DENVER – East High’s principal downplayed the seriousness of complaints about the school’s cheerleading coach and failed repeatedly to acknowledge that he had shocking cell phone videos showing that coach physically forcing girls into the splits, according to a scathing investigative report made public Friday.
Those were among the findings of an independent investigation ordered by Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg following a 9Wants to Know report Aug. 23 that included footage from the videos. The investigation, conducted by the law firm Davis Graham & Stubbs, found repeated instances in which the principal, Andy Mendelsberg, mislead other administrators about everything from injuries suffered by a cheerleader to the existence of the disturbing videos.
At least some of that footage had been shared with East High administrators in mid-June. But it wasn’t until 9Wants to Know obtained them and started asking questions that the complaints about new cheerleading coach Ozell Williams became known to district administrators.
Footage aired by 9NEWS showed girls in screaming in agony as Williams physically shoved them into the splits. In some of the footage, he didn’t let up even as girls begged him to stop.
The fallout, which began when Williams was fired two days after that 9NEWS report, continued this week:
- Mendelsberg, East’s principal since early 2012, retired Friday in the wake of the damning report, which cited multiple failures to act following complaints made by the parents of multiple cheerleaders. Superintendent Tom Boasberg and other district officials declined to say whether Mendelsberg would have been fired if he hadn’t opted to retire.
- Lisa Porter, an assistant principal who was serving as athletic director, resigned.
- Five assistant principals were disciplined, although Boasberg, in an exclusive interview with 9NEWS, declined to specify the action taken against them. All five saw at least some of the video turned over by a parent in mid-June.
- A DPS attorney, Deputy General Counsel Michael Hickman, was reinstated Friday but also was disciplined for failing to sufficiently follow up on the admittedly limited information that was provided to him by Mendelsberg.
- Assistant cheer coach Mariah Cladis was cleared of wrongdoing. She was a volunteer but will be able to apply for a job with the district in the future.
Mendelsberg, a popular figure at East who had been in Denver Public Schools on Friday, posted a public letter announcing his retirement.
“I want to thank you all for the unbelievable support you have shown in these past weeks,” he wrote. “These weeks have been difficult, but because of your unwavering support, I will look back on these weeks as the most humbling in my career as an educator.”
“I was deeply disturbed, and I say that as a superintendent but also a dad,” Boasberg said. “I think any time that you see children in a position where they are not safe or a position when children are in pain, or where children are clearly suffering, I just think it was clearly disturbing and just raised very serious concerns. What had happened? Why had that happened?”
The report made public on Friday painted in great detail the picture of school administrators that repeatedly tried to contain the unfolding situation.
It placed the bulk of the blame at the feet of Mendelsberg and Porter and their handling of complaints from people identified as Parent 5 and Parent 6:
Neither Mr. Mendlesberg, nor Ms. Porter, sought to interview the students, or to ensure that all of the cheer team parents had been notified about the existence of the videos. They did not ensure that the incident reports were filed with respect to either of the alleged injuries – either internally at East or with the district. They did not inquire whether other students had been injured during the cheer camp or inquire whether other parents had similar concerns as those that had been raised by Parents 5 and 6. Nor did Mr. Mendelsberg or Ms. Porter take any disciplinary action with regard to Mr. Williams, or instruct him in writing with respect to no more side splits stretch, or to reinforce the expectation of safety first with the students.
The report showed that parents began complaining about Williams just two days after he was hired. On June 15, e-mails obtained by 9Wants to Know show that Kirsten Wakefield, the mother of one of the girls in the videos, complained. That afternoon, she sent an e-mail to Porter and an athletic secretary that included video of her daughter being forced into the splits.
“I have attached a video of the forced splits she and her other team members were forced to do at cheerleading camp and practices; unless they had a doctor’s note,” Wakefield wrote. “This is how Ally injured her leg,” it began. “Her doctor … told us this technique is negligent at best. … The doctor said she would testify to the fact that the injury occurred thru the force applied to the back of her leg while the person in front was pulling her other leg, and no one stopping when she begged them to.”
