Protesters after the announcement that Andy Mendelsberg is out as principal of East High School.
Protesters after the announcement that Andy Mendelsberg is out as principal of East High School.
Denver7 via YouTube

Two Denver High Schools, Two Sh*tstorms

Friday, September 22, was a rough day for Denver Public Schools. First, a number of East High School students joined assorted parents at a protest prompted by the de facto ouster of principal Andy Mendelsberg and assistant principal/athletic director Lisa Porter because of their handling of videos showing cheer team members being forced into splits. Then, that evening, claims about a Confederate flag at a football game between the Weld Central High School Rebels and the Manual High School Thunderbolts resulted in charges of racism and alleged in-game injuries to three Manual players that may have been related to bad blood stirred by the controversy.

First, the East matter, which will be the subject of a meeting taking place at 6 p.m. today, September 25; details below. As we've reported, a clip of cheerleader Ally Wakefield, thirteen, crying out in agony as cheer coach Ozell Williams and three teammates held her down was initially leaked to 9News last month. However, the video and others like it were actually captured back in June, at which point Wakefield's mom is said to have contacted Porter about the matter. After the footage went national, DPS superintendent Tom Boasberg announced on August 23 that Porter, Mendelsberg, Williams and two others had been placed on leave pending "a fair and thorough investigation."

A day shy of a month later, Boasberg released the results of the report on a Friday afternoon — a time-honored tradition for institutions that want to bury embarrassing news. In addition to unveiling the document, which is accessible below, Boasberg announced that Mendelsberg had decided to retire; days earlier, Porter had submitted her resignation.

Here's how Boasberg unveiled the information:

A separate statement from Mendelsberg on the topic reads: "I believe it is in the best interest of the students, teachers, my family, and myself personally for me to step down." But clearly, many members of the East High community feel that he and Porter jumped before they could be pushed, and they made their displeasure very public at the aforementioned demonstration.

Mere hours later, the Weld Central-Manual brouhaha erupted. Manual principal Nick Dawkins describes what happened from his school's point of view in the following letter, issued on Saturday, September 23:

Dear Manual High School Community,

I hope you are enjoying this wonderful first fall weekend! I apologize for the Saturday email but I want to ensure you are updated about what occurred at our Friday night football game with Weld Central High School. What occurred is extremely concerning and I want to share the facts as I know them at this time.

Last night, the Weld Central High School team, which has a Rebel mascot, displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the game, offending many members of the Manual community. We asked them to remove the flag and they did so. However, the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field. Three of our players were injured during the game, including a student who suffered a concussion and a student who was transported to the hospital for a leg injury. I want to emphasize that the players received treatment and will be fine. In addition, some of our players reported that, when tackled, players from the opposing team taunted them with racial slurs.

I spoke with one of the team’s coaches at the game and am following up with their high school principal. Our superintendent, Tom Boasberg, and our Board of Education have been notified and Supt. Boasberg is reaching out to the Weld County superintendent to express our concerns that such symbols of racism and hatred, and racial slurs, ought to have no place in athletics or in any part of our students’ experiences. We are all very concerned about what occurred and are trying to gather as much information as we can so we can determine next steps. Please know that we are not aware of similar issues occurring when we played the Weld Central High School team last season. However, based on the information we have been able to gather, what happened at Friday night’s game is unacceptable.

I will keep you updated as we move forward and please feel free to reach out to me.

Thank you,
Nick Dawkins
Principal

According to the Greeley Tribune, Weld Central Re-3J School District superintendent Greg Rabenhorst and Weld Central High School principal Dan Kennedy rejected Dawkins's account about the flag in a joint statement. "Our eyewitness staff and community members present at the game report that this did not occur," they maintained. "Multiple school officials have viewed a video recording of the game, which contains footage of the Weld Central crowd. From our viewings, no signs of a Confederate flag exist."

The Weld Central High School's rebel as seen on a petition calling for the mascot to be retained.
The Weld Central High School's rebel as seen on a petition calling for the mascot to be retained.

