Updated at 9:20 a.m. on Saturday, July 8, 2023.
Denver Public Schools fired McAuliffe International School’s principal of 12 years, with just a month until staff return to one of the district’s largest middle schools.
While head of McAuliffe, Kurt Dennis had shared concerns about the district’s safety practices in an interview with 9News earlier this spring. On Wednesday, Dennis received a letter saying he had been fired. The interview was cited as one of the reasons.
In the interview, Dennis shared that he’d been notified that one of his school’s students had been charged with attempted murder. As a result, Dennis sought an extended suspension as well as a remote learning option for the student. DPS denied both requests. Denver police had also discouraged a return to in-person learning for the student.
In the termination letter, DPS said Dennis had also been fired for allegedly violating the student's privacy by partaking in the interview. Dennis told CPR that, while he told 9News a student had been charged with attempted murder, he did not provide any information he was prohibited from sharing nor did he reveal the student’s identity or offer recognizable characteristics.
David Lane, Dennis’ lawyer, said he confirmed with Chris Vanderveen of 9News that Vanderveen was never shown confidential information.
In a statement, DPS said they are “prohibited from sharing information related to confidential personnel matters,” but cited “leadership concerns” in their decision to fire Dennis.
DPS has since said “the termination had little to do with any media interviews, but rather the sharing of confidential student information in violation of state and federal laws.”
In a statement released Friday evening, DPS Superintendent Alex Marrero doubled down on the district's reason to fire Dennis, reiterating that the decision was a result of "several concerns including his sharing private student information in a manner the District believes violated the law and District policy."
"Mr. Dennis could have voiced his concerns regarding the district's safety practices without disclosing personal, private information about one of his students," Marrero said in the statement. "As school leaders it is our duty and responsibility to do everything in our power to protect the privacy of our students."
Dennis is in the process of filing a lawsuit that could unfold as early as next week, citing first amendment protections.
He said he initially took the interview in an effort to create transparency around DPS’ safety policies in hopes it could instigate a change. He had hoped to see alternative learning plans and support for students in the judicial system due to crimes committed with weapons. Dennis also said there needs to be training accompanied by protocols and guidelines from DPS.
“Anytime a student demonstrates the ability to obtain, and the willingness to use a weapon to harm another person, that precludes them from returning to a traditional classroom setting," Dennis told CPR. "It doesn't mean they shouldn't be given the opportunity to receive an education, but there needs to be an alternative to just having a student come back to a fifteen-hundred-person school and pretending that everything's normal. Because it's not."
Tyler Carlson’s son recently celebrated his eighth-grade continuation at McAuliffe. He found out from news coverage that his school’s principal had been fired. No communication has been sent to students and parents as of Friday.
Dennis’ spring interview was also the first Carlson heard that the middle school was patting down students and undertaking threat assessments, similar to that of East High School where his other son is starting his senior year.
“I'm glad [Dennis] did speak out and I certainly hope the district changes its policies as a result so we can stop another tragedy from occurring like what happened at East High School,” Carlson said, referring to an incident where a student shot two school deans during a regular “pat down” this spring.
Dennis told CPR that he nor any of his staff had received any training in how to conduct these “pat downs” and did not feel adequately prepared to do so.
“The fact that they were forcing local schools to take in and handle students that have either criminal records or pending criminal records and not providing resources and training for the staff to handle them safely is just unbelievable,” Carlson said.
Molly Lacy is a mental health social worker at McAuliffe and has two kids who attended the school last year. She learned of Dennis’ termination from a text group chat where colleagues shared the 9News article. Other than a staff-wide Zoom meeting held Friday morning to discuss the implications of his firing, Lacy said there hasn’t been any internal communication or notices about an interim leader.
In light of an online petition calling for his reinstatement, Lacy said that students and staff would love to have Dennis back. As of Friday, the petition, which was started earlier that day, had garnered 2,500 signatures.
“[DPS] says they care about kids, but, with one month to go before school, to yank a principal out of a building who's been there and formed the school from the ground up with no interim backup plan is demoralizing and feels very vengeful,” Lacy said.
Lacy says she is disappointed with the news and has had a positive experience under Dennis’s leadership.
As for next steps, Dennis said he has a daughter about to head off to college this fall and he is seeking employment. In the meantime, he said he will miss the community at McAuliffe the most.
“McAuliffe is a special place, and it's special because it's a community that's very diverse and integrated," Dennis said. "People get along well, and it's challenging work. Middle school is hard, and middle school with 1500 kids is really hard. But, for every challenge there, there's also joy. More than anything, I'm gonna miss the community and the collegiality and the kids."
This story has been updated with a statement from DPS Superintendent Alex Marrero.
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