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DPS Board Candidates Respond To East High Cheerleading Firestorm

Responses Range From Calls For Transparency To Hands Off

By Lynn Kalinauskas

GPHC Education Chair

In an October editorial, the Greater Park Hill News weighed in on the events that led to the retirement of East High School Principal Andy Mendelsberg and the resignation of athletic director Lisa Porter. Their departures followed the cheerleading forced splits event that swept through East High School this fall.

In the editorial, we highlighted several missing pieces in the investigation report, which was produced by the law firm Davis Graham & Stubbs. Rather than serving as an “independent” inquiry – as Superintendent Tom Boasberg has claimed – the details strongly suggested otherwise.   

Since Boasberg’s housecleaning at East, District Attorney Beth McCann has announced no criminal charges would be filed over the incident.

On Oct. 16, Mendelsberg appeared in an emotional on-camera interview with Channel 7. Mendelsberg said that one of DPS’s in-house lawyers, Michael Hickman – who was part of the inquiry but has been restored to his position – had never asked Mendelsberg for the video of the cheerleading forced splits incident. That statement contradicts the DGS report claimed the DPS lawyer had claimed that “he asked Mr. Mendelsberg about the video, and Mr. Mendelsberg indicated he did not have it.”

Mendelsberg’s attorney, Tom Kresl, issued the following public statement: “While we have faith in and trust the investigation completed by the District Attorney and Denver Police Department, we believe the investigation commissioned by DPS was neither independent nor representative of Mr. Mendelesberg’s actions in addressing the incident. We look forward to the entire story being made public in the near future.”

Given this extraordinary series of events at East High, we asked eight DPS board candidates running for office, whose districts includes a portion or all of Park Hill, to weigh in. At-Large candidates Barbara O’Brien and Robert Speth did not respond. Here are the other replies:

Carrie Olson – Running for District 3   

“Our number one priority should be to provide a safe and healthy environment for the students under our care. When this doesn’t happen, we have to ask why and how. Former principal Andy Mendelsberg’s statement on Oct. 16 appears to indicate that there was a cover-up at the highest level of DPS, appearing to involve Superintendent Tom Boasberg and the Board of Education. I wonder who knew what and when. If the superintendent did not know until August, why not?  If this was such an egregious offense, why was it kept from him?  And, did he tell his employer, the Board of Education?  If so, when? If not, why not? The accountability for both the board and the superintendent seems lacking and both owe the public an explanation for the decisions to keep some employees and fire others. The district’s decision to use their own in-house law firm of Davis Graham & Stubbs to ‘independently’ investigate the East High School Cheerleading squad casts further doubt on the legitimacy of the investigation and the rush to get this report out before key witnesses were interviewed. Why did the District not wait until the police report came out to make its final decision? We deserve an unbiased report of what happened and how it can be prevented in the future.”

Mike Johnson – incumbent Running for District 3

“The incident at East High School was extremely distressing to me, both as a father and as a school board member. Our first responsibility as a school district must always be the safety of our kids. I appreciate that our superintendent acted quickly to ensure the safety of the East cheer team once we became aware of the situation in August. I also believe it was appropriate for the superintendent to hire an outside law firm to determine what occurred. I have read the report and am sympathetic to the concerns voiced by cheer team members and their families. It’s also important to note that, under Colorado law, the superintendent is responsible for administering the affairs of the district, including the hiring and supervising of all other employees of the school district. I do not believe it is appropriate for board members to be directly involved in decisions regarding the hiring or supervision of district staff below the superintendent; these decisions should not be political because so much is at stake – people’s lives and livelihoods, and our children’s futures.”

Rachele Espiritu – incumbent Running for District 4

“As a parent of two teenagers and a mental health professional, it was distressing to watch the video of the East High School cheer practice. In my role as current board member for District 4, I take the physical and emotional safety of our students very seriously and supported the quick actions of our superintendent to ensure the safety of our East cheer team. The engagement of an outside law firm was important to provide an investigation and review of what happened. I have read the report and can relate to the concerns raised by the cheer team members and their family members. My role and responsibility as a board member does not include decisions regarding the hiring or supervision of district staff below the superintendent. These responsibilities fall with the superintendent per Colorado law, and I would not want these decisions to become political issues. We need to stay focused on what is in the best interests of our students.”

Tay Anderson – Running for District 4

“I stand with Principal Mendelsberg. I believe he took the proper steps to ensure the safety for his students. I know that he would never do anything to put the safety of his students at risk. When I look at the report I personally feel like it only tells one side of the story. I want to hear from every single cheerleader, and how they felt with this issue. As a candidate I will be reaching out to the new principal to extend the olive branch so that he knows that I want to ensure all students voices are heard. This isn’t over. I am disappointed in the superintendent of Denver Public Schools, who not only threw one DPS principal under the bus, but he threw two under in one week. We need a leader who will uplift their employees, not tear them down. EA EA HALO HALO HEY!”

Jennifer Bacon – Running for District 4

“Like so many in our community, I was angered and saddened by the videos and reports coming from East High School cheerleaders. As a teacher, I deeply believe in the fundamental responsibility of schools to be safe spaces for all students and DPS failed in that respect. I’ve read through the Davis Graham & Stubbs report and followed the district attorney’s findings. As a lawyer, I believe situations like these call for thorough and transparent investigations that avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. The significant contracts Davis Graham & Stubbs has with DPS and the fact that the general counsel of DPS is a former employee of Davis Graham & Stubbs should have given pause to district leaders when they chose an outside investigator. This reflects the district’s larger challenge of a lack of transparency and communication with the community. From school closure, to funding, to scandals like this, parents and community members tell me over and over again that they want a board who will act with transparency and openness, and that’s the type of leader I would hope to be on the school board.”

Julie Bañuelos – At-Large Candidate

“The cheer incident situation at East High School demonstrates the prevalent ‘accountability deficit’ culture in DPS’s administration. The public documents demonstrate a lack of staff supervision, apathy toward parent concerns and the ‘hands-off’ approach by the athletic director, principal and DPS general counsel, which culminated in injury of several young women. State law considers anyone in direct contact with youth as a mandated reporter who must take the required yearly training to appropriately handle situations like what transpired at East. It seems far-fetched to accept that Andy Mendlesberg, an educator with 20 years’ experience and district counsel Michael Hickman were uncertain on how to handle complaints from this practice of forced splits, though this technique was characterized by a doctor as ‘negligent at best.’ Tom Boasberg tapped a law firm already used to running interference for the district (see the Hentzell Park real estate deal) to attempt damage control by conducting an ‘independent investigation’ and lending the veneer of due process to the situation. In my opinion, the district failed the families at East, the latest episode in a continuing saga of incompetency of DPS’s leadership.”

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