Firing of McAuliffe principal is having a chilling effect, Denver educators say

A group of people stand outside a middle school holding homemade signs.
Parents, students, and community members chant “Bring Kurt back!” at a rally Tuesday outside McAuliffe International School in Denver. (Melanie Asmar / Chalkbeat)

Natalie Barrios said her colleagues were worried about her taking the microphone at a rally Tuesday in support of fired McAuliffe International School Principal Kurt Dennis.

“They’re worried that speaking out will backfire on us,” said Barrios, the athletic director and assessment coordinator at the Denver middle school, who said she considers Dennis a friend and mentor.

Dennis was fired last week in the aftermath of a televised March interview he did with 9News expressing concerns about gun violence and school safety.

Current and former Denver Public Schools staff say Dennis’ removal reflects a new lack of tolerance for dissent at a time when discipline and safety policies are under intense scrutiny after a shooting inside East High School this spring. 

Dennis, meanwhile, is gearing up to fight his dismissal with a grievance and a lawsuit. He’s most upset, though, that the timing means a school community he cherishes has little time to find a new leader before the school year starts. 

“Waiting until the middle of July to do this was really punitive,” Dennis said in an interview Wednesday. “It’s not fair to the kids or our staff. That part really bothers me. It’s one thing if you’ve got a bone to pick with me and you want me gone, but to take it out on the kids and my teachers just to me feels like it’s not a very student-centered approach.”

In a letter to staff last week, Superintendent Alex Marrero said accusations that Dennis was fired for speaking up were “100% false,” according to a copy of the letter obtained by Chalkbeat. Rather, Marrero said, Dennis was terminated for sharing private student information. 

Dennis had expressed concerns in the 9News interview about McAuliffe International staff being required to pat down a student who was accused of attempted murder.

In his letter, Marrero referenced a 2022 district memo that said principals should keep any concerns about district policies or decisions internal and report them only to their supervisors.

“As an organization dedicated to continuous improvement, we cherish the feedback we receive from our leaders, even if it is sometimes hard to hear,” Marrero wrote in the letter.

The impact of Dennis’ firing is being felt beyond McAuliffe International. Two recently retired DPS principals said they worry it will have a chilling effect on the speech of other DPS staff. 

“I feel like everyone needs to be on watch,” said Suzanne Morris-Sherer, a longtime DPS educator who retired earlier this year as principal of McAuliffe Manual, the sister middle school to McAuliffe International. “That’s not a good way to feel.”

John Youngquist, the former principal of East High who’s now running for a seat on the Denver school board, said the timing of Dennis’ firing “lends to leaders having less confidence in what their status might be and what their situation might be. We retain leadership when they have confidence that people believe in them and they’re being invested in.”

In a statement, DPS said it followed its normal process for terminating an employee. “It is important to note that not all employee discipline data would be publicly known or shared with other school leaders,” the statement said.

The principals union has filed a grievance

The Denver School Leaders Association filed a grievance Tuesday alleging that Dennis’ termination violated the process outlined in an agreement between DPS and the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone, which oversees McAuliffe International and two other schools, according to a copy of the grievance obtained by Chalkbeat.

Innovation zones are groups of semi-autonomous public schools. The schools are governed by a separate zone board of directors, but their teachers and principals remain DPS employees, which can create confusion over who’s in charge. An agreement between the zone and DPS says the district won’t remove principals without seeking the zone’s approval.

But zone leaders said they were blindsided by Dennis’ firing. In addition to the grievance, the zone’s board of directors sent a letter to DPS Tuesday. It says that if DPS doesn’t admit it acted improperly, the zone board will invoke its right under state law to have a neutral third party review the firing, according to a copy of the letter obtained by Chalkbeat.

Ulcca Joshi Hansen, a McAuliffe parent and zone board member who’s also running for a seat on the Denver school board, said Dennis’ firing is “an indication that the district is not operating as it should. That things are arbitrary. That things can be capricious. That we can’t trust the processes. The community — this says to them, ‘Well, yeah, you don’t matter.’”

A Denver Public Schools spokesperson said Wednesday that the district can’t comment on the grievance because it is a personnel issue. 

Dennis’ attorney, David Lane, said he is planning to file a lawsuit on Dennis’ behalf after the grievance plays out “alleging retaliation for First Amendment free speech.”

The Denver school board is set to vote next month on whether to accept Dennis’ termination. Such votes are usually routine and merit no discussion. But this one could be different.

Supporters hold homemade signs in support of Kurt Dennis, who was recently fired as principal of McAuliffe International School. (Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat)

District alleges disparate discipline

In March, Dennis gave the televised interview to station 9News in which he expressed concerns about his staff having to search students for weapons, including the student who was accused of attempted murder. He said the district had blocked McAuliffe’s attempts to transfer the student to an online school or expel the student.