Whatever the case, using the Rebel mascot during a period when the Confederate flag has inflamed racial tensions across the country was a matter of debate well before Friday's game kicked off. There are currently two online petitions on the subject. Emma Locke of La Junta created the first, which calls for the mascot to be dropped. It begins like so:

I was always bothered by the overt Confederate symbolism embodied by Weld Central High School's mascot. I never asked anyone why the district had chosen to be represented by the Stars and Bars or General Lee, but I was sure it wasn't good. It wasn't for me to make waves as a 15 year old. I respected authority figures and their decisions.

Twenty-one years have passed and the time has come to stand up and say that, regardless of the reason why a school started 100 years after the Civil War in Colorado would choose to use Confederate symbols for a mascot, it's disrespectful to people of color and aggrandizes a movement that is abhorrent. I understand that many alumni, especially those who played sports, might have sentimental feelings about being a Rebel, but it's important to embrace a different kind of rebel spirit and summon the backbone to say it's time for a change.

Weld Central has provided students with ample opportunities to pursue their dreams. There isn't any reason to be ashamed of what the school has accomplished, but it's time to put a new page in our history book and not force students of color to look at symbols of white supremacy at every pep rally and baseball game.

At this writing, the petition has collected only sixty signatures. In contrast, a petition to keep the mascot has racked up over 1,250.

Click to read the Denver East High cheer team investigation report. Here's Boasberg's letter on the topic, complete with a reference to tonight's meeting:

Sept. 22, 2017

Dear East Community:

On Aug. 25, DPS announced we were employing an outside law firm — Davis, Graham & Stubbs — to perform an independent investigation of the practice of forced splits on the East cheer team. Today, as promised, we are releasing that report in full.

You can read the full report and details of our actions today, including the return of John Youngquist as East’s principal, at dpsk12.org. We also invite you to attend a parent meeting with John at 6 p.m., Monday, Sept. 25 at East.

I want to express my deep gratitude to our East community. In spite of the challenging circumstances, East has continued to thrive and that is a testament to the strength of our community of students, educators and families at East. I’m particularly grateful to Assistant Principal Jason Maclin for stepping forward to lead in a very tough situation, East counselors who have provided additional supports to our East cheer students and families, and the girls on the cheer team for their strength and resiliency. I also appreciate our partnership with the Denver Police and the District Attorney’s Office as they continue their efforts.

Late yesterday, I received the final report of the independent investigation by Davis, Graham & Stubbs. The report makes clear that, over multiple months, in response to multiple concerns of a serious nature, the principal and athletic director at East High School did not take the necessary steps to ensure that the physical and emotional health and safety of the students on the cheer team was fully protected.

Specifically, the report shows that they:

1. Failed to sufficiently address, share or report allegations of abuse and the contents of the videos.

2. Failed to satisfactorily determine, in other instances involving concerns about physical or emotional harms, whether the young women of the cheer team did, indeed, suffer or were at risk of those harms.

3. Failed to provide the necessary level of oversight or supervision for the cheer coach, especially as concerns mounted.

4. Failed to implement the necessary level of corrective action, including termination, of the cheer coach.

Today, Andy Mendelsberg announced that he is retiring as East principal. Earlier this week, Lisa Porter submitted her resignation as athletic director at East.

These are extremely difficult decisions. For many years, Andy and Lisa have served as teacher, coach, assistant principal or principal for the Denver Public Schools. They have been colleagues, mentors, leaders and friends for thousands of our teachers, our families and our kids.

Next steps

East has a special place in the hearts of many in our Denver community. With this in mind, we are pleased to announce that one of East’s most respected and dedicated leaders, John Youngquist, has agreed to return to East as principal. He is a former DPS teacher, coach, elementary school principal and high school principal. As many of you know, he successfully led East from 2007-2011 and was then chosen to oversee our district principal development efforts. He later moved to Aurora Public Schools, where he has been serving as chief academic officer.

Moving forward, our focus as a district is on learning from the mistakes made in this situation. We must ensure we always protect the health and safety of our students. And, we must strive to ensure every single one of our students understands that neither they nor their classmates should be placed in a situation where they are suffering physical or emotional harm under any circumstances.

Thank you all, again, for your patience throughout this process. I hope the completion of this investigation and release of the report allow for the East community to continue healing and I look forward to seeing you at the parent meeting Monday.

Best,

Tom Boasberg       Susana Cordova
Superintendent      Deputy Superintendent

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