by Ruthy Wexler
Late in August 2017 a Denver school burst onto the national stage when videos of an East High cheerleader crying in pain from “forced splits” went viral. Media anchors across the country expressed shock and assured viewers that Denver Public Schools (DPS) Superintendent Tom Boasberg had fired the coach. Following an investigation, Boasberg removed two longtime staff from the school and said East could “now move forward.” But the Chronicle discovered that DPS had stepped over the real story in its rush to craft one more to its liking — and throw blame as far away as possible.
By the time Denver’s DA announced on October 14, 2017, that there was no basis to press criminal charges, three lives had been irrevocably upended.
How It Started
The videos that upset the world were taken in the first week of cheer camp, June 4-8. Ally Wakefield, the girl in the most-viewed video, showed it to her mother, who complained to East’s Athletic Director Lisa Porter.
On June 16, 2017, Porter met with the Wakefields, along with Principal Andy Mendelsberg, newly-hired Cheer Coach Ozell Williams and Vice Principal Terita Berry, a former Broncos cheerleader, who explained that the forced stretches were not uncommon in competitive sports, but she did not condone them.
Mendelsberg then instructed Williams to discontinue the forced splits. Williams agreed.
After school resumed in August, Porter invited all cheer parents to an August 24, 2017 meeting, where she, Mendelsberg and Berry would hear each parent’s concerns “so we can all work together to support the East Cheer Team.”
But that meeting never took place because on August 22, someone sent the videos to Channel 9 News.
“What gets me is that Channel 9 didn’t do any investigative reporting,” said a longtime East teacher. “Once they showed it, everything changed.”
On August 23, 2017, Channel 9 aired the video; immediately, Denver Police opened a criminal investigation and Boasberg placed five DPS staff, including Mendelsberg and Porter, on administrative leave.
On August 25, 2017, Boasberg terminated Ozell Williams and shared that DPS would hire an “outside law firm to conduct an independent investigation.”
On September 22, 2017, Boasberg announced that Andy Mendelsberg would retire and Lisa Porter had resigned. The just-submitted report, said Boasberg, showed the two “did not take the necessary steps to ensure that the physical and emotional health and safety of students on the cheer team was fully protected.”
We Could Have Explained!
“We all knew Andy had followed proper procedure,” said Paul Prendergast, one of many parents upset at Mendelsberg’s departure.
Mendelsberg told those who contacted him, he “could not talk.”
“It was all hush-hush, don’t ask questions,” said a longtime East teacher. “Then it’s, ‘Oh, we have a new principal, isn’t this wonderful.’”
At a September 25, 2017, East Parent Meeting, Boasberg introduced John Youngquist, a former East principal who would return to that position. Boasberg told the hushed crowd that “due to the ongoing criminal investigation” he could not answer questions.
“I need to tell you, this was one of the most painful situations I’ve faced as superintendent … Lisa and Andy are colleagues and friends. But the Independent Report laid out in painful detail how our students’ safety was not properly cared for.”
A month prior, at a meeting with Boasberg, one student asked him, “Did you ever try to talk to any of us cheerleaders?”
“Because I have two daughters and the video upset me,” said Boasberg.
“That got me so angry,” the cheerleader later recalled. “Because we could have explained so easily.”
Story Behind Videos
Cheer mom Darcelle Carter says, “If I wasn’t a sport person, I might sit on my couch, see that video and say ‘Oh how awful!’ But I know better. If someone took a video of my basketball coach in high school making us do 30 suicides and all of us sweating and pleading … “
“Coaches push athletes,” said Nikki Higgs. “Cheerleading is now a very competitive sport. Not pom-poms and dress up. A majority of us parents loved how Coach Williams pushed our girls to excel.”
“Before the cheer camp, we’d gone to clinics and watched Ozell work with the girls,” said parent Ernest Higgs. “That’s where he demonstrated the stretch. No secret! We watched our daughter do the stretch. It hurt. But we understood, it was a coach pushing an athlete.”
“At camp, Coach O explained why the stretch helped, how it worked, that it might hurt,” said Aaliyah Ali.
“Coach went around and asked each girl if she wanted to do it,” said Shailee Morse. “It was voluntary. Not forced like the news said. Ally said she wanted to do it. The first time, she’s like, ‘I’m not comfortable.’ Ozell stopped. Then she wanted to do it again. They had a conversation. ‘If you do it, you gotta commit to being down for the full 30 seconds. Otherwise it won’t do you good.’ Ally said okay.”
“We all knew it would hurt,” said Nyla Higgs. “Coach said, whatever helps get us through, we should do, like cry, curse, whatever. Ally could stop at any time! But because of what she said before, we believed her crying was her way of getting through it. She never told us different.
“Afterwards, Coach went around and asked if anyone felt forced or bad about the stretch. No one did. Then we took a lunch break and danced the whole time, Ally too. That whole next week, we danced, went to Elitches, ran around.”