Wakefield ultimately forwarded eight separate videos depicting the forced splits.
In the following days, there were multiple discussions among East administrators about the videos, many of them involving Mendelsberg. But investigators concluded that he was not forthcoming with other administrators – or district officials – about what he knew.
For instance, he spoke with Assistant Superintendent Sean Precious about the complaint but seemed “irritated” with the parents and failed to mention the existence of the videos. Mendelsberg later said he thought he’d told Precious about the videos, but the investigators concluded otherwise: “Mr. Mendelsberg did not share Parent 6’s letter or the 8 cheer videos with Mr. Precious, and did not follow up with Mr. Precious after the meeting with Parent 6.”
In a conversation with Saundra Stanfield in the district’s human resources office, he mentioned the videos. That prompted “Ms. Stanfield to ask him if he had any videos,” the report said. “Mr. Mendelsberg said he did not.”
Later, when investigators confronted him about that, “Mr. Mendelsberg said he does not recall this call or responding to her question …”
The report noted that “Ms. Stanfield was credible, (and) the investigators find credible Ms. Stanfield’s description of the call.”
The report also delved into a phone call between Mendelsberg and Hickman, the district attorney – a conversation, investigators concluded, that each man remembered very differently.
According to Mendelsberg, he called the attorney seeking advice on how to handle a “unique situation” and mentioned a student, a meeting with her family, and his concern about a video possibly going viral. Mendelsberg put it this way to investigators, according to the report: “To this minute, it is still the most unique situation I’ve handled in 19 years of being an administrator. Most of the situation we could control but there was an outside issue we couldn’t control – the videos.”
Hickman, however, told investigators that Mendelsberg reported that a student had been injured during cheer practice by a coach who had been pushing on the girl while she did the splits. At that point, Hickman told investigators, he suggested to Mendelsberg that he fire Williams. Mendelsberg responded that he didn’t want to do that because the issue had been resolved with the girl’s family, the report said.
Mendelsberg also ignored Hickman’s advice that he report the injury to the district’s risk management office, according to the report. And he denied that he had any video, Hickman told investigators.
Again, the investigators made it clear in the report that they believed Hickman – not Mendelsberg.
“Mr. Hickman’s description of the conversation makes sense, appears credible, and is corroborated by other evidence,” the report said.
After releasing the report, Boasberg systematically listed the failings at a press conference at district headquarters.
“The report makes clear in painful detail that over multiple months in multiple instances involving concerns of a serious nature, that East High School principal Andy Mendelsberg and athletic director Lisa Porter did not take the sufficient steps to ensure that the physical and emotional safety and well-being of the students on the East High School cheer team were fully protected,” Boasberg said. “They did not sufficiently address, share or report allegations of abuse and the contents of the videos. They did not satisfactorily determine in other instances whether the young women did suffer those harms or were at risk of them.
“They did not provide the necessary level of oversight or supervision of the coach, especially as the concerns mounted. They did not implement the necessary level of corrective action including termination of the cheer coach.”
Later, Boasberg announced that John Youngquist, a former principal at East, would return to that job.
But the fallout may not be over.
A criminal investigation is underway, and interviews with cheerleaders and their parents were continuing Friday.
A decision about whether criminal charges could be filed is pending, 9Wants to Know has learned.
A 9Wants to Know investigation found that Williams had been terminated in 2016 from a position as a cheerleading consultant at Boulder High School after he was observed by a coach doing the same thing.
Williams did not disclose that when he applied for the job at East on April 7.
In fact, in the “employment history” section of his application, obtained by 9Wants to Know under Colorado’s open records law, he listed only two jobs – his work as a “professional dunker” at Denver Nuggets games and his work at Mile High Tumblers, a business he owns and operates.
The process of hiring Williams was also criticized in the report. It noted that Porter – then the athletic director – did not contact anyone at Boulder High even though he had provided a resume showing that he had done work there.