Denver school board votes to censure Tay Anderson

Tay Anderson waits with supporters as the Denver School Board holds a vote to potentially censure him.
Tay Anderson (right) addresses reporters in advance of a censure vote against him. The last time a Denver school board considered a censure of any of its members was 2010. (Erica Meltzer / Chalkbeat)

Saying that Tay Anderson had violated expectations of board member behavior, the Denver school board voted 6 to 1 Friday to censure him. Anderson voted no.

It appears to be the first time the Denver school board has censured one of its own and comes after a five-month investigation into sexual assault and misconduct accusations that found the most serious allegations against Anderson could not be substantiated. The censure came at the end of a tense special board meeting with just this topic on the agenda. 

At one point an emotional Anderson asked for a five-minute recess and abruptly left the hearing room. Board President Carrie Olson also stepped out before the vote to consult with an attorney. The last to vote, Olson sat with her head bowed for a full 12 seconds in the hushed room before voting in favor of censure.

While both Olson and Anderson pledged to keep working together for the good of Denver students, Anderson also said he has retained legal counsel and is considering his options. It remains to be seen how the school board will move past this divisive period.

Two days before the board meeting, the school board publicly released a 96-page report by outside investigators into allegations against Anderson. The most serious allegation — that he sexually assaulted an unnamed woman who declined to participate in the investigation — was not substantiated. Neither were allegations of sexual misconduct involving Denver Public Schools students.

However, board members expressed deep disappointment related to allegations that were substantiated, including that Anderson had flirtatious contact with Denver students on social media and made social media posts that could be perceived as intimidating witnesses in the investigation.

The resolution of censure specifically cited those incidents as not meeting the high standards of ethical behavior expected of school board members. 

Fellow board members said at Friday’s meeting that Anderson’s behavior crossed lines. They also raised concerns about the many witnesses who told the independent investigators they feared retaliation for speaking against Anderson.

Board Vice President Jennifer Bacon noted that she had worked closely with Anderson to improve how the district serves Black students. As a Black woman, she said was painfully aware both of how Black men have been treated by the justice system and how Black women have been ignored and shunted aside. She spoke directly to Anderson and said she hoped he learned that his behavior was not appropriate for someone in a position of power or in elected office.

“Undoubtedly, you have been through the ringer, and you have been treated unfairly in a lot of respects,” Bacon said. “You have not been convicted of a crime. But I hope that you learn and know what is acceptable for what you can control and do with your own hands and mouth.

“I do not think you should be removed from the board, but I do think you should be held accountable and know the limits of your behavior.”

Board member Angela Cobián recalled being pursued as a young woman by a man in a position of power in an organization she was involved with and how it made her feel dirty and ashamed. While such behavior is common, the board needed to take a strong stand that it is wrong, she said.

“Regardless of their age, directors are held to a higher standard the moment they decide to run for public office, including at age 19,” she said. 

Olson said the purpose of the censure was not to shame Anderson but to take a stance about what behavior is acceptable by elected officials. She said board members should be held at least to the same standards as district employees. 

For his part, Anderson described painful personal attacks he had experienced after being accused of sexual assault, including his mother being confronted in the grocery store and his infant son being threatened “all because of the words of one white woman.”

He was referring to Mary-Katherine Brooks Fleming, a Denver parent who made explosive accusations that he had abused dozens of girls and young women, a charge that investigators found lacked credibility.

Anderson also read aloud from emails he had received filled with racial slurs, profanity, and violent threats. 

“Nobody sitting on this board understands what it means to walk in the shoes of a Black man in America,” he said. 

Tay Anderson addresses reporters in advance of a censure vote against him. (Erica Meltzer / Chalkbeat)

Anderson said that when he first read the report, he felt intense relief that investigators had not substantiated the accusations of sexual assault, only to feel sadness and confusion that his colleagues planned to censure him related to other conduct. 

“This is unprecedented, and it reeks of anti-Blackness and is rooted in systems that uphold white supremacy,” he said.

The Denver school board launched the investigation after the civil rights group Black Lives Matter 5280 said on social media in March that a young woman had come to them and said Anderson raped her. Anderson denied that he had sexually assaulted anyone. 

The woman declined to participate in the investigation, rebuffing repeated requests. Investigators found that certain evidence, including employment records, contradicted the version of the story that was presented by another woman claiming to represent the alleged victim in a media interview. Investigators did not substantiate the allegation. 

The woman claiming to represent the BLM 5280 complainant — Brooks Fleming — also testified before a legislative committee that dozens of girls and young women, most of them undocumented, had come to her to report that a person in a position of trust had assaulted them. The school board later identified the accused person as Anderson. Conservative radio hosts and right-wing internet trolls seized on these accusations, but the investigators could not find any evidence to support them.  

However, investigators substantiated claims that Anderson made unwelcome sexual comments, advances, and physical contact with former members of a youth anti-gun violence group called Never Again Colorado, of which Anderson was president in 2018. Most of this section of the report was redacted at Anderson’s request. 

They also found Anderson had flirtatious communication with two high school girls while he was a candidate and school board member. One woman told investigators Anderson messaged her to flirt and suggest dates in 2018 when she was a senior in high school, but she felt uncomfortable and refused to meet him. Anderson told investigators he thought she had already graduated because she mentioned college plans. The more recent exchange happened last year with a girl who was 16 at the time. Anderson told investigators he didn’t know she was a teenager, and when he found out, he stopped messaging her. 

In addition, investigators found that Anderson made two social media posts during the investigation that could have been seen as coercive or intimidating of witnesses. Anderson said Friday the social media posts had been made in frustration about ongoing racist harassment and that he took them down quickly when his mother told him he should not have posted them. 

The Denver school board does not have a policy on censure, a spokesperson said. The last time it was considered was in 2010, when three board members were accused of violating the state’s open meetings law. That censure vote ultimately did not happen.

Anderson, 23, is two years into serving a four-year term on the board. He was elected to an at-large seat as part of a historic election that flipped the board away from supporting education reform policies.

Anderson began his campaign against the censure in social media posts and in an open letter to his board colleagues the day before the meeting. 

He said he hadn’t violated the board’s conduct policy, which mostly prohibits board members from accepting gifts or benefiting financially from their office.

He also asked if the district would launch an investigation into accusations against any other board member extending “beyond the allegations themselves to also include scrutiny of the director’s behavior as a teenager.”

At a press conference before the meeting, Bishop Jerry Demmer of the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance spoke in support of Anderson.

“Over 60 allegations and not one of them had any basis,” Demmer said. “It is an issue where there is one Black man on the school board, and everyone is together against him.” 

Anderson said emphatically that he would not resign.

“I will stay on the board until 2023,” he said, “and we will finish the work we started in 2019.”

Melanie Asmar contributed reporting.

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