Denver school board upholds firing of McAuliffe Principal Kurt Dennis

Board Vice President Auon’tai Anderson speaks about the use of a seclusion room at McAuliffe International School at an Aug. 7 press conference. He was joined by board member Michelle Quattlebaum, second from left, elected officials and advocates. (Erica Meltzer / Chalkbeat)

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In a 6-1 vote Thursday, the Denver school board approved the firing of McAuliffe International School Principal Kurt Dennis, backing a decision by the superintendent that sparked both fierce backlash from Dennis’ supporters and a new set of accusations against him.

The discussion was heated, with board members condemning both the existence of a seclusion room at McAuliffe in which students were locked inside alone and a televised news interview in which Dennis shared redacted documents about a student who’d been charged with a crime.

Board member Scott Baldermann was the sole no vote. He argued that the board didn’t follow its own policies. He especially took issue with a press conference at which other board members spoke about the seclusion room before a district investigation was complete.

Scott Esserman, one of the board members at the press conference, said Baldermann’s take was “troubling.” While Esserman denied that board members violated policy, he also said, “I happen to have a higher moral purpose that’s more important than any particular self-imposed piece of policy governance. And that’s to engage in ensuring our children are safe.”

Board Vice President Auon’tai Anderson read a poem he’d written that denounced the use of the seclusion room, which he and others have said was used with Black students.

“It pains my heart to know a child was in a cage,” he said, “viewed as a spectacle, fury, and rage.”

Dennis was the founding principal at McAuliffe International, a popular and high-performing middle school. He was fired in July in the aftermath of a televised March interview he did with local news station 9News expressing concerns about gun violence and student safety. 

Dennis told 9News that the staff at McAuliffe was having to do weapons searches on a student accused of attempted murder. The searches were the same type that staff at East High School had been doing with a student who shot and injured two deans in March.

In firing Dennis, DPS said he had improperly “divulged confidential student and legal records” in the 9News interview in violation of district policy, put DPS at legal risk, and caused the student who was being searched to be ostracized, according to a document obtained by Chalkbeat.

The district also cited “a pattern of administrative actions” at McAuliffe that had a negative impact on students with disabilities and students of color. An investigator found the school’s “overuse of out-of-school suspensions … was having a disparate impact on students of color.”

Racial disparities in discipline did exist at McAuliffe last year, district data shows. While 14% of McAuliffe students were Black, 30% of suspensions were issued to Black students — a disparity that exists at several other district middle schools as well.

Dennis retained civil rights attorney David Lane, who has alleged the district retaliated against Dennis for the 9News interview in violation of his First Amendment rights. The Denver School Leaders Association, the union that represents DPS principals, filed a grievance on behalf of Dennis in July. The status of that grievance was not immediately available Thursday night. Lane expects to sue the district on Dennis’ behalf after the grievance process plays out. 

In the meantime, school board members said an anonymous whistleblower who works at the school told them about a seclusion room in which students experiencing behavioral issues were locked inside alone. DPS opened an investigation, and Anderson, who got the initial tip, reported it to the Denver police.

DPS calls such rooms “de-escalation rooms” — and district policy states the door must be left open and an adult must accompany a student inside. The room at McAuliffe “was clearly not in compliance with DPS’ stated guidelines,” the district said in a media release last month, which also said the McAuliffe room was “identified as an incarceration room.” 

In an interview with the Denver Post, Dennis acknowledged that he had a lock put on the door to the room but said it was removed after a week or two. He denied that students were left alone in the room because he said staff monitored them through a window in the door.

Pam Bisceglia, the executive director of Advocacy Denver, an organization that advocates for students with disabilities and their families, said she has filed more state and federal complaints on behalf of or involving students at McAuliffe than at any other school in the district. 

Since Dennis’ firing in July, many McAuliffe parents and students have rallied to his defense. That continued at a school board public comment session Monday.

“I think you should put Kurt back in his place because he’s made McAuliffe into the best school,” said sixth grader Ella Rustici. Standardized test scores at McAuliffe are high, she said, “and he got fired and that’s not fair.”

Parents and students rally in support of Kurt Dennis outside McAuliffe International School in July. (Melanie Asmar / Chalkbeat)

“I hope from the bottom of my heart that the board of education rethinks this terrible decision,” said Chloe Vause, a freshman at Northfield High School who went to McAuliffe in middle school.

But the support for Dennis is not universal. Board member Charmaine Lindsay noted that the “majority of all people we saw speaking out on behalf of Kurt were white.”

Three of Deronn Turner’s children have attended McAuliffe. Turner, who is Black, said her two older children reported “stark differences in the way Black students were treated and white students were treated. Black students were punished much more harshly than the white students.”

Turner said that when she, as an involved parent volunteer, tried to suggest an essay writing contest for Black History Month, some McAuliffe staff members told her, “Oh, these kids can’t write.” The staff members were referring to Black students, Turner said.

Turner said she supports Dennis’ termination. 

“I’m not celebrating anyone’s demise,” she said. “But I won’t promote someone that has been known to do some things as it pertains to children of color that just are not right.”

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

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