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Pryor hearing nears conclusion as both sides prepare final arguments

The contentious federal court hearing to determine whether to lift the ban on Denver Public Schools critic Brandon Pryor enters its sixth day Thursday without a ruling.

U.S. District Judge John Kane won’t make a decision until testimony by various witnesses concludes, probably later this week. The hearing was delayed this week when Pryor was hospitalized Saturday after a heart attack.

Treated for arterial blockage by inserting two stents to clear his circulation, Pryor said Wednesday he felt much better and was happy to be back in the courtroom to press his case seeking an injunction to lift the restrictions imposed by the district.

The hearing has involved lengthy and sometimes repetitive examination and cross examination of witnesses called by both sides. In a nutshell, the case boils down to the following arguments:

  • Brandon Pryor and his attorney, his wife Samantha Lorraine Pryor, argue that: 1) He has a been a long and fierce advocate for Black students in Northeast Denver. 2) His rhetoric, Facebook posts and clashes with administrators and school board members have been strident at times but he never threatened or harmed anyone. 3) The restrictions violate his free speech rights, are retaliatory and go against district policy to first reach out with mediation before imposing a ban.
  • DPS General Counsel Aaron Thompson and attorneys Andrew Ringel and Jared Ellis argue that 1) Pryor has a history of “harassment, intimidation, bullying, abuse and threats” against several administrators and staff, including complaints that resulted in two district investigations. 2) The district prioritizes school safety and has a legal duty to respond to complaints by employees who feel threatened. 3) The original Oct. 18 ban was modified last month after an appeal by Samantha Pryor, lifting the restrictions on appearing before the board and contacting DPS leaders and allowing him to attend school activities that are open to the public. But Pryor remains banned from the Robert F. Smith STEAM Academy that he co-founded and can no longer volunteer as a coach.

Both sides have gone back and forth on these points and pointed to dozens of emails, Facebook posts, letters and other communications involving Pryor.

For example, Thompson, the author of the ban letter, was on the stand for a second day on Wednesday. He testified that he followed district policies and protocols in drafting the ban, which was approved by Superintendent Alex Marrero and other DPS leaders.

He acknowledged under questioning that he did not reach out to Pryor before sending the ban letter, saying that Pryor was warned by the district in a January letter to stop harassing staff.

“It was a clear pattern of abusive, harassing and threatening conduct,” Thompson said, adding that Pryor this week is back to posting inflammatory Facebook posts and calling school board members with complaints.

The lengthy hearing has gone beyond Pryor’s actions to probe a deeper undercurrent whether DPS has done enough to provide adequate resources and opportunities to Black students in response to longstanding equity concerns by community leaders, parents and educators.

For example, a recent Colorado Department of Education investigation determined that DPS violated the rights of Black male students by sending them to specialized programs in separate classrooms designed to serve students with emotional disabilities at four and a half times the rate of other students.

Samantha Pryor described the findings as one of the reasons for Brandon Pryor’s harsh criticism of the district, arguing that not enough progress has been made six years after the landmark report by the late DPS educator Sharon Bailey found Black students were disciplined more and had fewer resources dedicated to their success than other students.

Denver school board members have acknowledged that work needs to be done, and earlier this year gave Marrero five goals to achieve that include making the district “free of oppressive systems and structures rooted in racism.”

Under questioning Wednesday, Thompson said progress is being made, pointing to the opening last year of the STEAM Academy and the 5280 Freedom charter school (which the board initially rejected) that opens next fall.

The hearing continues Thursday morning in the downtown Alfred Arraj U.S. District  Courthouse.