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Denver district’s ban of outspoken parent raises questions about boundaries of criticism

A man wearing red pants and a white sweatshirt stands with his hands in his sweatshirt pocket.

Brandon Pryor, in the background to the left, stands across the street from Robert F. Smith STEAM Academy, which he co-founded, as students protest Denver Public Schools for banning him.

Kevin J. Beaty / Denverite

Parent Brandon Pryor has been a harsh critic of Denver Public Schools for the past five years. His criticism, voiced at meetings and on social media, has been loud and plentiful — and often aimed at people and systems that he believes are hurting Black students. 

His criticism has also effected change. The district banned the handcuffing of young students after Pryor spoke out about it happening to his then-7-year-old son. The district reopened a comprehensive high school in a Black and Latino community after relentless advocacy by Pryor and others. And in an unprecedented move, the district helped Pryor found a separate high school modeled on historically Black colleges and universities.

But Pryor is now banned from that school and nearly all others. In mid-October, the district served Pryor with an eight-page letter banning him from district property, except the schools his sons attend. The district also barred him from volunteering as a football coach and from speaking during the public comment portion of school board meetings. 

“Your repeated abusive, bullying, threatening, and intimidating conduct directed at staff of the Denver Public Schools has been inappropriate, harmful to the district’s educational programming,” and in violation of district policies, says the letter.

“We need to act to keep our educational programs intact and make sure our staff feel safe at work,” district General Counsel Aaron Thompson said in an interview.

The ban, which district officials acknowledge is unprecedented, raises questions about what constitutes proper boundaries for criticism and free speech. It also comes as the district under its current leadership has sought to quash what it says are misconceptions.

In April, district officials told principals to keep their concerns internal and warned them against advocating for proposed state laws during their work time. The same day Pryor was banned, Superintendent Alex Marrero sent out a newsletter refuting claims Pryor and others had made at a school board public comment session the night before.

Although Pryor helped found a school, he isn’t an employee of the district. But the letter says that if he was, he would be fired for his “repeated and offensive misconduct.” 

That conduct has included yelling and cursing at district administrators in person, over the phone, and during virtual meetings. It’s also included posting on Facebook that some district leaders, who Pryor named, should resign or be fired. The letter says the ban is based on “a long pattern of conduct toward district staff” and is not in response to an isolated incident. 

Pryor disagrees that his behavior is threatening. He said the ban is retaliation.

“It’s sad that they want to paint me in this light,” Pryor said in an interview. “It just speaks to the institutional racism we know exists inside this district.

“They don’t have to like what I say. They don’t have to agree with what I say. They don’t have to listen to what I say. But I have every right to say it.”

Former district employees say hostility is part of the job

The names of the district staff members who Pryor is accused of threatening were redacted from the letter and from 30 supporting documents that Denver Public Schools provided to Chalkbeat in response to an open records request. 

But two former district employees who were once the subject of Pryor’s criticism but not involved in the ban said the ban doesn’t make sense.

“People may not like his approach. And I’ve been on the other end of his approach,” said Vernon Jones, a former administrator who was most recently executive director over a group of schools. “If people want to change it, don’t give him anything to shame you about. He’s loud and vocal when there appears to be an injustice.”

Alexis Menocal Harrigan, who worked in several public affairs positions for the district, said she’s experienced “so much worse” than what Pryor is accused of doing. One difference she sees, she said, is that many of the parents, teachers, and community activists who yelled at her or stuck cell phone cameras in her face were white. Pryor is Black.

“Brandon’s tactics are not going to win over hearts and minds, but I can appreciate his passion,” Menocal Harrigan said. “The way he approaches it may not make people comfortable. I don’t want to send my kids to a school district that exists to make staff feel comfortable.”

Former school board member Rosemary Rodriguez, who served from 2013 to 2017, mostly before Pryor became active in district politics, said banning Pyror “seems like a drastic step.”

“Nobody wants to see staff yelled at,” Rodriguez said. 

But, she added, “it unfortunately comes with the job of a public servant.”

Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said he’s never heard of a situation quite like this. Whether the ban is right or wrong likely turns on the details of what Pryor is accused of doing, Roberts said.

“Is there actual evidence that he’s threatened someone and it’s different now than he’s acted in the past few years?” he asked. “Is there something specific about it that crossed the line? Just being vocal, being harsh in how he criticizes the district, to me, is not a reason to ban him.

