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DPS fires principal after 9NEWS story on safety concerns

When the students at Denver's McAuliffe International School return next month, they will do so without the only leader the school has ever known.

DENVER — Denver Public Schools (DPS) fired the principal of its largest middle school this week, months after the principal told 9NEWS he was concerned about the district’s de facto requirement that he and his staff perform daily pat-downs of students accused of serious and violent crimes.

The move is likely to shock the families and students at Denver’s McAuliffe International School. It’s also certain to lead to a lawsuit in federal court.

Kurt Dennis is the only principal the school has ever known. He had just completed his twelfth year as head of the school in Denver’s Park Hill neighborhood.

“I’m mad, sad, frustrated. I’m a lot of things. I’m worried,” Dennis said Thursday.

In March, days after the shooting of two deans at Denver’s East High School, Dennis told 9NEWS that he and his staff had been performing the same style of pat downs that led to the violence at East.

“When I saw what happened at East, I recognized the similarities. It really hit a nerve,” he said in late March. “I think it’s important that people know. I think it’s important that parents know. I think it’s important that school leaders speak out and say this is not ok, and it needs to stop.”

A few months prior to that interview, DPS administrators told Dennis that a student at his school had been charged with attempted murder. An internal email obtained by 9NEWS showed that even Denver Police felt “in their professional opinion… the student should not return to a traditional setting.”

Dennis said he tried to get the student into a remote learning program but his request was denied by DPS leadership.

An attempt to get the student expelled was also rebuffed because, in the words of an internal email, the alleged crime took place off school grounds. “As there is no evidence [name redacted] was in possession of a firearm on his school grounds or at any other DPS school, the request for an extended suspension and expulsion hearing was denied,” read the email written by a DPS administrator.

Seeing no other option, Dennis and his staff started performing daily pat downs of the student as part of the student’s safety plan. He admitted neither he nor his staff had been adequately trained to do so.

This week, DPS cited the 9NEWS interview in its reasoning for firing Dennis.

That reasoning, attorney David Lane, will land DPS in federal court. “I will personally hold the door of the courthouse open for them,” he quipped.

Commentary: DPS shows whistleblowers nothing can protect them if they speak up

“Any government employee who is coming forward raising an issue of serious public concern – which is exactly what Kurt did – has complete 100% First Amendment protection,” said Lane. What DPS is now doing, said Lane, will have a chilling effect on all of its employees at a time when school safety issues are being vigorously debated.

“The letter [DPS] sent to Kurt isn’t just to Kurt. It’s to every school administrator, to every school teacher. It’s to every school employee in the DPS system saying, if you dare to speak out to the powers-that-be, this is going to happen to you,” said Lane.

Lane said he will file a lawsuit in federal court as early as next week.

Thursday afternoon, 9NEWS received the following statement from DPS:

 “Denver Public Schools is prohibited from sharing information related to confidential personnel matters. That being said, the district does not take these actions lightly. After review, the district recognized that there were some leadership concerns at McAuliffe International. 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. Issues were thoroughly investigated and addressed accordingly. We hope the community understands the limitations imposed on us. With these limitations in mind, the district reserves the right to correct any misinformation related to this matter. We look forward to working with the school community to find a qualified replacement to continue to ensure that the students and educators at McAuliffe International thrive.”

The full school board will vote next month on whether to accept or block Dennis' firing. If the school board rejects the termination, Dennis would stay with DPS, but it would be district leadership staff, not the school board, who would determine whether he is reinstated at McAuliffe or reassigned somewhere else.

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