The termination of a middle school principal last week has become the latest flashpoint between Denver Public Schools and community members over how the district has responded to school safety in the wake of the shooting inside East High School — with parents and candidates now calling for DPS and its Board of Education to reinstate Kurt Dennis.
DPS last week fired Dennis, who led McAuliffe International School. The decision came after the principal spoke publicly about district employees being required to check students for weapons after a teen undergoing such a search shot two deans at East in March.
“I think everyone is furious and surprised that they would actually do this,” said parent Julie Doman, who has a child who attends the school.
In the days since Dennis was terminated, parents have gathered more than 5,000 signatures on an online petition demanding DPS reinstate him as McAuliffe’s principal.
The school board has said it will look at the termination as part of a routine monthly review in August, while the firing has led another board overseeing McAuliffe to challenge whether DPS had the authority to remove the principal, since the school is in an innovation zone.
And candidates for seats on the Denver school board also entered the fray. One — Kwame Spearman — planned a rally Tuesday evening outside of McAuliffe to show support for Dennis. Another candidate — Paul Ballenger — started the petition and said he plans to organize similar events in the future, including when the petition is delivered to DPS leaders.
“I am shocked that you would get rid of such a respected leader,” said Ballenger, who has a child who graduated from McAuliffe in the spring, adding, “I do think there is an opportunity here to fix this situation. There’s a lot of pressure from all angles.”
DPS’s approach to school safety — including the use of student safety plans — has been under scrutiny since the East shooting, and a group of parents and educators have criticized the district’s discipline policies. Some also have called for students with significant disciplinary issues to be sent to alternative or virtual schools.
DPS leaders have said they have a “moral obligation” to teach students — a stance Superintendent Alex Marrero has continued to support, including in an opinion piece published in The Denver Post.
After the shooting, Dennis told 9News in a televised interview that McAuliffe administrators were searching students for weapons, including one unnamed pupil who he said had been charged with attempted first-degree murder.
At the time, the former principal said he had asked DPS to require the student to take online classes, and that when the request was denied, he sought to expel the student — a request that also was denied, according to the 9News report.
DPS cited several reasons for firing Dennis in his termination letter, including that he violated policies by repeatedly attempting to remove a student of color from the school despite district officials telling him that “removal was not available or appropriate.”
The district also said the 9News report “created legal exposure” for DPS under federal and state laws and mentioned confidential documents that Dennis had access to as principal.
“The termination had little to do with any media interview, but rather the sharing of confidential student information in violation of state and federal laws,” the district said in a statement last week.
But parents, school board candidates and others said the district’s decision sent a message that DPS employees shouldn’t speak out about their safety concerns. They also pushed back on the district’s allegations, which were included in the termination letter, that there have been multiple complaints and investigations into the use of discipline at McAuliffe in recent years.
One such complaint was filed against Dennis in 2022 and a subsequent investigation found an “overuse of out-of-school suspensions” were disproportionately affecting students of color, according to his termination letter.
An attorney for Dennis could not be reached for comment Tuesday. David Lane, the lawyer, said last week that he planned to file a federal civil rights complaint as a result of his client’s termination.
“The justification that the district has provided for terminating someone who has helped our students deeply concerns me,” Spearman said. “It feels like Kurt Dennis is being unfairly penalized for speaking out about safety concerns for his staff and students.”
But the prospect of Dennis returning to McAuliffe is unlikely unless district leaders completely reverse their decision.
Each month, the school board is asked to approve — to essentially rubber-stamp — what is called “the Personnel Transaction Report,” which has information about hirings, resignations and terminations that have occurred in the district.
When board members meet in August, they could decide to consider Dennis’s firing separately from the report and vote to deny the termination. If that happens, Dennis would remain an employee of DPS, but would be assigned a new role — meaning he would not return to McAuliffe as principal, according to the district.
What action — if any — the school board will take has not yet been determined. The board is on break for the entire month of July.
“We will review the information provided by the superintendent and then decide how to vote,” said board President Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán in an email. “How the board takes up the issues on the personnel action report will be determined upon our return from summer break.”
Dennis’s termination likely will draw “intense scrutiny” from board members, said board Vice President Auon’tai Anderson.
“I don’t know how I’m going to vote on this recommendation,” he said. “I’m still reviewing the findings of the (HR) investigation.”
McAuliffe is also an innovation school, meaning it has more autonomy than a traditional DPS school. For example, students at McAuliffe are in school longer each day than pupils at most DPS schools, and their school year is longer as well, according to the school’s website.
The school is part of the Northeast Denver Innovation Zone, which has its own board. McAuliffe’s innovation plan states that the district will not take action to select or remove school leaders, said board member Ulcca Joshi Hansen in an interview.
“Neither the board nor our executive director were engaged with or involved” in the firing of Dennis, she said. “We were taken by surprised as everyone else.”
The zone’s board issued a statement Tuesday, saying, “The unilateral process that DPS utilized is a violation of both the letter and the spirit of our innovation plans and the state’s Innovation Schools Act.”
The innovation board has been told by an attorney that “it’s unlikely the zone can enforce DPS to reinstate (Dennis),” said Hansen, whose children previously attended McAuliffe and who also is running for the Denver school board.
But the innovation board said in its statement that it is asking DPS to acknowledge that it “does not have the authority to remove a school leader” from a school in the innovation zone. Otherwise, the board will “invoke the dispute resolution provisions” in the Innovation Schools Act to have a third party determine if the termination was allowed under state law.
DPS notified the innovation zone on April 7 of staff’s “concerns regarding the zone’s ability to effectively oversee Kurt Dennis, the principal at McAuliffe International Middle School,” district spokesman Bill Good said in a statement.
“In this letter, DPS explained its current and previously expressed concerns regarding the performance of Mr. Dennis,” he said. “The letter also cited the Innovation Zone agreement with regard to the role and expectations the NDIZ Board had in supervising the principal of McAuliffe.”
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