A few days before the interview, an East High student shot and injured two deans during a search for weapons. The search was part of a safety plan developed because administrators feared the East student, Austin Lyle, might pose a threat. Lyle had a prior weapons charge. 

Dennis told 9News he was speaking out because parents deserved to know that the weapons searches happening at East were happening at other schools, too, and that “it needs to stop.”

The East shooting sparked intense debate and calls for change. The school board voted last month to reverse its ban on police in schools, and Marrero released a new safety plan that calls for armed safety officers to help school staff with weapons searches.

Dennis’ attorney Lane told 9News that DPS put Dennis under investigation after the televised interview, which did not name the student accused of attempted murder. 

But a DPS investigator concluded that Dennis “divulged confidential student and legal records” in the interview, which violated district policy, put DPS at legal risk, and caused the student to be singled out and ostracized, according to a document provided to Chalkbeat.

The investigator also concluded that Dennis “repeatedly attempted to remove a young student of color from McAuliffe International,” despite being told removal “was not available or appropriate.” In the wake of the East shooting, district leaders have repeatedly defended a policy that students facing criminal charges can attend their regular schools as long as a judge has decided the student can be out in the community and not behind bars.

A July 3 letter informing Dennis that he was terminated cited those findings, according to a copy of the letter provided to Chalkbeat. The letter also cited “a pattern of administrative actions” that had a negative impact on students with disabilities and students of color. 

More specifically, an investigator found that McAuliffe International’s “overuse of out-of-school suspensions … was having a disparate impact on students of color,” the letter said.

Data shows McAuliffe not alone

McAuliffe International is the district’s largest middle school with nearly 1,500 students, and one of its most diverse. In the 2022-23 school year, McAuliffe issued 106 out-of-school suspensions for a rate of 7%, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat in a public records request.

That’s a lower rate than many other large Denver middle schools. Hamilton Middle School had a suspension rate of 26%, while Skinner Middle School had a rate of 22%. Lake Middle School had a rate of 12%, and Merrill Middle School had a rate of 10.5%.

Racial disparities in discipline did exist at McAuliffe International last year. The data shows 14% of McAuliffe students were Black, but 30% of the suspensions were issued to Black students. 

The same type of disparity existed for Black students at Hamilton and Merrill, though not at Lake. Skinner had too few Black students to calculate a percentage.

Colleen O’Brien, the executive director of the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone and Dennis’ direct supervisor, said McAuliffe was aware of the discipline disparity and was taking steps to address it, including hiring a new part-time staff member to mentor boys of color.

She also pointed out that students of color at McAuliffe International scored higher than students of color districtwide in both literacy and math on state tests last year.

O’Brien called Dennis’ termination “a shock” and said the timing “is unbelievable to me.”

O’Brien said that in her opinion, as the person responsible for conducting Dennis’ annual evaluations, his performance as a principal did not warrant being fired.

“I would not have terminated him, no,” she said.

Supporters want Dennis back at McAuliffe

On Tuesday evening, hundreds of parents, students, and community members gathered outside McAuliffe International before a wall of television news cameras to rally for Dennis’ return. The rally was organized by Denver school board candidate Kwame Spearman. Most of the crowd was white. But several speakers were staff or alumni of color. 

Shemar Magee was a student when McAuliffe International opened in 2012. He said Dennis, the founding principal, always promoted doing the right thing and “swiftly corrected” any unkindness. Magee said he left McAuliffe a stronger student and became the first person in his family to graduate college and go on to graduate school.

“Without Kurt, the little small boy who walked through those doors in 2012 would not be standing here today doing big things that he never thought he could do,” Magee said.

Barrios, the school’s athletic director, said it was Dennis who encouraged her to take a job in the public schools 20 years ago when she was a young single mom. 

“It has been my goal to make sure my kids are better than me,” Barrios said. “But I had to do that by showing them you have to work hard and have integrity. Kurt taught me that.”

Barrios’ daughter, Cecilia Pablo, also spoke. A former McAuliffe International student who now works at the school with students learning English as a second language, Pablo said Dennis — who she calls “Great Uncle Kurt” — has been a role model for her.

“I am proud to say I broke the cycle of teenage pregnancy and am the first in my family to graduate college with a degree in social work,” Pablo said. “If it were not for the opportunities and doors Mr. Dennis opened for my family and I, we would not be where we are today.”

Prateeti Khazanie, whose son will be in eighth grade at McAuliffe International this fall, stood in the crowd and listened to the speeches. She said she disagrees that the school is an unwelcome place for students of color like her son. Dennis’ firing, she said, was wrong.

“This feels like retaliation,” she said.

For his part, Dennis said in an interview that he wants one thing most.

“I’d like my job back,” he said. “I want to be with my kids and my staff. I want to get this school year off to a great start.”

Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.

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