Former McAuliffe International School principal Kurt Dennis sues DPS over his firing

Kurt Dennis and his attorney reveal new details about circumstances surrounding DPS allegations used as the basis for his termination
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Posted at 4:31 PM, Sep 05, 2023

DENVER — Former McAuliffe International School principal Kurt Dennis has filed a lawsuit against Denver Public Schools, alleging the district fired him in retaliation for publicly speaking out against the daily pat down of students in the wake of the March shooting at East High School.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Denver, names Denver Public Schools (DPS), six of its board members and superintendent Dr. Alex Marrero as defendants. Scott Baldermann, the sole board member to vote against his termination, was not mentioned in the lawsuit.

Dennis and his attorney, David Lane, allege Dennis' termination was in retaliation to him exercising his First Amendment right to free speech after giving a televised interview earlier this year, in which the former principal shared his concerns about the district's policy requiring school administrators to check some students for weapons before class each day. That policy led to a shooting at East that ended with two deans injured and the death of a student hours later.

While it was DPS policy to require school administrators to pat down students on safety plans, "administrators were never trained by DPS on how to conduct a pat down in a safe and effective way," the lawsuit states. And while administrators did their best "to thoroughly check for weapons or contraband without violating a student’s privacy, attempting to imitate what they had seen at airport security."

The complaint also alleges school leaders weren't given training on what to do if they found a dangerous weapon, like a firearm.

In response to allegations Dennis had shared confidential student information in violation of state and federal laws — the reason the district claimed was the cause of his termination — his retort was that students on safety plans requiring a daily pat down are already well known by "most everyone at the school, including fellow students, as 'dangerous,'" the lawsuit reads, adding that oftentimes, that student would be wearing a visible court-ordered ankle monitor, alerting others that the student faced criminal charges.

"Through no fault of Dennis, the identity of these students is, and always has been, widely known by other students and faculty throughout the school," the lawsuit read.

Under Colorado state statue, whenever a student is charged with a violent offense, the corresponding district's school board is mandated to determine if the student has exhibited behavior that could put other students' safety and education at risk. If that is deemed the case, the school board has the authority to suspend or expel the student. District leaders can also provide online education for the student while charges are pending.

The student Dennis referenced in his interview was criminally charged with attempted murder after entering a liquor store to rob it and shooting the clerk behind the counter, according to the lawsuit. Then the Denver Police Department recommended this student should not be allowed on campus, otherwise the student could be a danger to others.

Prior to the shooting at East High School, Dennis requested the student transition to remote learning until the criminal charges pending against him could be resolved, the lawsuit said, and DPS leaders refused his request.

On February 27, 2023, believing this student had exhibited dangerous and unsafe behavior, Dennis again asked DPS to transfer the student to an online education program while the charges were pending. And he was again denied on the basis that the alleged violent act did not occur on school grounds, according to the lawsuit.

Instead, DPS directed Dennis to allow the student to return to school on March 1, 2023, with a safety plan, including a daily pat down.

Dennis said he was careful not to mention the student’s name, age, gender or any other personally identifying information in his interview with Denver news media. He also supplied documents related to the student’s charges, which were redacted to remove all personally identifying information about the student. These documents were "mandatorily available to the public under state law, and were not protected from disclosure under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)," the lawsuit reads.

The suit also claimed Dennis was denied "due process" because he was given no opportunity to defend himself in a public forum while DPS leaders publicly made accusations against Dennis he said are false.

After Dennis was fired and public criticism arose over the decision to terminate him, DPS Board of Education President Xóchtil “Sochi” Gaytán and Vice President Auon’tai Anderson held a news conference in August announcing an internal investigation into seclusion rooms at McAuliffe. A whistleblower on staff at the school claimed several students of color had been locked inside a room without proper supervision during the 2022-2023 school year.

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DPS ‘seclusion room’ probe: Employees held students without proper supervision

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The district’s internal investigation found Dennis himself used, or told staff to use, these rooms “despite being aware that at least one of the rooms, which was damaged during the course of the school year, was not safe or appropriate for this purpose.”

In a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Lane spoke of a parent who wrote a letter to the district explaining how her white child preferred to be in the room alone — which violates district policy — and that staff at McAuliffe showed not only empathy but honored that requested by providing supervision through the window of the door to ensure their safety.

Lane's comments were in response to prior allegations from the district that claimed Dennis violated policy by leaving students by themselves in the room, which Lane said was not true because "there is no DPS policy on what to do if a kid in a de-escalation room attacks you," as he cited one instance in which a student was physically violent toward Dennis, who in order to protect himself, had to leave the room and wait for the student to calm down before entering again.

District regulations "provide no instruction on how school administrators should safely monitor a student from inside a room when a student is violently escalated and physically attacking that administrator," the lawsuit reads, "nor do DPS policies instruct school administrators on how to prevent a physically violent and escalated student from leaving a de-escalation room and potentially harming themselves or others."

For that reason, Dennis said, he would leave the room for his own safety, hold the door closed and monitor the student through the door’s window until the student became calm again, at which time Dennis and the school psychologist would enter the room and counsel the student.

"At no time was any student simply locked into a room and left unmonitored by an administrator," according to the lawsuit.

There were cases when escalated students would fight with Dennis to open the door and leave the room, so a small latch was installed because Dennis said he feared that someone’s finger would be slammed in the door, court documents state, but the latch was removed when staff became worried about being accidentally locked into the room with an escalated student and being unable to quickly escape.

Former McAuliffe International School principal Kurt Dennis sues DPS over his firing

The lawsuit then goes on through a timeline of events from early April to early July, to paint a picture of how the district handled Dennis' televised interview and his subsequent termination.

After Dennis spoke to news media on April 7, 2023, district officials sent his supervisor Colleen O’Brien a “letter of concern” regarding “[her] ability to effectively oversee Kurt Dennis,” the lawsuit reads.

Under the contract between DPS and the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone, district leaders were obligated to obtain O’Brien’s consent prior to terminating Dennis and never did, according to Dennis and his attorney.

The letter cited several investigations that DPS had conducted over the years, based on occasional complaints from parents or staff. All prior investigations had come back “unfounded,” showing Dennis had not made any DPS policy violations of any kind, according to the lawsuit.

On April 24, 2023, Dennis received an “urgent” phone call from DPS Director of Human Resources Debra Watson requesting he interview with her about a "fact-gathering investigation" to determine if he had violated any Board of Education policies. Dennis talked with Watson for 20 minutes, according to court documents.

More than two months later, on July 3, 2023, Dennis got two letters – one from Watson outlining alleged violations of policy and law in relation to the previously mentioned student's safety plan. The other was from DPS Associate Chief of Strategic Operations Grant Guyer, informing Dennis of his termination, citing the circumstances surrounding the student's safety plan, Dennis' decision to speak to news media and prior complaints that had all been proven unfounded and/or not in violation of DPS policy, the lawsuit reads.

Colorado law mandates personnel matters like the decision of whether or not to fire Dennis are kept confidential. But the lawsuit states DPS leaders held a public town hall meeting to discuss Dennis’ termination.

"At this meeting, the school board members publicly distributed Dennis’ termination letter which included the Dennis family’s home address, all in violation of DPS policies on ongoing investigations and personal privacy of DPS staff," the lawsuit reads.

DPS board member Scott Baldermann voted against the termination, citing the school board’s failure to follow its own confidentiality rules and state law regarding staff disciplinary actions.

In the lawsuit, Dennis said the comments made by DPS leaders have seriously damaged his reputation and his search for a new job. He is seeking financial compensation for damages and attorneys fees and costs.

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