Sign up for Chalkbeat Colorado’s free daily newsletter to keep up with education news in Denver and around the state.
Kurt Dennis, who was fired in July from his job as principal of McAuliffe International School, sued Denver Public Schools, Superintendent Alex Marrero, and six of the seven Denver school board members in federal court Tuesday.
The lawsuit, filed on Dennis’ behalf by civil rights attorney David Lane, alleges that DPS fired Dennis in retaliation for a televised interview he gave to 9News in March. In the interview, Dennis expressed concerns about a district practice that required McAuliffe staff to pat down a student charged with attempted murder to check for weapons.
Dennis gave the interview just days after a different student at Denver’s East High School, who was subject to the same type of weapons searches, shot and injured two school deans.
“Ultimately, Defendants are retaliating against Mr. Dennis, who exercised his right to free speech when he publicly criticized DPS and its unsafe policies in an effort to protect his students and staff from the horrifying specter of gun violence,” the lawsuit says.
A DPS spokesperson said Tuesday that the district could not comment on the allegations because “the lawsuit has not been served to DPS.”
“The allegations made in any complaint are not facts,” the district said in a statement. “We believe the preponderance of the evidence, some of which has already been released, will support our case and we look forward to responding fully in court.”
But district officials have commented before, and some of those comments are now cited in Dennis’ lawsuit.
Dennis’ initial safety concerns, his firing, rallies calling for him to be reinstated, and a subsequent district investigation into the improper use of a seclusion room at McAuliffe have been extensively covered by the local media for months.
In that time, DPS school board members made multiple public statements about Dennis, including at press conferences before and after the seclusion investigation was complete, and at meetings, such as when the board voted 6-1 last month to uphold his firing. Dennis is not suing Scott Baldermann, the one board member who voted no.
Become a Chalkbeat sponsor
The lawsuit claims those statements were defamatory and “publicly advanced numerous pretextual reasons for the termination.” It claims board members tied Dennis to white supremacy and made statements “smearing him in public as a racist” by claiming that the seclusion room was used only for students of color, which Dennis disputes.
A district investigation found that Dennis placed students — or directed other staff to place students — in two seclusion rooms last year without proper supervision and then locked the door. But it did not find that Dennis disproportionately placed students of color in the rooms.
The lawsuit alleges DPS has not provided Dennis with an opportunity to clear his name, which has made it impossible for him to find a principal job in another school district.
In firing Dennis, DPS said he had improperly “divulged confidential student and legal records” in the 9News interview, put DPS at legal risk, caused the McAuliffe student who was being searched to be ostracized, and “repeatedly attempted to remove a young student of color” from the school, 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, including the “overuse of out-of-school suspensions” for students of color, the document says.
The lawsuit doesn’t address the allegation about out-of-school suspensions. But it does claim that students of color achieved high academic results at McAuliffe, the district’s largest middle school. On average, McAuliffe students of color outperformed 88% of their peers statewide on state standardized tests in the 2021-22 school year, the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit also disputes that Dennis divulged confidential student records or caused the student who was being searched to be ostracized. The records Dennis provided to the press were redacted to remove personal information about the student, the lawsuit says.
Students who are subject to daily weapons searches “are already known by most everyone at the school, including fellow students, as ‘dangerous,’” the lawsuit says.
The student in this case was accused of shooting a liquor store clerk during a robbery attempt, the lawsuit says. The student wore a visible ankle bracelet as a condition of their bond and was escorted by a staff member at all times under a safety plan that deemed the student a threat, according to the lawsuit.
“Through no fault of Mr. Dennis, the identity of these students is, and always has been, widely known by other students and faculty throughout the school,” the lawsuit says.
Become a Chalkbeat sponsor
The lawsuit also claims that Dennis was within his legal rights to request that the student be transferred to an online education program or expelled. DPS denied both requests, the lawsuit says.
In the wake of the East shooting, district leaders have defended a policy that allows students facing criminal charges to attend their regular schools while on bond.
Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at firstname.lastname@example.org.