Banned northeast Denver school co-founder Brandon Pryor files civil rights lawsuit against Denver Public Schools

The Robert F. STEAM Academy co-founder has brought a suit alleging that the district violated his First Amendment rights in banning him from most school buildings.
8 min. read
Brandon Pryor speaks to supporters during a protest against his ban from Denver Public School Properties, and equity issues more generally, in front of DPS’ headquarters on Lincoln Street. Oct. 26, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Brandon Pryor, the co-founder of Robert F. STEAM Academy in far northeast Denver, has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Denver Public Schools (DPS), Superintendent Alex Marrero and Deputy Superintendent Anthony Smith, alleging they violated Pryor's first amendment rights after DPS banned him from most district campuses.

The lawsuit comes after DPS sent Pryor a letter in October banning him from most school buildings (with the exception of schools where his children attend) after alleged "repeated abusive, bullying, threatening, and intimidating conduct directed at staff of the Denver Public Schools." DPS also banned him from board meetings and terminated his roles as volunteer and football coach.

DPS also rescinded an exception it gave Brandon to its volunteer background check policy due to a past charge, preventing him from volunteering in the future.

Brandon Pryor marches with his supporters in protest against his ban from Denver Public School Properties, and equity issues more generally, down Welton Street to DPS' headquarters on Lincoln Street. Oct. 26, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Screenshots of social media posts, text messages and past DPS investigations obtained by Denverite through an open records request contained many calls by Pryor for school officials to resign or be fired, and strong language, including expletives, towards school officials and community members.

Pryor has also been an outspoken critic of the district at recent board meetings, calling on DPS to do more for Smith Academy, which was founded in 2021 and modeled after Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

In response to the ban, Pryor's wife, Samantha Pryor, sent DPS a letter on Oct. 26 from the law firm she works at calling for the district to immediately rescind the ban or face a federal civil rights lawsuit.

"There can be no doubt that DPS issued Ban Letter in retaliation for Mr. Pryor exercising his free speech rights under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution," Samantha Pryor wrote.

Samantha Pryor said DPS wanted 30 days to review the letter, past the Oct. 28 deadline the Pryors gave, so she filed the lawsuit Nov. 3. She also filed a preliminary injunction seeking to prevent  Brandon's ban from being enforced until the lawsuit can proceed. A hearing is scheduled for Nov. 22.

DPS did not respond to Denverite's request for comment on the lawsuit.

Brandon Pryor leads a protest against his ban from Denver Public School Properties, and equity issues more generally, in front of DPS' headquarters on Lincoln Street. Oct. 26, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

The Pryors say Brandon's language and actions are appropriate advocacy in response to mistreatment by the district.

The letter sent to DPS provides explanations for many of the screenshots and anecdotes included in the district's letter issuing the ban, which include disagreements over Smith Academy's facilities, staff terminations and more.

The Pryors argue that Brandon did not violate the school policies the district claims, and that he should not be held to policies in DPS' employee handbook because he was a volunteer.

"As established by DPS' own evidence, Mr. Pryor was only informing the community about, and advocating against, DPS and its employees for their unlawful acts and omissions, including outright discrimination towards Black students, educators, and leaders," Samantha wrote to the district. "Instead of focusing on dismantling its admitted system of discrimination and oppression, DPS has devoted its time and resources on conducting unlawful, retaliatory investigations against Mr. Pryor and other Black students and educators throughout the District."

The response letter also claims that Brandon was never informed of two past investigations into his behavior DPS cited as reasons for the ban. One included a letter addressed directly to him in January of 2022. In her response to the ban, Samantha Pryor wrote that "DPS simply never sent the letter to Mr. Pryor until DPS issued the Ban Letter."

Samantha Pryor also wrote that the ban letter was "false and defamatory" when referring to "felony convictions in Texas." While the district requires volunteers to pass a criminal background check, Brandon had previously gotten an exception, due to the Texas case and an assault charge in Colorado. In the ban, the district rescinded the exception.