“When it all came down, we were blindsided,” said cheer mom Annie Morse.
At least five sources attest they saw a post by Ally Wakefield on Facebook to the effect of: Watch how DPS will pay for my college tuition.
On CNN, Kristen Wakefield said, “[In that video] People are attacking my little girl and no one stopped them.”
“That’s for a lawsuit,” said one parent. “Attack? Don’t make me laugh.”
“Look at the video,” said cheer parent Darcelle Carter. “Those girls are holding her up.”
“Believe me, if you’ve got a pulled hamstring,” said Morse, “you don’t go dancing around like she did.”
“We’re not blaming [Ally], she’s too young to understand the consequences,” said Nikki Higgs.
Not So Independent
DPS now refers all questions about the cheerleading incident and its aftermath to the official Report of Investigation Concerning Matters Involving the Denver East High School 2017/ 2018 Cheer Team, posted helpfully online.
But many aspects of this supposedly definitive report are troubling.
Instead of the promised “outside” law firm, DPS hired Davis Graham & Stubbs (Davis Graham), which the District has been paying $100,000 per year, with Deputy Counsel Michael Hickman the main contact in real estate transactions. DPS General Counsel Jerome Deherrera was an attorney at Davis Graham.
“The blatant conflict of interest is appalling,” said a Denver attorney.
One East parent read the whole 30 pages, “… only because I thought, soon I’ll see the part that made them let Andy go. Nothing! I’m a professional and I tell you, this report did not make sense.”
“What disturbs us,” said Ernest Higgs, “is that we shared our thoughts in good faith with the investigators. But in the report, they mention the T-shirts we wore but left out our full comments. That’s not a real investigation.”
Being principal of East was Andy Mendelsberg’s dream job.
Now, at 49, he’s cut adrift from the work and kids he loved.
While on leave, Mendelsberg wrote a four-page letter to DPS, laying out in earnest detail how he’d done his job correctly. He’d followed procedure by speaking (on June 16, for 13 minutes) with the school’s Human Resources Officer Saundra Stanfield. He contacted DPS’s legal department on June 18, had a 19-minute conversation about the videos with Michael Hickman, who did not ask for the videos or mention abuse. When Mendelsberg expressed concern that the videos might go viral, Hickman replied, “I think the process outlined after that meeting will ameliorate the situation.”
In the official Davis Graham report, Hickman says he asked for the videos and Mendelsberg refused.
Interviewed on October 16, an emotional Mendelsberg stated, “That is simply a lie.”
Mendelsberg, at least, is getting “continued payment” — DPS refuses to call it a settlement — from the District.
Lisa Porter, about whom colleagues say, “This school was her life,” got nothing.
Ozell Williams’ reputation is smashed.
Before he came to East, Williams was known in the tumbling world as “an incredibly caring, talented coach,” says former student Hannah Shelput. “Everybody knows he is not that person depicted in the press.”
Over a dozen parents came forward to say how positively Williams’ coaching affected their children. “Ozell overcame obstacles. He gets very excited about others overcoming obstacles,” said Shalondra Haggerty.
Mariah Cladis, assistant coach at East, said, “I just wish people knew about the numerous meetings Ozell and I had. He got so excited about making the girls laugh or thinking how to steer them toward college.
“Maybe a little too ambitious for them sometimes, but oh, he would never hurt them. That’s not what was going on.”
Since DPS fired Williams, his business Mile High Tumblers has suffered. He’s had trouble finding work. Even reporting the ‘no basis for criminal charges’ story, media outlets continued to describe Williams as “the coach that physically forced girls into splits.”
“It’s like Ozell was just … a forgotten person,” said Carey. “How can you do that, leave someone behind in the dust?”
To address this crisis, DPS hired the PR firm Ground Floor Media, Flynn Investigations, Davis Graham attorneys charging between $385 -$485 per hour for many hours of interviews; and made a substantial financial arrangement with Mendelsberg.
All the above is paid for with taxpayer money.
And for what?
“Why would DPS want to get rid of a principal who made East better and better until it was the most requested high school?” said parent Megan Ackley. “It doesn’t make sense.”
A source close to DPS said it does make sense. “Boasberg has been upset with East’s ever-increasing importance, how it keeps getting bigger. He wants to cut it back. And at such a visible high school, Boasberg prefers to have someone he can manage.”
From all accounts, Mendelsberg was an outspoken individual who let his teachers teach.
Did Boasberg see the cheerleading incident as a way to get rid of Mendelsberg?
Why didn’t the whole thing stop when Williams agreed “no more forced splits?”
Why did DPS cave to a few families’ threats of lawsuit? Why didn’t they — as Nikki Higgs plaintively asks, “… let the cheerleaders — the real eyewitnesses! — tell what really happened?”
As long as the Board remains silent, and DPS continues to shroud its doings in secrecy, we won’t know the answers.