“He obviously has a style that rubs people the wrong way,” Roberts added, “but that in and of itself can’t be the reason to muzzle him. It’s got to be more than that.”

District lawyer says investigations revealed a concerning pattern

The letter and supporting documents say Pryor’s actions include that he:

  • Yelled at a regional instructional superintendent over the phone in 2020 after she canceled a meeting, telling her to “stay the fuck away from me,” and cursed at her via text message, telling her to, “kiss my ass.” He also texted her that if she retaliated against him, she’d have a problem — and “that problem will be a legal one.”
  • Yelled and swore in a virtual meeting with the district’s head of school choice in 2021 after the district made a mistake that could have impacted enrollment at the HBCU-style school he helped found, Robert F. Smith STEAM Academy.
  • Made Facebook posts in 2021 and 2022 saying the leadership team at the newly reopened Montbello High School, which did not rehire a winning Black football coach, needed to resign or be fired, and that families should not enroll their children there. 
  • Made Facebook posts in 2022 calling the district’s deputy superintendent “a sellout” and saying that the district’s operations chief sounded racist during a news interview about why the Smith STEAM Academy doesn’t have a kitchen to make meals on site.
  • Confronted two district employees after a school board meeting on Oct. 12 and “berated them, cursed at them, and spoke to them in an intimidating and threatening manner.”

Thompson, the district’s general counsel, acknowledged that the situation with Pryor is unprecedented. Although the district routinely bans parents who are exhibiting harassing or unsafe behavior from individual schools, Thompson said, Pryor’s status as not just a parent but also a school founder gave him unique access to district staff.

“He has founder status, which is ill-defined,” Thompson said. “He’s been able to have these intimidating conversations with our folks for a long time.”

The district conducted several internal and external investigations into Pryor’s behavior over the past two years. After the latest investigation in late September, about Pryor’s comments about the Montbello High School leadership team, Thompson said it became clear to him that the district needed to ensure its employees had a safe environment. 

“When I saw that, it was just clear that there’s been a pattern of this behavior with this guy for a number of years,” he said. “This was the latest in a long string of these disturbing behaviors.”

Though the eight-page letter says Pryor is “prohibited from entering or remaining on any district property,” Thompson said Pryor isn’t outright banned. Instead, he said Pryor’s special access and key card to Robert F. Smith STEAM Academy has been revoked.

“Nobody in our community can walk up and go to a school and participate all day long,” Thompson said. “He’s been restricted to that access that a normal community member has.”

Pryor demands the district lift the ban immediately

Pryor refutes much of what’s in the letter, as well as Thompson’s characterization of the ban. 

Last week, Pryor’s wife Samantha, who is an attorney, sent a letter to the district demanding it immediately lift the ban. Her letter calls Pryor “a passionate, powerful voice in the community,” and takes issue with the district’s version of events. 

For instance, the district said Pryor is no longer allowed to volunteer as a football coach for the Far Northeast Warriors, a team that draws players from several schools in far northeast Denver, because he has “felony convictions in Texas and misdemeanor assault charges in Colorado.”

“Although an exception was made for you in the past, new district leadership in several key departments… have determined that this exception will not be renewed,” the letter says.

But Pryor’s answer letter says he took a deferred judgment in the Texas case, which did not result in a conviction. And it says that the district previously determined that the Colorado case, which Pryor says stemmed from an incident in which he punched a white man who called him a racial slur and spit at him, should not prohibit him from coaching. 

That determination occurred after Pryor “advocated for himself and other Black and Latinx men in the community with criminal charges to be allowed to coach,” which resulted in the district changing its policy to consider such charges on a case-by-case basis, the letter says.

“Now, suddenly because DPS’ ‘new leadership’ is annoyed, bothered, and/or uncomfortable with Mr. Pryor’s continued advocacy, DPS has abruptly decided that Mr. Pryor is somehow ‘ineligible for further volunteering,’” Samantha Pryor’s letter says. “DPS’ actions are clearly in retaliation for Mr. Pryor engaging in constitutionally protected speech.”

Bruised egos, Pryor said, won’t stop him from advocating for Black students.

“It’s my constitutional right to say the things I’m saying and to challenge the people in public positions that are harming our kids,” Pryor said. 

Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.

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