"It is offensive and truly unfortunate that DPS reached back twenty years to produce a mug shot of Mr. Pryor when he was twenty-two years old in attempt to justify the Ban Letter," Samantha wrote. "He had a deferred judgment, which resulted in no convictions."

In regards to the Colorado case, Samantha explained that the incident arose after a white man referred to Brandon using a racial slur. "Mr. Pryor advocated for himself and other Black and Latinx men in the community with criminal charges to be allowed to coach," she wrote. "DPS agreed that Mr. Pryor should have an opportunity to coach and teach youth about making mistakes by sharing his own story."

DPS declined to comment on the allegations in the Pryors' letter.

Sophomore Neveonna Watkines speaks at a protest against Denver Public Schools, which banned Robert Smith STEAM Academy co-founder Brandon Pryor from district grounds. Oct. 21, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Many community members have rallied around the Pryors.

Students at Smith Academy held a rally in support of Brandon, who was a regular presence at the school before the ban, the week that he was officially banned from most DPS grounds. For some of the students, Brandon's ban was not just about one person, but about how many Black students feel treated by DPS.

"We are an HBCU, we are young Black, Hispanic, white people," said freshman Aiden Pearson at the October protest. "We are all here to come together. None of us should be silenced, none of us should be stepped on. This is for Mr. Pryor, who has done nothing but stand up for our rights."

Community activists also held a protest a few days later at DPS' central office. Samantha said that even people who Brandon had sparred with in the activist community have come out in support of him.

"Brandon started getting calls from people that he has been vehemently opposed and advocated against," Samantha said. "Those people have been calling him to say, 'You know, what, Brandon, we don't agree on everything and of course, we've had our issues in the past, but this right here is wrong.'"

Brandon Pryor speaks to students across the street from Robert Smith STEAM Academy during a protest of Denver Public Schools for banning him from their properties. Oct. 21, 2022.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

One school activist, whose Facebook messages with Brandon were included in the district's investigation, said he thinks the ban is justified.

"Brandon and I used to be allies," said Nicky Yollick, a fellow activist in the DPS community. Yollick said he and Brandon Pryor got into heated social media conversations about the merits of local community public schools versus charter and innovation schools.

"WHEN I SEE YOU YOU ARE GOING TO HAVE A PROBLEM," read one Facebook message from Brandon to Yollick, obtained from the district's documents and from Yollick. He continued, "I swear on my kids. Wait til I see you."

Yollick sent screenshots to the district in spring of 2022, but never heard about any actions taken until he read Denverite's reporting about the ban. Yollick shared the messages with Denverite to confirm he received those messages from Brandon.

"I'm just relieved that there's finally been some accountability here for the way that Brandon Pryor's acted toward me and acted toward a lot of folks," Yollick said.

Yollick said he thinks that Brandon has done a lot of good for students in Denver, and is hesitant as an activist to praise the district due to the many problems he has with the administration. But he sees the language used against him as a step too far.

"I wish there were dozens, hundreds of activists all over the Denver metro area, aggressively calling out DPS," Yollick said. "Just, you know, you can't go around threatening people."

In Samantha's letter to DPS, she argues that the messages are not relevant because Yollick is not a DPS employee. She also points to alleged strong language Yollick himself has used toward School Board Vice President Auon'tai Anderson, including threats to his career and that he should take his own life. Yollick says the email is fake.

Now, it's all in the hands of the courts.

While the lawsuit proceeds, Brandon said he's trying to keep his head up. "I'm doing pretty good, just staying positive, encouraged and faithful," he said. "DPS' lack of response is just kind of telling to the state of the entire DPS and... the tone deafness coming from the administration, [Superintendent] Alex Marrero's cabinet. And even the Board of Education not really having anything to say to me is shameful."

For Samantha, it's not just about one person getting banned. "It's violating Brandon's rights," she said. "But like I said, at the end of the day, this is harming the kids, this is harming the students."

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