Judge: Denver school board member doesn’t have grounds for restraining order against critic

A man wearing red pants and a white sweatshirt stands with his hands in his sweatshirt pocket.
Denver school district critic Brandon Pryor, left rear, watches from a distance as students protest the district’s effort to ban him from school property in this 2022 file photo. (Kevin J. Beaty / Denverite)

A Denver County Court judge has lifted a restraining order against community activist and Denver school district critic Brandon Pryor.

Denver school board Vice President Auon’tai Anderson obtained a temporary restraining order last month after Pryor and Anderson had a heated argument at the nonprofit where Anderson works. Anderson said Pryor threatened him and used abusive language and that the incident was part of an escalating pattern of behavior that included intimidating phone calls and negative social media posts. 

Pryor said he had begun the conversation because he disagreed with Anderson’s vote to move the Robert F. Smith STEAM Academy to a new building in a different neighborhood and felt that Anderson had misrepresented certain information about the move to the community. Pryor is a founder of the school, which is modeled on historically Black colleges and universities. 

Pryor said Anderson got angry and escalated the argument first. Though Pryor acknowledged he raised his voice, he said he never threatened Anderson.

On Tuesday, Denver County Court Judge Kerri Lombardi found there wasn’t enough evidence to support a permanent restraining order. 

Lombardi said that while Anderson testified that he felt afraid of Pryor, he hadn’t provided evidence that Pryor had assaulted him in the past or was likely to do so in the future. She told Pryor that she suggested he avoid interacting with Anderson at work but that she would not order any restrictions. 

The two men work for different organizations located in the same office building in the Montbello neighborhood.

Even under the temporary restraining order, Pryor could address the school board at public comment.

Anderson’s attorney, Josh Amos, called three witnesses as part of his case to make the restraining order permanent: a woman who works for Denver Human Services who overheard the argument; Joel Hodge, who stood between Anderson and Pryor and walked Pryor out of the building; and Anderson himself. 

Hodge’s testimony ended up complicating the case. In a statement to police, Hodge previously wrote that Pryor told Anderson he would “kick your ass” and made a similar threat against Hodge for standing between the two men.

Hodge is a co-founder of Struggle of Love, an organization that works on violence prevention among Denver youth. Anderson is Struggle of Love’s operations director.

On the stand, Hodge said he initially got between the two men because Anderson had stood up from his desk and was yelling at Pryor, and he wasn’t sure what would happen. He said Pryor’s comments came after Anderson stood up.

Hodge stopped his testimony several times to express frustration that the situation was being heard in court.

“We couldn’t come to a conflict resolution amongst ourselves, and I don’t think the court should be involved,” he said at one point. A few moments later, he interrupted his own retelling of the incident to say, “This is so stupid. God. Jesus. I can’t believe y’all are doing this.”

Pryor planned to call two other Struggle of Love employees as his own witnesses and take the stand himself, but after Anderson concluded his case, the judge ruled he had not met the burden of proof necessary to issue a permanent restraining order. 

Samantha Pryor, Brandon Pryor’s attorney and wife, said she believed the restraining order was an act of retaliation for Brandon Pryor’s federal civil rights lawsuit against the district — even though Anderson made statements supportive of Pryor back in the fall.

Superintendent Alex Marrero and five of the six other school board members attended the hearing in support of Anderson. 

Brandon Pryor said he had no intention of changing how he approaches his advocacy as a result of the case. Samantha Pryor said that while she was glad the judge ruled in their favor, if their witnesses had been called, they would have further established that Brandon Pryor did nothing wrong.

In a statement issued after the ruling, Anderson said he appreciated that the judge suggested Pryor stay away from his work and noted that he could seek another restraining order or pursue criminal charges if he experienced “continued aggressive acts.” 

But Anderson also said he was disappointed that the judge didn’t feel Pryor’s behavior already met the bar for a permanent restraining order.

Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at emeltzer@chalkbeat.org.

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