DENVER | Eight hours after more than a thousand Denver students walked out of class to call for his resignation, school board member Tay Anderson on Monday emphatically reiterated his intention to remain in the position and laid out his priorities for the next two years.
To make the livestreamed speech, Anderson left a virtual school board meeting at which district officials were discussing how to make up for lost learning during the pandemic. Earlier, the board president and vice president acknowledged the student walkouts and asked Anderson to avoid additional disruptions at a time when students’ learning has already been greatly disrupted.
The walkouts and Anderson’s speech came six months after an anonymous sexual assault allegation was levied against Anderson, five days after the release of a report showing outside investigators found the allegation was unsubstantiated, and three days after the school board censured Anderson for other behavior uncovered by the investigation, including that he sent flirtatious messages to a 16-year-old Denver student last year.
“I think this is very serious,” said Kaiarre Colvin, a senior at North High School who participated in the walkouts. “I don’t think he should be in schools with other students.”
Anderson, 23, is halfway through a four-year term on the board. He is a Denver Public Schools graduate who worked for the district at two different high schools after he graduated. He is also a civil rights activist who has led citywide protests against racism and police brutality.
The school board launched an independent investigation into Anderson’s past behavior in April after the civil rights group Black Lives Matter 5280 said an unnamed young woman told them Anderson had raped her. The young woman did not participate in the investigation, and investigators did not find enough evidence to support that allegation.
However, investigators found it more likely than not that Anderson exchanged flirtatious messages with high school students while a candidate for school board and again this year. They also found that he made social media posts during the investigation that witnesses perceived as intimidating. And they found he engaged in inappropriate behavior while leading the student anti-gun violence group Never Again Colorado before he was a board member.
Anderson has emphasized that he apologized for his behavior with Never Again Colorado. He has said the social media posts were made out of frustration with racist harassment and not aimed at witnesses. And he has said he stopped messaging the 16-year-old girl referenced in the report once he realized she was underage.
Students around the district protest
Students from at least 15 Denver schools walked out Monday morning, according to district officials, with between 1,000 and 1,200 students gathering in front of district headquarters downtown. Students filled the block between 18th and 19th streets on Lincoln, which police blocked off from cars. Pushing up close to the building doors, students chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, Tay Andrson has got to go” and “Say it loud, say it clear, Tay Anderson should not be here.”
Adelaide Frunnell, a senior at South High School, took the train downtown, bought poster board at Target, and made a sign that read, “Keep predators out of power.”
“He’s constantly discounted what he’s done,” she said of Anderson.
Michelle Vigil, a senior at West High School, said she walked out of school because “this generation is done being silenced. This generation is done being unsafe.”
Many students who participated in the walkouts said they did not feel safe with Anderson on the school board and that they did not want him to attend school functions. Others talked about their own experiences of sexual abuse and seeing their perpetrators go unpunished. Many students said they wanted to support survivors and see more accountability across the district.
At North High School, where Anderson worked as a restorative practices coordinator before being elected to the school board, roughly 200 students streamed out of the building at 10 a.m. and marched through the park across the street, with some continuing to district headquarters.
“Who knows how many students had to wake up every day and face their abuser because they weren’t held accountable?” Mark Semian Jr., a senior at North, said in the park to cheers from fellow students. “To those victims, if no one else believes you, we believe you.”
Ashley Robinson, the student who organized the North walkout, said any school board member facing sexual assault allegations, regardless of whether they were substantiated, should resign.
“Sexual assault is not a thing to play with,” she said. “Nobody is out to get Tay Anderson. It could be Santa Claus, and we would want him out.”
Destinee Mcleain, a senior at North, said it matters to her that some of the allegations were not substantiated, but that shouldn’t distract from the behavior that investigators did substantiate. She was concerned that Anderson messaged students. Mcleain said she doesn’t find it plausible that Anderson didn’t realize the girls he was messaging were underage.
“He has spent enough time around students that he knows a high school student from an adult female,” she said.
Like other students who participated in the walkout, Mcleian rejected the idea that the student protests were politically motivated.
“Honestly, it shocked every last one of us because we were rooting for him,” she said. “We all had a lot of faith in him.”
Anderson vows to remain on the board
Anderson said in his speech Monday that he supports the right of students to protest, but that “it would be disingenuous for me to pretend as though it wasn’t painful to watch.” In a statement posted to social media, he said the news media and his fellow school board members had blown things out of proportion and created unnecessary fear among students.
“I do not blame them for how they feel,” Anderson said of the students, “and I stand before them today and welcome any opportunity to hear their concerns and participate in any restorative and transparent process to help heal the harm that has been caused.”
He asked district Superintendent Alex Marrero and his staff to host regional restorative justice circles with students who are willing to participate, he said. Restorative justice is an approach that focuses on repairing harm rather than punishing the perpetrator.
But Anderson spent the bulk of his speech talking about his past accomplishments and what he wants to get done in his next two years on the board. He said he wants to work with the teachers and principals unions to create an ethnic studies department within the district led by educators of color, raise the pay for district employees making less than $100,000 a year, and improve education for students of color.
“During this investigation, we have been in a place where time has been suspended,” Anderson said. “The time for reflection has passed. It is now time to get back to work for the students.”
Board members promise code of conduct changes
In response to the student walkouts, board President Carrie Olson and Vice President Jennifer Bacon said at a press conference Monday afternoon they had taken the strongest action they could against Anderson by censuring him. But they said they heard students’ voices.
The board is in the process of revising its code of conduct in response to the allegations against Anderson and will include student perspectives, they said. Anderson said he too is eager to work on it. In particular, Olson said the new code of conduct will have a strong section on social media activities. The current code mostly focuses on avoiding financial conflict of interest.
“Our students from across the district today told us that there has not been enough action to protect their safety and to send a message that this behavior by a board member is unacceptable,” Olson said. “They told us they are embarrassed and disappointed to see how Director Anderson is responding to the censure by continuing to disparage and attack anyone who has a concern with his behavior.”
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.