DENVER (KDVR) — A Denver father is creating academic opportunities for the Black community and working to change handcuffing policies at schools on the state level.

Unfortunately, it’s something Brandon Pryor knows all too well after his 7-year-old was handcuffed at a Denver elementary school three years ago, sparking outrage.

Pryor is one of the co-founders of a new STEAM academy that has a unique twist. The Robert F. Smith STEAM Academy is modeled after an HBCU — short for Historically Black Colleges and Universities — and it’s the first of its kind in Colorado. Pryor told FOX31 that the academy was in the planning stages before his son was handcuffed, but the incident fueled the need even more in the Denver community.

At Robert F. Smith STEAM Academy, ‘I feel like I belong here’

Historically Black Colleges and Universities have been marching to the beat of their own drum for over a century. Segregation prevented African Americans from attending college with white students, so HBCUs emerged to provide Black men and women access to education.

Now in 2022, there are more than 100 HBCUs in the U.S. and they each represent accomplishment and pride for the African American community with academics, sports, leadership and music, including incredible marching bands. Now, there’s a new high school in Denver modeling an HBCU.

“We wanted to create a higher quality option, specifically for our Black students, and we created the Robert F. Smith Academy,” Pryor said.

The Robert F. Smith STEAM Academy opened its doors in November 2021 and has already been a big hit with scholars like Aivory Pearson.

“I feel like I belong here,” Pearson shared. “Just from there being minorities here. I actually see people that are like me and that I can actually relate to.”

For the 15-year-old, it’s a comfort she said she didn’t receive in other classrooms. But now, she’s surrounded by students, staff and teachers who can relate to her and her experiences, with some of the staff graduating from HBCUs themselves.

7-year-old’s handcuffing spurs new school

Pryor told FOX31 that he’s noticed inequities in education and said he’s experienced it firsthand. In 2019, Pryor’s life changed forever when he got a phone call from staff at Florida Pitt Waller. An administrator told Pryor that his 7-year-old was handcuffed after getting into an altercation with another student.

“The rate that Black children are criminalized inside of DPS at that time. We only represent 13% of the district but represent over 46% that were in handcuffs. That’s problematic and that’s racist,” Pryor said.

Since the 2019 incident, the district has banned the use of handcuffs in elementary schools, but Pryor is trying to take his activism a step further. He’s currently working with state lawmakers on legislation to ban kids 13 and younger from being handcuffed at school.

However, Pryor said the traumatic incident fueled the need for the STEAM Academy even more. There is no discrimination at the academy; every student is welcome, but there is a focus on the culture of Black and brown students.

Brad Riley, Dean of Culture, said representation matters, and if you look around the classroom, it mirrors just that. From posters to pictures to textbooks, you can’t miss the representation of minorities in history like David Ho, Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall.

“We want everybody to come into the building and feel the inclusivity, as well as feel that sense of individuality,” Riley said.

The academy focuses on STEAM subjects, project-based learning and career training all while praising culture and diversity. Pryor said the academy will continue growing and expanding. As far as next year, more than 100 scholars are already enrolled and have chosen to opt into the Robert F. Smith STEAM Academy.