supply credentials to substantiate his appearance as an “expert” in drugs and drug abuse. She was also a Democrat with liberal leanings, and an atheist — two things well established to draw ire and backlash in Delta County.
What About Future Delta County Students?
I asked Cidney what she would say to future students like her, who are sharp enough to see these kinds of discrepancies, misdeeds and misguided priorities within the school district, and forthright enough to call them out on it.
“Keep it up,” she said. “It’s worth fighting for. But if you want scholarships, don’t voice your opinion at Delta High School, or say anything that goes against the grain.”
Cidney graduated from Delta High on May 15, 2016. She managed to get just enough scholarship funds to allow her to attend college in Denver in the fall. She is, to say the least, eager to leave Delta.
Now that Cidney is free of the Delta County School District, she wants the public to know about the difficulties she encountered, not just from DHS students, but from the teachers and counselors at her school — the very people who had been entrusted with helping her advance her academic career.
NOTE: Western Colorado Atheists and Freethinkers (WCAF) set up a scholarship fund to help Cidney pay her college tuition. 100% of donations received will go towards Cidney’s education. (GoFundMe takes a 5% cut — that’s why they aren’t being used.) Readers who want to donate can go to WCAF’s “Donate” page and donate using a credit or debit card. WCAF’s website uses PayPal, but you do not need a PayPal account to donate using this method, and PayPal also doesn’t take a cut of any donation to a non-profit. Please make a note on your donation that is to go to the Cidney Fisk Scholarship Fund. 100% of all donations received will go to Cidney’s college career.
Update – 7:19 a.m. MDT July 14, 2016 – Thanks to a $250 donation from someone in Taos, New Mexico, WCAF has now received donations to the Cidney Fisk Scholarship Fund totaling $4,200! Thank you, everyone. Cidney and her parents very much appreciate the outpouring of both moral support and the financial help to send their daughter Cidney to college in Denver this fall!
Another Update – At 12 noon on August 15, 2016, Western Colorado Athesits and Freethinkers officially handed Cidney a check for $4,325 towards her college education. If WCAF continues to receive donations earmarked for Cidney’s college career, the group will continue to forward those funds to Cidney.