Early July 14, embattled Denver School Board member Tay Anderson released an open letter announcing his plans to resume the full duties of his position, even though an investigation into sexual misconduct allegations that he's energetically denied has not yet been completed. But a press conference later that day did far more than simply rehash the content of the statement.
Over the course of nearly an hour, Anderson admitted that he'd considered suicide during the furor stirred up around him, then put other members of the board on blast for the way they handled the situation. He also lit up the media for its coverage, stating, "You have not only failed me, but you also are complicit in the white supremacist attacks that have happened to my family."
The setting for the event was Brother Jeff’s Cultural Center, at 2836 Welton Street — the same venue where Anderson denied an anonymous sexual-assault claim put forward by Black Lives Matter 5280 on behalf of an unnamed woman back in March. But a lot has happened since then. On May 25, Denver Public Schools parent Mary-Katherine Brooks Fleming told the Colorado House judiciary committee that 61 high school students and one recent graduate, many part of the DACA program, had come to her the previous August with sexual-assault charges against a person "in a position of trust," who was quickly assumed to be Anderson.
DPS has tasked the Investigations Law Group with looking into all of the claims against Anderson, who says he's yet to be contacted by law enforcement. (The Denver Police Department neither confirms nor denies that it's looking into the matter.)
At the outset of the press conference, Christopher Decker, Anderson's attorney, said that one of the reasons his client decided to temporarily withdraw from many of his school board duties was the panel's pledge that the investigation would be completed within thirty days. Last month, the board amended that estimate, predicting that it might take until summer's end for what Decker referred to as the "so-called independent investigation" to wrap.
Then Anderson stepped to the microphone, backed by a cadre of supporters. "Wow, it feels good to be back here," he said "We're not going to have any crying pictures here today, because that's what the media likes to run on their front pages."
After a laugh from attendees, Anderson stressed, "This is us returning to the work the voters elected me to do in 2019," and committed to continue doing that work until the end of his term in 2023. But then he transitioned to a different subject, warning that he would be talking about suicide and depression.
"On the morning of May 29, 2021, I began contemplating taking my own life, not because I felt guilty of anything I was being accused of, but because I could no longer bear the weight of my own community thinking I was a sexual predator," he said. "My family has been attacked in the public spaces, and my newborn son, my beautiful baby boy, Khalil, was even the subject to hateful threats and comments, which are completely unacceptable."
But Anderson didn't take action regarding his suicidal thoughts, after reflecting on the reason he'd decided to run for the school board in the first place — "to protect our students, not to hurt them," he explained. "[But] in the following days, I expressed the need to take a leave of absence from the Denver School Board."
His colleagues nixed this plan, Anderson contended: "I was told that a leave of absence did not exist for the members of this board, and the only two ways to take a step back from their point of view were either to resign or to recuse myself from future votes. Those were not options we were willing to explore. The board also said we would not remain silent for Tay Anderson any longer. I said this was not about remaining silent for me. This was simply me asking in the moment of a personal health crisis that I did not want to make public...to please step back, just like any other boardmember who wasn't there. We've had boardmembers miss votes or miss meetings for several other things. And my colleagues weren't willing to do so at that time. So that is why I issued the statement saying I would step back from everyday duties for the duration of the investigation."
From there, Anderson recapped the letter (read it here), prior to introducing several individuals who spoke on his behalf: Bishop Jerry Demmer of the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance, former DPS school board member Andrea Merida, and Hashim Coates, executive director of Black Brown and Red Badged, who responded to a question regarding whether Anderson was targeted because he's African-American with references to critical race theory.
Then Decker spoke again. "I've never seen such an incredible crush and rush to judgment in the complete absence of any evidence, ever," the attorney said, before posing rhetorical questions about the reasons for Anderson's treatment. "Is it because he's a young and rising star? Is it because he has a loud voice and sometimes agitates pre-thoughts and pre-beliefs and gets in there and mixes it up so we can have a better tomorrow? Is it because of that? Is it because of the tone of his skin? I don't know. I'm just here to tell you that somebody, for some reason, is not treating this person fairly, and that goes to BLM 5280, it goes to the DPS staff, it goes to...members of the community and the press. Step up and be fair!"
Here's the video of the press conference:
After Anderson put out his letter, DPS issued the following statement:
Although there are no public Board duties for the month of July, we are very much aware of the importance of resolving this investigation so the board can get back to the work of supporting our students, schools, and educators when they return to school in August.
One of the reasons that the board launched this investigation was because, consistent with our values, we believed a young Black man deserved due process and a fair evaluation of anonymous allegations that were made on social media. We hired independent, neutral, and trained investigators to review these claims. Because they are independent, it is not our role to tell them to shut down their investigation early, before they believe they have gathered and reviewed all available evidence.
It's also important to note that the board does not have authority to suspend Director Anderson from his duties. Director Anderson voluntarily agreed to step back from his duties during the remainder of the investigation. The board has taken no action that would prevent him from attending and participating in all the board meetings in August.
Decker took on that statement at the press conference. Although it suggests that the board has been "independent and neutral," he said, "in reality, DPS staff has thrown this young man under the bus, and they did that from the beginning. They acted on anonymous allegations, perhaps in good faith, but without any basis, okay? And once that investigation started, they treated him like a pariah. They cut him out of communications, they issued public statements without reaching out to him, they denied him input when they were making decisions as a board.... A lot of this was the willful disregard of DPS to fundamental issues of fairness."
Can these problems be solved? "It's not solely on my shoulders to mend the harm, because I wasn't the one who started [it]," Anderson said. "We're going to have to do restorative justice before we go back and say, 'Everything's normal.'" For instance, he wants the district to issue "letters to all 93,000 families apologizing for their mistake, all 15,000 educators apologizing for their mistake."
And during a scheduled board retreat next month, Anderson added, "I don’t expect to talk about how we recover from the COVID pandemic first. I expect to talk about how we recover from what we just went through this summer, because right now we have students that feel they are afraid of me, we have teachers that feel they are afraid of me, we have principals that feel they are afraid of me. They have painted me as this angry Black man and figure that people should be afraid of. That's not how we work in restorative justice. I'm willing to sit down with them...but if they don't want to meet me halfway, I'll go out to the community and do it myself." He'll do so at town halls that Anderson promises will be rolled out shortly.
Decker suggested that the Investigations Law Group is out of its depth in the probe of the Anderson allegations, since its staffers are accustomed to working on "workplace environment cases" rather than a situation with such serious repercussions. "There's a double standard that they want to hold him at least under suspicion when, in their heart of hearts, they know there was no single predator that was identifying DACA students and raping them," he continued. "Someone did the timeline: two every couple of days? They know that's ridiculous. But it's important — of course it's important, and if there is a serial predator, by God, we'd better find that person. Nobody's saying otherwise. But the truth of the matter is, these are bombastic and patently ridiculous allegations that have been pinned to my client."
And not only his client. Anderson said that his mother had been accosted in stores by people saying her son is a rapist, his former campaign staff members have had their addresses published online, individuals defending him were doxed, and "a thirteen-year-old was threatened to have her house burned down and then raped."
His conclusion: "I hope we can get back to doing some restorative justice, including with the media, including with Denver Public Schools, including with our students. It's time to get back to work."
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.