Boulder High Band Draws Notoriety

Secret Service investigated claims band advocated harming president

By Aimee Heckel--Daily Camera--11/12/04

A musical band of Boulder High teachers and students aroused national controversy Thursday, drawing scrutiny from the U.S. Secret Service and spurring discussion about the separation of politics and public education.

Some students and parents said the band, originally called the "Taliband," advocated killing George W. Bush. Band members denied the accusations, saying they would never advocate violence.

The band is scheduled to perform in the school's talent show tonight.

Members have changed the band's named to the "Coalition of the Willing" and at least one of the teachers, Jim Vacca, has dropped out.

Vacca supervised a student-initiated protest at Boulder High's last week, an event that also drew national attention. Students refused to leave the school library until they talked with politicians about their concerns.

The student band members, who all participated in the peaceful sit-in, said they rehearsed a punk rendition of Bob Dylan's "Masters of War," and people misinterpreted the lyrics.

The song criticizes gun and weapon companies and ends: "And I hope that you die/ And your death'll come soon/ I will follow your casket/ In the pale afternoon/ And I'll watch while you're lowered/ Down to your deathbed/ And I'll stand over your grave/ 'Til I'm sure that you're dead."

A Boulder High senior anonymously telephoned 630 KHOW and 850 KOA radio talk shows Thursday alleging that the band inserted Bush's name into the lyrics. She later said the band only showed pictures of Bush on a screen in the background of their recent rehearsal while singing those lyrics — implying a threat to the president.

Several people who heard radio discussions called the Secret Service, which immediately investigated, said principal Ron Cabrera. He said investigators took a copy of the lyrics, interviewed Vacca and left, "satisfied there was no account to the rumor."

Calls to the Denver office of the Secret Service were not returned.

Cabrera also said he interviewed teachers and students who watched the rehearsal and none said they heard threats against the president. He said no student or parent expressed concerns to him before calling the media.

Politics and public schools

Forest Engstrom, 16, a sophomore who started the band two weeks ago, said he asked Vacca to join because the teacher plays the electric guitar. Engstrom also recruited video teacher Jim Kavanagh to play the electric banjo and help compile the pictures Forest wanted projected in the background.

Kavanagh had assigned a controversial film project in April that also received widespread criticism. He asked students to film a comical or exciting chase, and one video depicted a scene said to be similar to the Columbine massacre in 1999.

Forest said he wanted to perform "Masters of War" after attending a Dylan concert in Denver last month. Forest said the band's show is in memory of his grandfather, a veteran who died two years ago and would have opposed the Iraq war.

"If I would have known this would happen, I wouldn't have done it," he said. "It has been blown way out of proportion."

But some people said the teachers crossed the line. High schoolers are impressionable and the teachers' involvement could "infringe upon their ability to be a presenter of unbiased information," said Ryan Call, a Denver field coordinator with the Students for Academic Freedom Information Center.

The center supported the "Academic Bill of Rights," aimed at countering the "aggressive leftist culture" that they say dominates college campuses today.

"There are some professors that need to find another line of work if they want to be political propagandist," said Call, 29, a University of Colorado graduate.

Kavanagh and Vacca said Thursday they respect all points of view and don't let their beliefs enter the classroom.

Vacca said he "cherishes the opportunity for discussion and dissent."

Kavanagh said Boulder High is an "an academic place where all voices can be heard and respected. That is extremely American." He said he might not participate in tonight's show because of media pressure.

Principal Cabrera said the teachers wouldn't perform "because they don't want to detract from the students' performance."

Mike Altenbern, president of the Boulder Valley teachers' union, said earlier this month that it's within teachers' free-speech rights to tell students whom they voted for, if asked. But teachers aren't allowed to campaign on school time and should present both sides during class.

Mack Clark , Boulder Valley School District deputy superintendent, said the "guiding principle" is common sense.

"If teachers are advocating for a particular candidate or trying to espouse a particular point of view, that's inappropriate," Clark said.

The talent show is scheduled to start at 7:30 p.m. today in the school auditorium.

Camera Staff Writer Amy Bounds contributed to this report.