Crowd protests Cherry Creek schools effort to fire Overland teacher after racism accusation

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A Feb. 10, 2020 Cherry Creek School Board meeting is packed mostly by supporters of embattled teacher Jay Bennish after almost four hours of comments from the public made in his favor. PHOTO BY GRANT STRINGER, Staff Writer

AURORA | In one of the most crowded and raucous Cherry Creek School District school board meetings in recent memory, scores of speakers exhorted board members for hours Monday night to reinstate embattled Overland High School teacher Jay Bennish and apologize for “slanderous” accusations of racism against him.

District staff had recommended the school board should vote to fire Bennish night for saying the “N-word” in class and for what officials said was other racist conduct, said Abbe Smith, a district spokeswoman. Bennish has been on leave since the accusations were made in August.

The marathon meeting ended with a new investigation process involving more hearings before an eventual school board will vote on Bennish’s fate at an undetermined date.

Bennish disputes ever saying the N-word or acting in a racist fashion against students. He told the school board the district’s accusations were false and divergent from principles in “excellence in education” and argued for his reinstatement to a standing ovation.

“Instead they reflect an organizational culture that has diverged from the principles of professionalism, ethics and decency,”Bennish said of the accusations.

Bennish taught at Overland for more than two decades until he said Cherry Creek schools placed him on paid leave in August.

Jay Bennish

Since then, the controversy has drummed up support from more than 1,000 current and former students for his reinstatement, many of then black, as well as Overland teachers and community members who passionately defended Bennish as a singularly inspiring teacher.

“He was a legend before I ever met him,” said Simon Lucas, who graduated from Overland in 2010. He credited Bennish’s leadership for catapulting him into graduating from the University of Colorado at Boulder and said Bennish should be put back in the classroom to teach.

“You guys are at the epicenter of a decision that will affect students of the past, of the present and most importantly the future,” Lucas told the school board Monday in an emotional testimony.

Of the countless supporters who defended Bennish for two hours, not one speaker echoed Cherry Creek School District officials’ accusations last month that he used racist slurs in the school and handed out racist T-shirts.

Bennish, who is white, co-sponsored the Black Student Alliance for about 15 years and was an invaluable mentor and instructor for black students at Overland, former students said while disputing the allegations against him.

District officials have been investigating whether to terminate Bennish after conducting interviews of staff and students.

“His alleged actions are not in line with the values of the Cherry Creek School District,” district officials wrote in a letter to the school community last month.

The district has not detailed who made the allegations, or specifically what they are — simply that “multiple incidents” led to placing him on leave.

Abbe Smith, a district spokesperson, acknowledged the public outpouring of support for Bennish but maintained it disputed his version of events.

“While there are some students supporting Mr. Bennish, there are other students who have complained about his actions,” Smith said.

The district did not make public how many students or where alleged interactions took place.

Smith said Cherry Creek schools could not release a report detailing pertinent evidence of the allegations against Bennish, citing laws protecting personnel information, but said Bennish could legally do so.

Bennish said he has the report in his possession but declined to provide the report to The Sentinel, arguing its evidence amounts to more unsubstantiated accusations against him that would not help his case.

The board’s receipt of the district’s dismissal recommendation kicks off a process under the Teacher Employment, Compensation and Dismissal Act and will likely include another hearing for Bennish to argue against his termination.

But many of the scores of supporters addressing school board Monday night condemned the district’s accusations against Bennish as politically motivated or off-base. Multiple speakers called the allegations “absurd.”

“I start to question the integrity of not only this school district, but those who are leading this school district,” Angela Olthoff told the school board members. She said she was a former teacher in the district, now a parent, who began her teaching career as a student teacher in Bennish’s classroom.

“I don’t know if I would pass his class. He challenges students to a higher level,” she said.

Several speakers Monday also suggested school board directors voting to depose Bennish would suffer at the ballot box. Voters choose school board directors for four-year terms.

Bennish garnered national headlines in 2006 when he was the center of a controversy over talking in class about the parallels between comments made by former President George W. Bush and Adolph Hitler. Bennish survived that storm.

But the student responsible for taping the controversial comments, Sean Allen, spoke Monday night for Bennish’s reinstatement.

He said he reached out years later and apologized to his former teacher.

“The things I did there? They bring me shame,” Allen said of the 2006 incident.

He said Bennish had graciously accepted his apology.