East High Officials Cleared of Failure-to-Report-Student-Rape Charges

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In April 2018, the Denver District Attorney's Office formally accused Andy Mendelsberg — who retired as principal of East High School in September 2017 after videos of cheerleaders being forced into splits went viral — and four East administrators regarding allegations that they'd failed to report the rape of a female student by a male pupil who later pleaded guilty to the crime.

On January 29, Denver County Judge Gary Jackson dismissed the charges against Mendelsburg, East vice principal Jann Peterson, counselor Anita Curtiss and dean Eric Sinclair. Allegations against the fifth defendant, dean Jen Sculley, had already been dropped over a statute of limitations matter.

The ruling represents a rejection of claims made in Denver Police Department probable-cause statements (the complete documents are accessible below).

The police reports for Mendelsberg and the others vary, but they all begin on Saturday, March 12, 2016, when a female East attendee went to the Denver home of a male student to watch a movie. There, "the victim was sexually assaulted by the suspect," the documents note.

The female student didn't immediately tell authorities about what happened to her. But the following Monday, March 14, she became upset while in class at East, and after heading to the restroom, she broke down in tears. A fellow student subsequently escorted her to the office of a school counselor, who was unavailable. A staff member then connected the female student with Sculley. In addition to telling the dean about the assault, the student reportedly showed her a bruise that resulted from it.

Sculley took the student to see counselor Curtiss. After the two East staffers conferred privately outside Curtiss's office, they reportedly asked the student if she wanted to press charges and told her that "if she talks to the suspect again," she wouldn't be able to do so. "At that time, the victim didn't understand what that meant and told them both no," the police documents note, adding that "the victim did request that it be written down and put in the other student/suspect's file."

According to the probable-cause statements, Sculley next called the female student's father; she's quoted as using the words "sex assault with a male peer" during the conversation. Later that day, both of the student's parents met with the dean, who allegedly told them "it would be very hard on the victim if they moved forward with charges. Both parents say okay, but they specifically tell Sculley they want it documented in the other student's file. Sculley assures both parents that she will document it."

There have been plenty of challenges at East High School in recent years.
There have been plenty of challenges at East High School in recent years.
Westword YouTube file photo

Cut to March 15, when the female student went to Sculley's office "looking for help" after facing "backlash from peers." The report states that Sculley told the student "she has seen this behavior in a lot of the students at East High School, and the quicker she moves on, the better. Sculley also tells her that this is their little secret."

The Curtiss probable-cause document alludes to a visit from the female student the week of March 14, during which she divulged that she was "suffering from anxiety, lack of sleep and nightmares about the assault. She also reported growing tension with peers and backlash from them. Curtiss told the victim some things are just more traumatizing for others and to find new friends already. In addition, Curtiss told the victim that if she had contact with the suspect, she would be disciplined for harassing him."

The next week, another student concerned about the victim's continued struggles reached out to Curtiss on her behalf. After another followup with the victim, the report states, Curtiss promised "she would meet with her weekly and did not."

Dean Sinclair and Vice Principal Peterson entered the picture in January 2017, according to the documents. At that time, the victim was being "bullied and blackmailed by a friend of the suspect's" and turned to Sinclair, who "told her he couldn't do anything about the bullying."

That wasn't good enough for the female student's parents, who scheduled a sit-down with Sinclair also attended by Peterson — and Mendelsberg stepped in at one point; "he was checking on the victim to see if she was okay," a report notes. After the female student related what she'd gone through over the previous ten months or so, Peterson "got choked up and told the victim and her parents that it was one of the worst stories of bullying she has ever heard," and Sinclair pledged to offer his assistance if the victim could prove her claims.

The next day, the Sinclair statement says, the female student "printed out screenshots of text messages and social media posts and the names of the students who were bullying her for reporting the sex assault," but "Dean Sinclair filed the paperwork away in a cabinet and did not act."

The next chapter began in April 2017. As outlined in Mendelsberg's police report, the female student's parents decided to pull her out of the school because she was still suffering. As part of the process, "the parents obtained her file from the academic counselor and observed there was no documentation about the sex assault to their daughter and very little documentation about the bullying she endured as a result."

Former East High School principal Andy Mendelsberg in an interview about the 2017 cheerleading controversy.
Former East High School principal Andy Mendelsberg in an interview about the 2017 cheerleading controversy.

Approximately one week later, the Mendelsberg statement notes, the student's parents were told that the principal  objected to her departure. But when they met with him shortly thereafter, he had to ask a co-worker "who their daughter was, because he didn't know her" — a remark that appears to contradict his visit during the Sinclair-Peterson meeting in January.

Despite being "incredulous" over Mendelsberg's claim, the parents went over the events again, the report says, telling the principal about the sex assault and how the school's only concrete action was removing the alleged assaulter from a class in which their daughter was enrolled. Mendelsberg emphasized that "this is all 'new news' to him and he had not heard about it from another dean or teacher. He tells the parents to have their daughter find a new group of friends to hang out with."

Months more had passed when, in September 2017, the female student and her parents saw a news story about the obligation of school officials to report offenses like the one experienced by the victim. But messages left with Denver Public Schools went nowhere, according to the Mendelsberg police report. It wasn't until November, when an East High resource officer received information about the incidents from new principal John Youngquist and advised the female student's father to file a report with the Denver Police Department, that the investigation got under way in earnest.

These assertions didn't sway Judge Jackson. In his ruling, he determined that "at all times the defendants were acting in good faith and carrying out their duties as school administrators." As such, each was immune from criminal prosecution and personal civil liability under Colorado law.

But Jackson's conclusions went beyond technicalities. He specifically found that the defendants had done their jobs professionally and properly, and criticized a Denver police detective for using what he characterized as a "deceptive investigation technique" during questioning of the suspects that "causes the court concern."

The Denver District Attorney's Office, which has 35 days to appeal, isn't commenting on the ruling. Click to access the East High probable-cause statements.

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