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Cherry Creek School District's reputation called into question amid ongoing student assaults

Cherry Creek School District's reputation called into question amid ongoing student assaults
Posted at 8:19 PM, May 18, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-19 01:05:59-04

DENVER — Historically, many Denver metro parents would agree that the Cherry Creek School District has a reputation of maintaining a top-notch academic environment, where parents can count on their children's education and safety.

But in recent months, many of those same parents are starting to question whether the district still lives up to that reputation amid several ongoing student-on-student assaults that they feel were not handled correctly by school officials.

Following Denver7's coverage of a Liberty Middle School boy being pinned to the floor, beaten and kicked in the face by another student earlier this month, more parents reached out to Denver7 with their own stories of assaults on their students at CCSD schools.

One mother, who asked to remain anonymous, spoke to Denver7 Wednesday, showing a video of her child being violently shoved into a locker head first inside a school hallway in March. The video shows her son fall to the floor when a Liberty employee steps in to break it up.

"All the teacher did was help my son up and asked if he was okay," the mother said. "Not an email, not a call, nothing to the dean, nothing to the principal to say, "Hey, something happened in the hall today.""

She believes that may be why that same attacker was able to stay in school that day, only to go after her child a second time. Again, all of it was caught on camera.

The second video shows the attacker approaching the victim later that same day, throwing punches at the victim several times. The video shows the victim attempting to dodge the punches and throwing none back himself.

At the end of the video, the victim asks, "What did I do?"

"I was angry," the victim's mother told Denver7. "I was sad and I was hurt. The fact that, you know, these things are happening to him. But that's nothing compared to when you actually see a video of someone attacking your child."

According to the mother, the school learned of the incident because she reported it the day after, instead of the school employee who witnessed it.

"The first thing they heard about it was from me," the mother said. "The dean made it seem like they were ashamed of the fact that I was bringing the information to them, not the other way around."

CCSD spokesperson Abbe Smith told Denver7 she is not allowed to comment on this matter.

Denver7 has heard that response from Smith before, as the district has had a lot of similar incidents to answer for this year. In fact, earlier this month, Denver7 reached out to Smith about a May assault recorded on camera, showing a helpless child pinned to a school hallway floor and beaten at Liberty Middle School.

Denver7 also learned that several student physical assaults have been posted to an Instagram account called "Lib_fights20222," which no longer appears under that username following our earlier reporting.

"It is it's infuriating. It's terrifying," the mother said. "We moved from Denver Public Schools to Cherry Creek Schools two years ago for the reason of we do have three children. We want them to have the best schools, the safest schools, you know, the best education they have and ... here we are two years later. I'm questioning, did we make the right move?"

This mother is not alone, according to several other parents Denver7 has spoken to and the dozen parents 710 AM talk show radio host Jimmy Sengenberger has interviewed about this topic.

"To me, there's a pattern of failure that seems to be going on in Cherry Creek Schools," Sengenberger told Denver7 Wednesday. "As far as handling disciplinary issues of assaults or harassment of various kinds and how they're handling it is the big issue."

Sengenberger says he's noticed a pattern from covering this matter.

"In talking with parents and students alike, it really is clear to me that the district has policies that may or may not be enforced at various times," Sengenberger said. "If they are enforced, how they're enforced is inconsistent. How they use things like no-contact agreements to try and separate students, at least ostensibly, that's handled inconsistently and often poorly."

Once again, the district refused to speak to Denver7 about this situation on-camera, instead issuing a statement that said in part, "we do sometimes utilize no-contact agreements, but it is on a case-by-case basis."

Smith also stated that they "investigate any fight that is reported to us and students found to be at fault face serious disciplinary consequences."

But those disciplinary consequences came late for the student seen in videos being shoved into a locker, only to be beaten later that same day despite a school employee witnessing the first incident.

"I mean, it is remarkable just in the last month or so how many parents are now starting to come out to come to [Denver7], to come to me, to others and say, "Something's up. I want to speak out. We want to get our voices heard,"" said Sengenberger. "That's not heard of in Cherry Creek Schools."

According to Sengenberger, the "cherry" reputation the district once had is slowly spoiling into an illusion.

"I'm a 2008 graduate of Grandview High School. I [was] in the district from fifth grade through high school. This is not the same Cherry Creek School District that I remember, that parents back then knew. And I would say today, Cherry Creek Schools is thriving on an antiquated reputation," Sengenberger said.

Prior to Denver7's Wednesday's coverage of this matter, Angela Zehner, executive director of middle schools for CCSD, sent an email to Liberty Middle School parents alerting them of our story.

The email read in part, "I am reaching out because we have been contacted by a TV news station that states it is doing a follow-up story about school fights with a focus on a fight that occurred at Liberty Middle School two months ago. As stated by Principal Doherty in his May 5 letter, we do not tolerate school fights at Liberty Middle School or any school in the district. We investigate any time a fight is reported to us and students found to be at fault face serious disciplinary consequences."

Zehner continued, writing, "This is the first time since the spring of 2019 that students have been in school full time at the end of the school year. We know that the trauma and disruptions from the pandemic, and the fact that middle and high schools were on a hybrid schedule for most of last year, create social-emotional and behavioral challenges for students this year."

Several parents reached out to Denver7 after receiving that letter. One parent told Denver7, "essentially CCSD is brushing off the fights and lack of safety within schools to “Covid impacts” and also condemned anyone videoing the fights further. They don’t want anymore documentation of what’s happening within the schools is the feeling I get from this email."

In the email to parents, Zehner did address students videoing fights, stating, "I also want to address the video recording of fights by students. When a fight takes place and is recorded and shared on social media, it sensationalizes a violent act and incentivizes students seeking attention to do the same thing. The district has shared this concern with local media who continue to air videos of school fights."

Parents whose children appeared as victims in recorded videos say they wouldn't go to the news if they felt school officials addressed the assaults appropriately.

Earlier in May, Denver7 learned it took Cherry Creek Schools six months to notify the parents of a sexual harassment victim that their daughter's federal case was being dismissed.