An investigation by Denver Public Schools found that employees at McAuliffe International School, including former Principal Kurt Dennis, violated district policy by placing students in two rooms without proper supervision and either locking or holding the doors shut while doing so, according to a letter summarizing the findings.
The district’s Board of Education announced earlier this month that DPS was looking into the use of a “seclusion room” at the middle school, including whether students of color were locked inside alone, after receiving an email from an anonymous McAuliffe employee.
The allegations have since spurred two separate investigations by the Denver Police Department and the Colorado Department of Education.
“Everything we have told the community has come back to be true,” said DPS board Vice President Auon’tai Anderson, adding, “What happened to those babies should never happen again.”
DPS’s internal investigation found that McAuliffe employees were directed to use two rooms for the purpose of “student seclusion” beginning around Nov. 18 and until the academic year ended in the spring, according to a letter the district sent Dennis on Monday.
The Denver Post obtained the letter via Dennis’s attorney, David Lane. He previously has said he plans to pursue legal action against the district for terminating Dennis earlier this summer.
“It’s (DPS’s) latest excuse to whitewash the truth, which is they fired him because he talked to the media about a dangerous situation,” Lane said in reference to the letter.
DPS fired Dennis in July after he spoke out about the district’s educators being required to check students for weapons following the March shooting at East High School on which a teen undergoing such a search shot and wounded two administrators.
District officials have said Dennis shared confidential student information in that interview and the school board voted last week to approve his termination.
The allegations — and subsequent investigations — into the use of seclusion at McAuliffe began after Dennis was fired.
Scott Pribble, a DPS spokesman, declined to comment on the investigation Wednesday.
Two school board members — President Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán and Carrie Olson — also declined to comment for this story, citing the ongoing investigations by Denver police and the education department.
Another director, Scott Baldermann, directed questions to Superintendent Alex Marrero’s office. He was the only member to vote against Dennis’s termination, saying during last week’s meeting that his colleagues violated board policies by holding press conferences about the seclusion-room investigation.
The district’s investigation found that Dennis himself placed or directed employees to put students in the rooms without properly supervising them and that once the children were in the room he or other employees locked the door or held it shut, according to the letter.
Dennis has previously said he used a “de-escalation room” to calm down students and that the space and method he used were “district-sanctioned.”
He has acknowledged placing students in a room and, if needed, closing the door and watching children through a window in the door. Dennis also said a lock was placed on the door earlier this year, but was removed. Afterward, he said, a staff member would hold the door closed.
Dennis has argued students weren’t left alone because employees watched them through the window. But DPS has said that still violates district policy around “monitored seclusion,” which requires at least one adult to be in a closed room with students.
Dennis also continued to have the school use one of the rooms for seclusion — which is prohibited at DPS — despite knowing that it was damaged and “not safe or appropriate for this purpose,” the letter states.
However, the investigation found insufficient evidence that Dennis placed students in the rooms because of their race or ethnicity, determining the former principal didn’t violate the district’s anti-discrimination or harassment policies.
Dennis and DPS have disagreed on several facts throughout the investigation, including the room’s name and how many children were placed inside.
The former principal previously said only two students — a Black child and a white child — were placed in the room.
DPS found that at least four children — three of whom spoke to investigators — were placed in the rooms at McAullife, according to the letter.
Anderson and board member Scott Esserman both said all of the children placed in the rooms were students of color, and noted that, despite the investigation’s findings, the legal burden for proving discrimination is high.
“It’s very clear that the only students placed in (the rooms) were Black students in a majority white school,” Esserman said.
“This is, in my opinion, a form of segregation,” Anderson added.
Besides the students, DPS interviewed another 24 witnesses during the investigation. Dennis declined to participate in the investigation, according to the letter.
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