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Opinion: Questions Linger Over East High Cheer Report

By Cara DeGette and Lynn Kalinauskas

On Sept. 22, Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg held a late Friday afternoon press conference to announce the findings of what he has repeatedly called an “independent” investigation into the events at East High School. The investigation involved cheer coach Ozell Williams and graphic videotapes showing young female athletes being forced into doing the splits.

The timeline, and the results, deserve to be reviewed.

The videos were taken during a cheerleading camp on June 6. After months of what they say were failed efforts to seek remedies with numerous school administrators, parents took the story to 9News, which aired the videos on Aug 23. They were gruesome and shocking. Young women were being pushed down into the splits, screaming in pain, held down by both the coach and teammates. As 9News reported, one of the young women, a freshman, screamed “Please, stop” nine times in 24 seconds. One of the young women reportedly sustained an injury.

The Denver Police Department immediately announced the launch of a criminal investigation.

After the videos went viral, Boasberg announced that Coach Williams had been fired. East High Principal Andy Mendelsberg was placed on leave, as was Athletic Director Lisa Porter, Assistant Cheer Coach Mariah Cladis, and one of the district’s seven staff lawyers, Michael Hickman. The district, Boasberg said, had hired the law firm Davis Graham & Stubbs to investigate “exactly who knew what, when, both at the school and district level.”

During a press conference and in written communications with East families, Boasberg said the purpose was to independently investigate what happened, while cooperating and collaborating with the criminal investigation. The police, Boasberg insisted, would “take the lead.”

“Our collaborative practice has been that [police] interview individuals related to the case and while they are doing their investigation we do not release information or perform our own interviews,” he said.

Yet, on Sept 22. – before the police finished its criminal investigation – Boasberg called his Friday afternoon press conference. There, he presented a 30-page report from Davis Graham & Stubbs, in which 20 people had been interviewed. He announced Principal Mendelsberg was retiring. Porter, the athletic director, had resigned, and assistant cheer coach Cladis was exonerated. Hickman, the DPS lawyer, was reinstated. (The report and other documents can be read at greaterparkhill.org.)

Boasberg also announced that with Mendelsberg gone, a popular former principal of East High School, John Youngquist, was returning to lead the school anew.

Denver Police Department spokesman Doug Schepman has confirmed that the police investigation is still underway.

Boasberg’s claim that the law firm’s report constitutes an “independent” report is absurd. While Davis Graham & Stubbs is well respected, there is little about the ongoing relationship between it and DPS that is independent. The firm enjoys a longtime relationship with DPS, which pays the firm an average of $100,000 a year for work mainly related to real estate issues.

The school district’s general counsel, Jerome DeHerrera, was an associate with Davis Graham & Stubbs for several years before he joined DPS’s legal department in 2013. Consequently, Hickman, who works with DeHerrera at DPS, was being investigated by DeHerrera’s former law firm.

The contract with Davis Graham & Stubbs indicates DPS agreed to pay the lawyers an average of $395 per hour for the investigation. (The final cost to taxpayers has not been released as of press time.)

For the young women athletes and their families, the experience of being thrust in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons appears to be over. But questions remain: Why did Boasberg pay a law firm for an investigation his own staff could have conducted? If the purpose was to hire a third party to investigate, why did DPS settle on a law firm with cozy ties to its own legal team?

One troubling lack of detail in the Davis Graham & Stubbs report involves the conversations that Mendelsberg had with Hickman, the lawyer, and with Saundra Stanfield, who works in the district’s human resources department. The report detailed that Mendelsberg contacted both in June about the controversy, the injury to the student, and the existence of the videos. But the report concludes that the human relations officer and the lawyer are both more “credible” than the high school principal. It mentions corroborating evidence but does not provide such evidence. Why?

And, did Stanfield or Hickman alert other staff or administrators within DPS once they knew about the controversy, the injury, and the existence of the videos? The report doesn’t say.

Finally, what do our elected board members make of this? As of press time, none have weighed in, at least publicly. Charged with overseeing the state’s largest school district and entrusted with our tax money, what do these officeholders make of the findings, and that the superintendent acted in conflict with his original insistence that police would take the lead?

Four of the seven school board members are up for election on Nov. 7. What happened at East High School – and what happened since – is just one reason why voters should be engaged.


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